Beginning of the summer I had the opportunity to interview the Chef Gavin Stephenson of the Fairmont Hotel. He is the former chef of London's Savoy hotel and has been in charge of the kitchens at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel in Seattle for sixteen years. A few years ago, he started his beekeeping program on top of the historic hotel.
Aside from the fact that he serves amazing foods or that he runs the kitchen for one of the most respected and most elegant historic hotels in the Pacific Northwest or that he's just an amazing family man, he has strong conviction to do right. The urban apiary is a program that helps in that conviction. It also shows the commitment and dedication that the Fairmont hotel chain has for sustainability via local sourcing. This model is important literally from the rooftop to the plate at the table.
I had the opportunity to watch him work. It's pretty awesome and I thought what a great thing to share with the readers of Huffington Post. With that being said, I introduce you to Chef Gavin Stephenson.
Thanks Chef for the opportunity and let's get to know you!
Chef Gavin Stephenson, Photo Credit: Brad Puet
Can you tell us about your early beginnings with food and your passion for food?
You know I always wanted to be my dad. My dad worked a lot and is well respected in his industry. I just admired him so much that I wanted to be just like him but he was gone a lot. So I ended up being in the kitchen with my mom at a young age and that's when my addiction with food began.
I grew up in a family that was very classic European. My mom didn't buy anything, we made it. She made bread, she made jam. For instance we never bought spaghetti sauce. We always made it. We always made a ton of it and would always store what we made.
That is how my family did things. We weren't allowed to miss any meals unless it was sports related. We had to be at the table and that's what my mom instilled in me. This may have made us a bit different because not only did we always eat together we also ate some things that some people may look at as pretty weird.
I remember bringing home a couple dates to meet my parents and I would have to say to my mom, "Mom, don't make the beef tongue tonight" or "Ok the tripe soup, not this Friday, mom, I really like this girl." She would say, "but why" and I would respond, "well she probably eats normal food like steak or meat loaf." My mom would then respond, "Well this is normal food. It's real food."
It was that type of environment that I grew up on that shaped me as a person.
I was that goofy kid that would go to school with a lunch bag that had jars full of food in it. We didn't use baggies because my family looked at it as wasting food. That was the mindset we had growing up. We brought containers in and when we came home we washed those containers. At that time, other kids would bring those baggies and throw it away. Now it's the cool thing to do but back then our society didn't look at it that way. It was this type of discipline and patience that I've carried throughout my career to become a good chef.
I remember picking blackberries with my mom and dad. My mom would say, "Only pick the ripe ones. Don't pick the ones with any red on them. We want them to be ripe. The softer, the better. That way there will be less sugar in the jam and it will be really good." I learned to make jam when I was seven.
You know our cupboards were full of things that we made. We didn't buy spaghetti sauce. We made tomato sauce and we made a ton of it. We didn't buy mayonnaise. We would make mayonnaise. What comes so natural as going to the grocery store and buying things of the shelf and in the aisles, is different than my normal. My dad had a garden so he grew everything.
When I was a really young kid, we would go over to my grandparents house and they would have a pig as a pet. Well when I was like four, I would ask where did so and so go, and my grandmother would respond, "Oh you know they had to see such and such." Meanwhile we're having pork sandwiches.
As I got older, I learned to use everything. Nothing went to waste. Now I look at it through the eyes of my kids.
How did your career start to shape up as you left Northern England?
We moved to Chicago when I was just a kid. My dad worked for companies that would have him here in the states and so we bounced back and forth. We moved from England to Chicago, back to England, then to Oregon, then Oregon to England and so on. My family was all over the place.
When I decided to get into the culinary field, my dad knew a lot of people in the industry. One of the gentlemen he knew set me up with an apprenticeship and I ended back in England. I was seventeen or eighteen at the time and that was the age when I started my culinary career in the kitchens of the Savoy company which was really cool for me.
Can you tell us about your happiness with food and your life as a chef?
I was just talking to our food director today and I consider myself as an addict. I just love to eat. I love flavors. I love watching how things are grown and made. I love the intricacies of how complex things can be even when they're so simple.
For me I have a lot of hobbies, but I really have just one passion which is food. That's a pretty large canvas. That could be a farmer, a beekeeper, a hunter, a forager, a fisherman - which I happen to be all those things. I like trying to understand the natural way of things and really respecting the natural way of things which plays out in my work.
