Gavin Stephenson, the former chef of London’s Savoy hotel who has overseen kitchens at The Georgian and Shuckers restaurants at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel in Seattle for more than a decade, began his beekeeping program three years ago on the rooftop of this historic hotel that stands as a regal homage to a more refined and cultured past.
The ornate columns of the gold-gilded Georgian Restaurant might seem an odd counterpoint to the chef’s rooftop beekeeping program, a pursuit more commonly associated with the do-it-yourself artisan food restaurants sprinkled throughout Seattle’s quirky neighborhoods such as Queen Anne, Fremont and Ballard. But Stephenson’s honey program reflects the Fairmont hotel chain’s dedication to sustainability and commitment to sourcing locally at notable restaurants around the world, including in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Vancouver, Canada; Beijing; Singapore; London; Monte Carlo, Monaco; and Cairo.
At the Fairmont in Seattle, honey is drizzled over hot scones and homemade butter during The Georgian’s afternoon tea, bottles of Rooftop Honey are gifted to special guests, tangy local cheese is mellowed by ribbons of honey and the Pacific Northwest staple of salmon is sweetened with a glistening lacquer of it. Stephenson has even partnered with local brewery Pike Place to concoct a honey-infused beer.
Bees and beekeeping starting to catch on
The chef’s love of beekeeping has even spilled over into his own backyard, where he now keeps several hives for personal use. He says his neighbors were at first wary of getting stung by the bees but have since warmed to the idea, many now asking Stephenson for advice about keeping bees themselves. It’s a noble pursuit for a chef with a distinguished career in the kitchen and, more recently, on the rooftop.
I recently sat down with Stephenson at the Fairmont to find out more about his bees and beekeeping.
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Why did you decide to start the honey program at the Fairmont Olympic and why is it important to you?
I was introduced to Corky Luster from Ballard Bee Co., who taught urban beekeeping. Colony collapse disorder is detrimental to our ecosystem, so I wanted to make a difference and do the right thing. At first it was very time consuming, but now it’s a labor of love. Not only is beekeeping beneficial to our environment and society, it’s also awesome to incorporate the honey into my menus at The Georgian and Shuckers.
Have you faced any challenges in getting the program up and running?
Absolutely. I’ve lost several hives. Urban beekeeping is a challenge on an exposed roof in the city 12 stories high. Washington beehives are sensitive to moisture and to extreme temperature changes. We had a few spring days with inclement weather that the bees could not handle. It was devastating every time I lost a hive. Mother Nature is a powerful reality.
Have you learned anything about honey production that surprised you?
You can have eight hives in a row and each hive produces honey with entirely different flavors. I learned that I cannot control the flavor of the honey. My bees travel up to 6 miles per day, and they have countless opportunities to pollinate flowers all over Seattle. The pollen and nectar that the worker bees extract can vary between the blackberries near the waterfront to the rooftop gardens throughout Pike Place Market and downtown Seattle.
Is the community of Seattle supportive of your efforts?
Absolutely! Everyone wants to know how the process works and I have had so many visitors interested in setting up their own hives. There are only a couple of entities downtown practicing beekeeping, so I look forward for others to join in on the fun and to contribute to a healthy environment.
Can you share a recipe featuring honey? What is your favorite thing about this recipe and its origin and any special tips for its preparation?
My favorite recipe is the Smoked Salmon Skewers With Rooftop Honey
What advice do you have for home beekeepers or other chefs who would like to produce honey?
Get ready to get stung. Buy an EpiPen [an epinephrine injection used in the case of an allergic reaction]. Don’t be alarmed when the female worker bees throw the male drone bees off your 12-story roof in the fall. No pun intended.
Courtesy of chef Gavin Stephenson and The Georgian Restaurant
- 3 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 pound King salmon belly
- 2 tablespoons Rooftop Honey or honey of choice
- 2 tablespoons Rooftop Honey Mustard
- 12 (6-inch) bamboo skewers
- Wood chips smoker
- To make cure, mix together brown sugar, lemon zest and kosher salt.
- Cut salmon into finger-size pieces, about 3 inches by ¾ inches.
- Place salmon pieces onto bamboo skewers and place on tray, then sprinkle liberally with cure.
- Let sit for 20 to 30 minutes.
- Move to a clean pan.
- Set up smoker and smoke the salmon for 5 minutes.
- Bake salmon at 280 F to desired degree of doneness, about 8 minutes.
- Drizzle with warm Rooftop Honey or serve with Rooftop Honey Mustard.
Main photo: Chef Gavin Stephenson tends to his bees. Credit: The Fairmont Olympic Hotel