Chef doubles as bee keeper for sweet dishes

June 23, 2012 8:28:42 PM PDT
Honey is one of those natural sweeteners that often gets overlooked.

But in the summertime, with bees busy pollinating flowers, local honey starts showing up on menus right about now.

There's one chef in the loop who is making her honey up on the roof.

Valeria Benner's job description has changed to match her passion. Technically, she's a sous chef at the Palmer House, working on dishes for the hotel's signature restaurant, Lockwood. But almost every day she dons protective gear, makes her way up the 25th floor roof, and tends to her bees.

"So up until recently I was a closet permaculturalist, so now it's out, I actually hope to have more beehives in the future and I'm hoping to help other hotels and businesses have beehives as well," Benner said.

Why? Well, the honey, of course. But the bees also pollinate her other plants that grow on the rooftop garden. Unlike their suburban cousins, these bees will actually create a honey that's distinctive.

"So here in the city actually, urban honey's fantastic, because we have so many different things for them to eat. Wildflower honey, like you see in the suburbs, has a much milder flavor - but it's still wonderful," she said.

In the kitchen, Benner's love for bees and honey is permanently tattooed on her arm, a not-so-subtle reminder as she uses the natural sweetener on almonds or walnuts, then adds cayenne, cloves and salt to season them, before mixing them up, then roasting them; they're paired with an assortment of cheeses for a contrast of texture and sweetness, against the natural saltiness of the cheese.

Honey can also be drizzled over sweet, roasted beets, to give them another layer of complexity or in dessert, where a simple drizzle over a seasonal strawberry sundae makes a sweet ending.

Now Benner says the honey, like these tomatoes, is dependent upon Mother Nature, so you're not going to see a lot of it until July or August. She says for now, she'll take whatever honey she can get, without of course bothering her beloved bees.

You can also find local honey in stores, courtesy of the Chicago Honey Co-op.

There's a lot of honey being produced out west in Elburn, at the Heritage Prairie Farm.

Palmer House (Lockwood Restaurant)
17 E. Monroe St.
(312) 917-1707
http://www3.hilton.com/en/hotels/illinois/palmer-house-a-hilton-hotel-CHIPHHH/index.html

Heritage Prairie
2N308 Brundige Road
Elburn, Illinois 60119
630-443-5989
http://www.heritageprairiefarm.com/

Chicago Honey Co-op
2000 W. Carroll St.
Ste 301
(773) 848-2246
http://www.chicagohoneycoop.com/ Restaurants using Co-op Honey:
Nightwood
Lula Cafe
Devanti Enoteca

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