I like to have the natural flavor come out and it doesn't have to be complex. For example, I have quite a few ladies and gentlemen that have come from Ethiopia. One of which roasted using a butane burner and it was one of the most amazing cups of coffee I've ever had. It wasn't so scientific as you say a roast from Italy. His coffee didn't come from a ten million dollar roaster. His coffee came out of literally a can with a handle on it.
Again I really believe in flavor and respect of the food first. The presentation is all about the artistic ability. Some people have the artistic ability but they might not have the passion for food, the taste. It may look amazing but it may not be full in taste.
So my cooking and philosophy on food is very much that way. It's not so much about how much you pay for it, but how much you respect it.
Has moving or living in the PNW for a while now influenced your style? And how so?
Seattle is kind of like a mecca for culinaries. What we have to work with is just amazing. The Market (Pike Place Market) is just a walk away. You know when I'm trying to write a menu or if I'm searching for that perfect little ingredient for that dish, I just leave my apron on my desk and I run down there and get my inspiration. I've made a lot of friends and built a lot of relationships with vendors down there so I can just get recommendations from them any time. And I trust them.
I've worked in a lot of different cities and countries, Seattle just suits my style of cooking. It's not fussy. It's casual. We're really focused on what's really good. Other cities can be really fussy. They already have a preconceived notion of what is good before you get there. In Seattle, it's about where to go and why to go. You really want to go where the chef has a respect for product and if they are doing the right thing. I try to do the right thing by putting sustainable products in my operation. I spend a lot of time trying to do the right thing and I'm not perfect by any means but I strive to be. This is how the pollination program came in. There were some folks who said that we're not going to be able to do that and they may have been right at the time but I'm going to try and kill myself trying. It's just what I'm trying to do. It's about respecting the product and finding the synergy with my work.
Can you tell us a bit about the idea of having a bee apiary on top of one of the historical hotels and high rises in the middle of downtown Seattle?
It started with one of the companies I used to buy cheese from called the Cheese Cellar. Dennis and Theresa, who owned the company at the time, said to me, "You know you should keep bees!" I said, "Where?" She said, "I know a guy named Corky in Ballard. I'll introduce you to him."
They introduced me to him and the next you thing you know we were at an event together and Corky tells me I should put the bees on the roof of the hotel. I thought it sounded great. I agreed to it, the GM was on board with it, and one thing led to another and started the process.
We looked at the possibility of honey production but that wasn't our initial reason for doing it. We wanted to save bees. For us it was about doing the right thing. The honey was a bit of a bonus.
You never know what you can get. One year you can get a tremendous amount or it could be a year where the bees don't do that well.
Beekeeping in the Pacific Northwest is easy. It's difficult. It's a colder, wet climate. It's the wet part that you really need to learn about. So our first year we started with about five hives and I think they all died that year. I may have survived one but I don't remember. This was all when I was still apprenticing.
We hired Corky on to help get us started and show me the ropes. He's a wonderful man and I learned a tremendous amount from him.
You know, bee keeping really is a school of hard knocks. Since then a lot of water has passed under the bridge, I took the apprentice bee keepers course for Washington State and learned some more from that. I read a lot of things on the internet. I really committed and dove into it. Even with all that, I continue to kill colonies. Not on purpose obviously. (laughter) For me I'm a hands on learner and I keep learning more and more.
Last year was the first year that all of our colonies survived the winter.
Honey production has been great on some years and other years not so much. Once again that is also Mother Nature. We can't control the weather. It's not like we can move our bees to different farm fields or what not. We are stuck with what's around us.
There's been a lot of people who have worked with me on the project. Jake and Chloe are the 2 newest members to work on the team. My goal now is to try to get as many people involved as possible. I want people to learn and be motivated. I want them to take classes and courses and become future beekeepers.
So now the hotel has an awesome urban apiary in the middle of downtown Seattle!
Every third bite of food you put in your mouth, a bee has something to do with it. When I first heard that I was like, "No way! Really!?! It can't be." So I started to do some research. I definitely found the pros and cons and myths and truths. So if you could see from the larger scope of what we have been able to do as mankind: we've been able to land on the moon, we've been able to split an atom, I mean, think about all the things we have been able to do. To this day, we still have not been able to figure out how to pollinate without insects. I kept researching it and then Colony Collapse happened. No one knew what that was or the extent of how that affects us and I knew I had to do something about it because that's just the type of guy I am.
