It’s not unusual to find James Barrett, the executive chef for the Westin Hotel in Annapolis, Maryland, donning a beekeepers hook, mask, and gloves. For the past four years, Barrett has attended to two hives with as many as 30,000 bees on the rooftop of the hotel.
Barrett incorporates his rooftop honey into a wide variety of dishes, largely dependent on the taste of his yield. He noted, “This year we got a very light, subtle honey, so we mostly used it as a finish so the flavor wouldn’t get lost. For instance, we made a lacquer for our smoked salmon. We used the honeycomb in a salad with pumpkin seeds and tart cherries.”
Barrett grew up with bees. His father was a passionate hobbyist. In addition to the hive that was stationed on the back porch of Barrett’s childhood suburban home, his father had 10 hives on a nearby farm.
Two of those hives are now at the Westin. “After my dad died, I wanted to protect his hives. Since I was growing herbs and vegetables on the roof, it just made sense to add the bees. Plants yield 30 to 40 percent more when bees are around,” he said.
Last summer, the bees helped to create a bumper crop of eggplant and strawberries, in addition to keeping herbs like thyme, Thai basil, and rosemary thriving.
Barrett has trained his two sous chefs to beekeep, a process that can be labor intensive. Not only must beekeepers harvest honey, but they also must focus on the health of bees, which means providing fresh sugar water and keeping track of seasonal changes to protect the queen and her workers.
“There’s no comparison between store-bought honey and fresh honey. Raw honey has live yeast cells, which are killed off during the pasteurization process in commercial honey,” Barrett said. “That strips the honey of its flavor and only leaves behind a blunt sweetness.”
In fresh honey, taste varies significantly, depending upon which plants the bees have tapped. “When you do a blind taste test, you can tell the difference. Sage gives some spicy notes. Buckwheat is so dark it’s almost like molasses. Eucalyptus has a freshness,” he explained.
Barrett’s own bees produce “flower honey,” which basically means its exact origins are unknown. In his case, the honey will reflect the plants that were particularly attractive to his bees in Maryland that year.
Barrett’s honey yield was nearly 40 pounds this year, which was not enough to supply Westin’s two restaurants and its large banquet facility. So he sourced additional honey from local farmers. “They’re just as passionate as I am about what they make,” he noted.
Chef Barrett’s beekeeping is about passion and practicality. “There has been a serious decline in the bee population in this country thanks to pesticides,” he said. “If people want to have an abundance of vegetables and fruit, we have to help the bees survive.”
- 2 lb wild-caught salmon fillets, pin bones removed, skin-on
- 1/2 cup honey
- 3/4 cup sauvignon blanc wine
- 1 tablespoon lemon zest
- 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon fresh garlic, finely minced
- 2 tablespoons shallots, minced
- 2 tablespoons Thai basil, chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
Make lacquer: Combine the honey, wine, zest, juice, garlic, shallots, and basil in a small saucepan, and simmer over moderate heat until reduced in volume by about half. Add salt and pepper to taste.
1. Preheat the oven with broiler to 400°F, and place rack in upper third of the oven.
2. Season salmon with salt and pepper; sear in hot sauté pan on both sides. Place the salmon, skin side down, in a baking dish in a single layer.
3. Brush the top of the salmon with the lacquer and bake, basting every 3 minutes until the fish starts to feel firm to the touch – 6 to 12 minutes.
4. Remove from the oven (the fish should be slightly underdone), and change the oven setting to broil on high. Baste salmon with any additional glaze, and place it under the broiler until the glaze starts to caramelize and the “lacquer” appears to set up – less than 1 minute.
5. Serve immediately with scallion scented brown rice and honey glazed heirloom carrots.
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Consuming raw or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish, or eggs may increase your risk of illness.