You can picture the scene. One day, Chef Jamie Simpson from the Culinary Vegetable Institute was cleaning out the horse barn with Farmer Lee Jones at The Chef’s Garden, where he found a “monster stack of old beehives, piles of boxes.” They were left over from when there were active hives on the farm. But, on the day in which the monster stack was found, there were only a couple of hives, ones with no bees in them.
“I didn’t know anything about keeping bees, really,” Jamie said, but he suggested to Farmer Lee that they get more of them. “A farm,” he said, “needs bees.”
In response, Farmer Lee ended up texting Jamie the following message: Schick Bee Guy.
“And,” Jamie said, “’Schick Bee Guy’ is still saved on my phone today. He turned out to be a 70-year-old retired science teacher with 40 hives. This guy is my mentor. He’s taught me so much.”
But we’re getting ahead of the story. Way ahead.
After receiving Farmer Lee’s text, Jamie hopped into his truck and headed over to see the bee guy. Upon arrival, Jamie saw what looked like a “Hitchcock film of bees in the air. Everywhere!”
“What,” Jamie asked, “is that?”
“That, Jamie,” John Schick responded, “is your first hive. In three to five minutes, they’re going to land on something, and we’re going to pick it off that something and we’re going to put it in one of your boxes, and that’s going to be your hive.”
And that’s exactly what happened.
“The cloud of bees,” Jamie remembers, “settled into a ball of bees. John walked up and put a box right on them. They walked in and we walked away with about 10,000 bees in a box.”
Bees: the Hardest Working Members on Our Farm
The day that Jamie visited John Schick was the start of hive number one on the wood-line of the Culinary Vegetable Institute. We then went from having one hive to three—and three to five, five to nine, to sixteen, and now to 45 hives.
That naturally brings up a very important (and very short!) question. Why?
Why do we keep bees?
“Obviously,” Jamie explains, “for pollination. Obviously for honey. But also for them. Bees are at risk and they need help. They need support. They need more beekeepers.”
In other words, Jamie adds, “We don't necessarily keep bees for more squash. We keep bees for bees. We keep them for them. As a result of their work and ours, we get honey. And I think it’s really important that there’s more people doing it, not necessarily for the honey or for pollination or anything like that, but for them. It’s really important.”
Beekeeping at the Culinary Vegetable Institute
Since that pivotal moment with John Schick, the Culinary Vegetable Institute has gotten even more bees. You can buy them in a box, one that contains about three pounds of bees. 10,000 bees per box. Once the box arrives, the instructions say to just shake the box into a hive.
“I’d imagined,” Jamie said, “that shaking a bunch of bees in a box might give us a bunch of angry bees, but that’s actually not the case. They just want to go home. So, when we get these boxes, we’ll just place them upside down. As it turns out, the bees will just walk right into the hive. You can pull the box off and close the lid and call it home.”
A box of 10,000 bees will turn into 20,000—and then 40,000. At the end of the year, that box will have produced about 60,000 bees. “We continue to add boxes and boxes. We’re just trying to keep up with the growth of the bees.”
Caring for these bees takes plenty of time and attention, but that’s something that Jamie is honored to give them. “The health of the colony directly correlates to the quantity of honey produced,” he explained, “and the health of the hive and the longevity of its life.”
Each hive has three boxes called “supers.” It’s from these supers that beekeepers will extract honey. Loose honey. And, although delivering loose honey to the guests at the Culinary Vegetable Institute can be a flavorful experience, it didn’t allow guests to see the source of the honey.
This led to Jamie’s idea of offering whole frame honey to chefs—where they, in turn, can present the honey in these whole frames to the guests in their dining rooms.
“There’s about 1,000 cells of honey per side of comb,” Jamie said. “It’s a lot of work for the bees, and when the combs are perfect, it’s just a beautiful, natural thing to present in the dining room.”
Honey Presentation Journey
It took about a year for Jamie to brainstorm a way to present honey in this natural state in an artful way. After he’d envisioned what would look beautiful while still being functional, he then talked to welders, woodworkers, and artists to find a way to translate his vision into reality.
At first, he struck out.
Then he met another man named John, an Amish cabinetmaker who was paralyzed from the waist down. While working, John lies on a rolling bed on his stomach, keeping his toolbox under his pillow. From this incredibly challenging position, he creates gorgeous pieces of functional art.
So, Jamie used a pen and a pizza box to share his design idea. John ultimately transformed this sketch into individual frames that contain about five pounds of honey apiece. This design allows honey from the Culinary Vegetable Institute to be tastefully and artfully displayed.
The process from pizza-box drawing to functional frames that look beautiful on diners’ tables was more complex than that, of course. Part of the challenge was that these frames needed created in a way that they could be protected while being mailed to restaurants, and then opened up again for guests.
“Maybe for a bread cart, or a cheese cart,” Jamie said. “Maybe a coffee shop, or a bar, maybe an open kitchen, maybe a closed kitchen. Maybe it doesn’t matter, but just a way that this thing could be seen and shown in its natural state.”
This design-to-use process took a few years and required special tools to be manufactured. “And, now that we have this item,” Jamie said, “the question became what to do with it. What can it become?”
Beauty of the Honeycomb
Jamie shares his thoughts about what this whole frame honey can and has become. “For the guests,” he said, “it’s obviously a window into a world they don’t often experience—and for chefs, it's the same. If we were to take this into a dining room, what would we do? What I imagine is like a long, hot knife taking and sort of carving sections of honey out for bread service, maybe a charcuterie plate, or a cheese plate of some kind. I imagine this on vegetable dishes that are presented to the table. Then the honeycomb is brought out and carved.”
Then, of course, there are desserts.
“I imagine this honeycomb on cakes,” Jamie explains, “garnished beautifully with long sections of cut comb. I imagine this in so many places that it leaves a creative freedom to the end user. We don’t offer instruction with the ingredients. We just send them as they are and allow creative freedom to happen.”
Jamie points out that, when honey is extracted in loose form and bottled—in other words, how it’s usually handled—something important is lost: the aroma. “There’s the wood scent, obviously. But, on top of that, smoke. Wood smoke from the beekeeper. Plus pollen, like wax and complex aromatic compounds of flowers and herbs and vegetables and grasses and dust and winds and seasons.”
When keeping bees, like Jamie does, he gets the unique opportunity to experience hives using all of his senses. He can also compare and contrast how hives are alike—and different.
“I get about as close to each as I can and stick my nose in the thing,” he said. “They always smell a little different. Every frame is different. Side by side, one comb of honey might taste different than this honey here or that honey there. It’s really fun as you explore one of these to sort of taste different parts of the frame that are completely different. Sometimes they're darker. Sometimes the wax is whiter. Sometimes the wax is yellow, sometimes gray. Sometimes red. It's all really about the plants they’re pulling it from.”
More Thoughts About Whole Frame Honey
“I imagine them on bar carts, cheese carts, bread carts, charcuterie carts. I imagine them in open kitchens and closed kitchens and bars. I just see it as a functional contribution of every dish that people get to reconnect with where their food comes from, very simply. I imagine it on a charcuterie plate with maybe cheeses. I can see it with salads, rolling out as a bread service with butter, desserts, cocktails. Maybe we’ll do some sort of cake, a long cut of comb with just garnish on top of it with different flowers and creams.”
And, ultimately, here’s the question that Jamie asks himself and his chef team: “Why don’t we just take this into the kitchen and play with it a bit?”
Here’s more information about whole frame honey available at The Chef’s Garden. Each hand-crafted frame holds about five pounds of honey—produced from the nectar of as many as two million flowers and 55,000 flight time.
Explore. Experiment. Enjoy!