So I told myself, "Self, what can you do about it?" Sure I can start a hive in my backyard - which I do have - but that would only affect me and my family. So I thought how good would it be if the hotel got involved. The impact would be greater. When I brought it up, I was happy at the response it got. The amount of support was crazy. We had all the different departments paint their own hives. Everyone wanted and got involved. I have a great sense of pride in the hotel because of it.
In my limited time watching you, I found beekeeping to be extremely fascinating. I can see how someone can become passionate about it as it is a natural way of keeping the order of things as well as it helps out the world in so many ways. Can you tell us about your personal passion for bee keeping and infusing that into your work at the Fairmont?
My first year, I was also very fascinated by it all. It's amazing to watch how the bees work and how fast they do their work. It's great to see how fast the hive grows, how they build, how they respect the queen, and how everything is just driven. It went from doing the right thing to learning about honey and tasting raw, unfiltered honey and how that can be used in the grander scheme of things. I learned the effects of pesticides and also as farmers, as beekeepers, learned what we can do to manage a hive.
I didn't know any of those things.
Now I know what I can do to help the hives succeed. From learning about mites and managing the damage that they do to learning how to conserve and leave enough honey stores in the winter to live on, I learn all of these things and more. We also know now what we are able to use as far as the hotel and able to use that for us without affecting them. It's really nice because people who learn more about what we do, want to learn more and be a part of it.
It's a great thing for urban beekeeping.
You know as a consumer, I never really had the respect for honey as I do now. I see how hard it takes to have a successful honey crop.
From a culinary standpoint, can you tell us what the difference is between urban and non-urban honey?
You know I thought there would be a huge difference. You know every hive's honey tastes a bit different. You know it could be my imagination, but I'm finding that during different times of the year, there is a different flow to the honey. So like right now we are coming off of the big leaf maple flow. There are other sources of pollen but mainly the major flow comes from the maple. Maple has a very different taste than, let's say blackberry honey, which is our next flow.
You start noticing things when you become a beekeeper. I notice when the leaves change when the flowers come in and the next flow is going to come in. I can also see this based on the bees. They have a purpose and it's like bullets in and bullets out when they happen on a good flow. So for instance today, there were a lot of bees coming in and out but not necessarily bulleting in and out and so that tells me that the next flow isn't quite on yet. When they happen on a good flow they can fill a box really fast.
Can you explain to us this love you have for beekeeping and the mission you have now for it?
I'm a pretty responsible person, you know, I like to do thing the right way. So I really wanted to try and figure out how to have an urban apiary, and a sustainable one at that. One that I don't really have to rely on things outside of my apiary and I'm not there yet but I feel that I have enough diversity invested in it that I'm getting there.
Honestly, I just like watching the bees work. It's really cool. Like if I had a rough week, I'll go up there at two o'clock in the afternoon, on a really hot sunny day, and watch them work. I sit back and I feel better. I look at it and think to myself, "Wow, I designed that, I built that. It was my hard work. I taught people how to do that." So I get that sense of satisfaction, you know.
And the best is when I have a new beekeepers like Jake and Chloe. Watching them learn and grow as a beekeeper is truly amazing. I love it when they pull out a frame and they see the queen and I get to share in their excitement. Or when they dip into the honey and they taste it. Watching them enjoy eating warm honey out of the hive. It's those little things and those big things that give me satisfaction.
You know it's just watching them learn.
Also I get to see how these hives change my personal life. I have the hives in my backyard and its as simple as my neighbors asking me, "How are your bees doing?" and me saying, "Here's your jar of honey." I think it's the coolest thing ever to give the honey to them. You know since I've been keeping bees, my family doesn't really use processed sugar any more. We use honey. It's the honey that my bees make.
I do have a bit of a sweet tooth sometimes, well all the time. So the honey that I have is all made in my backyard. My kids are all about it. They absolutely love it. My family eats quite a bit of honey. We went from a little squeezy bear once every two years to a little more than a half a gallon a year.
We definitely love our honey.