Executive Chef Robert Gerstenecker
It’s not new: the idea of sharing the whole experience of food—from seed to supper. This has been happening in kitchens all over the world for hundreds of years, if not longer. But what is new is the change we’ve seen in the past few years as North Americans are starting to reconnect with their food and its origins. This reconnection is the root of the exciting innovation happening in the food world today.
Growing up on a farm in rural Canada, looking after the vegetables in the garden, feeding the cattle and pigs and collecting eggs from the chicken barn was a simple every day fact for me. I never imagined that those experiences would play such an important role in my career as a chef. And yet here I am in midtown, tending a thriving garden on the rooftop of Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta. The planting, watering and harvesting, it’s an incredible feeling of coming home for me.
It’s been five years since we decided we could start a small garden using a few unused planters on our outdoor fifth-floor terrace. Since then, the garden has grown and thrived. Not only has it attracted lots of questions and media attention, it’s part of our kitchen’s daily operation.
It is such a treat for our staff (and our guests) to get in on all the action! They can wander onto the fifth floor terrace, enjoy the incredible view of Atlanta and pick a tomato just as it ripens. Then they can choose a few hot peppers or a handful of edible flowers. They can collect a bunch of aromatic herbs for the special of the day.
And when you’re working in the garden, you can’t help but notice the constant buzz of our 300,000 worker bees that call the terrace home. It’s even in the middle of our hotel’s prime outdoor event space: five busy hives from which we harvest some of Atlanta’s best honey.
The idea of an on-site apiary is something that would have been thought ridiculous when I first started in the industry, but it is now a must-have for me. We set up the apiary four years ago with one hive. Once we harvested the first honey and 100 pounds of honey later, I was hooked. We have been adding a few hives every year since, and we are at the point that we’re looking for other local areas to host more hives.
At first, there was great concern over public safety. But once people saw how gentle and unobtrusive the bees really were, the bees became a welcome member of the Four Seasons family. This practice has become so popular over the past few years, that many restaurants and hotels are following suit. We even have various agencies from out of state calling us to ask how the hives have been received because they are also interested in hosting a few.
We use the honey in a variety of ways at Four Seasons. We have created some delicious honey caramels that seem to disappear as quickly as we can make them. The honey is a key ingredient in many of our dressings, sauces and marinades. A drizzle is often the perfect finishing touch for a savoury dish; and our honey (and honeycomb) has become an important component in our seasonal cocktail program. The Spa has also introduced a few honey-themed treatments recently because honey is great for the skin.
I am proud of the garden and apiary, and thrilled that our staff and guests have welcomed our buzzing friends as much as our homegrown produce! Try my Tempura Squash Blossom with Goat Cheese and Honey recipe. – Robert Gerstenecker
A 20-year Four Seasons veteran, Robert Gerstenecker is executive chef at Park 75 at Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta. He took on this role in 2004, a promotion he considers a culinary dream come true. Formerly the hotel’s executive sous chef, he helped open Park 75 and played an instrumental role in developing the menu. Gerstenecker also worked at Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach, mastering tropical ingredients and seafood, and in Hong Kong at Quo Quo. Originally from Ontario, Canada, the chef gained an appreciation for food through his mother. Today, one of his favourite pastimes is planting and harvesting his own crops, and raising his young daughter Heidi Rose with wife Brooke.