In late-May, Birmingham's Big Rock Chophouse installed several large garden beds on its property alongside a honey bee colony. The new additions are the product of chef Matthew Fitchett's vision for the eatery. Fitchett, who took over the chophouse's kitchens last year, hopes to set an example for other restaurants and diners that he takes farm-to-table cuisine seriously.
An avid gardener, the chef says he approached Big Rock's owners about bringing bees and garden beds to the restaurant after attending an American Culinary Federation meeting. It was there that he met a beekeeper promoting urban honey. Some scientists, the chef says, believe that urban honey may be superior in quality to honey produced in farming areas because city bees are exposed to fewer pesticides.
Located between the train tracks and garden beds, Big Rock's bee colony hums with activity as drones enter and exit the hive from the base of their small wooden box. "At the end of the season we should have about 30 pounds of honey. We'll have it either in the combs or we'll extract it and have our own raw, unpasteurized Birmingham original honey."
Restaurant gardens aren't just a suburban phenomenon. Some Detroit restaurants are getting in on the action too.
In April, Corktown eatery Gold Cash Gold organized volunteers and staff to help build and plant a plot of land on Temple Street. Restaurant partner Eli Boyer says the eatery owned the land and worked out a deal with server and ACRE Farm co-founder Ryan Anderson to help maintain the garden. "It's good business practice and the stuff is going to be as fresh and seasonal as can be," he says. Diners can expect to see produce from the garden on menus all summer long.
For chef Fitchett introducing the garden and bees is about educating customers and bringing something fresh to the table. Bees face so many environmental challenges, from colony collapse disorder to simple misunderstanding on the part of humans, yet they play an integral role in the environment and in agriculture, he explains.
Fitchett recalls a lesson he learned in the early 2000s from chef Jeffrey Gabriel, his mentor at Schoolcraft College. Fitchett had spent the morning gathering squash blossoms in Gabriel's garden, discovering the flowers were swarming with honey bees. Fitchett's response was to kill them — something he didn't think his mentor would mind as he retold the story to him later in the kitchens. "He just lit me up. 'Why did you kill those bees?' I'll never forget it, just hollering at me. 'They pollinate my garden! What are you doing killing 'em?'"
Fitchett learned a lesson that day about the cycle of food and bees, something he hopes to impart to the community. The garden would never produce close to enough to feed every customer that dines at Big Rock, but it could supply a few wine dinners or cooking classes, giving Fitchett the opportunity to share perspective on local cuisine. "It's my job," he says. "It's not to buy a box. Open it and present it. It's bringing in good stuff making you feel good."