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Honey, bees make chefs’ lives sweeter

October 27th, 2014
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Honeybees in some parts of the country are mysteriously abandoning their hives and disappearing, but the hives on the rooftops of some Chicago-area restaurants that produce honey are thriving. Greg Fischer, the beekeeper of 40 hives at the Morton Arboretum, says neonicotinoid insecticides are believed to be causing the problems elsewhere, but he points out, “Illinois is not a big beekeeping state, so we haven’t been affected by colony collapse disorder.”

Local bees have also managed to survive a different problem: last year’s frigid winter. Fischer is also the president of Wild Blossom Meadery & Winery in Beverly and harvests honey to make mead from 125 hives near the Dan Ryan Woods and on the lakefront on the South Side. He says the polar vortex took a toll on a small number of his hives, but others produced a large amount of honey this year.

Laurell Sims, who maintains two rooftop hives for Lockwood in the Palmer House Hilton, uses a type of bee that tolerates the cold weather because it remains in the hive during the months when the temperatures plunge. She also says, “I’m very conservative and leave a lot of honey for the bees so they will survive the winter.”

She says there are always plants blossoming during the growing season in the pesticide-free rooftop garden, where the bees can forage. She adds, “We have blossoming trees in the city, so the bees have a lot to forage in the spring. … They go to Millennium Park and Grant Park, which are great pollen sources, and the Chicago Park District is very conscientious about not using chemicals.”

The honey the rooftop bees produce is truly an ultra-local ingredient. “It’s exciting to bring it down on the elevator and put it on the plate,” says Sims.

Mathew Wiltzius, executive chef at Lockwood, adds the rooftop honey to Italian burrata ($14). To garnish the cheese he cooks down a mixture of honey and water and then adds baking soda to inflate it so it resembles a honeycomb. “The honey offsets the richness of the burrata, and the crunchy candy caramel is bitter and offsets the sweetness of the honey,” Wiltzius says. The appetizer is finished with olive oil, Murray River pink salt, fresh herbs and a bit of orange-colored preserved persimmon. It is served in a cast-iron pot with grilled sourdough bread. “When you cut open the ball of burrata fresh cow’s milk oozes out, so the bread is a vehicle to get it from the pot to your mouth,” Wiltzius says. “The bees pollinate our garden and we get honey from them that showcases what we’re doing in-house, so it’s a win-win for us.”

Lockwood’s signature brownie was created for the lunchboxes of ladies attending the 1893 Columbian Exposition World’s Fair. Wiltzius is currently replacing the apricot glaze of the original recipe with newly harvested honey. “The honey has an herbal flavor with a hint of floral,” he says. “We heat the honey and brush it over the brownie which is topped with walnuts, in keeping with the tradition, for earthiness and crunch. The sweetness of the honey balances the dense super-chocolate flavor of the brownie that’s a little bitter. ($10) 17 E. Monroe St., 312-917-3404

When Sean Curry helmed the kitchen at Artisan Table in Naperville, he established the restaurant’s rooftop beehives and attended classes in beekeeping at Heritage Prairie Farm in Elburn. “I wanted to be able to tell my kids that I was doing something to help the planet,” he says. “I used to go up to the rooftop to do my menu writing because it was very tranquil and zen and very calming.”

Now that Curry is executive chef for the restaurants at the Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills Resort and Conference Center, he has even more ambitious plans. Next spring he will install two rooftop beehives and eight to 10 beehives scattered throughout the hotel’s 150-acre grounds. Currently honey from Heritage Prairie is used in cupcakes ($3 a piece) on the menu at Windows. “A darker honey that has a rich fall flavor a little bit like molasses is used in the cake and a hint of lighter honey that has a subtler taste is used in the whipped buttercream frosting,” Curry says. The cupcake is topped with a small piece of honeycomb. Sauce for the chicken wings ($11) served in The Grille is made with dehydrated, diced jalapeno peppers from the restaurant’s garden for spiciness, honey for a touch of sweetness and rice wine vinegar and country butter. 3500 Midwest Road, Oak Brook, 630-850-5555