Hotel harvests rooftop honey, herbs to improve your buzz
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – At the Hotel Indigo in downtown Baton Rouge, a subtle garden grows in homemade planters on an otherwise industrial roof. It boasts plenty of herbs, banana peppers, tomatoes and strawberries.
But the biggest buzz about the whole production lives and works inside a small wooden box next to those planters: a hive of bees.
For chef Tal Johnson, his daily reality is less “farm to table” and more “hive to martini glass.” He risks getting stung in order to use the sweet honey produced on the roof in cocktails at the hotel’s bar.
The project is the brainchild of hotel general manager Barry Gambold. Gambold, who, like Johnson, has always grown his own herbs, started the garden about 2½ years ago. Then he had an experience with his friend and client Charlie Tam at a local Buddhist temple, where Tam is an assistant beekeeper.
Gambold remembers walking with Tam through the temple’s grove of hives, almost completely at the mercy of the bees because he was wearing only a little protective gear.
“We’ve got these head things on with short sleeves just walking in the middle of summer,” Gambold recalls. “He’s playing, picking these frames up where the bees are and it was just this cool experience.”
The first Hotel Indigo rooftop colony failed about a year and a half ago, but the hotel staff tried again with the help of the Louisiana Bee Association. This time it worked. The herb garden expanded into a flower garden, too, giving the four onlooking rooms a view and the bees a playground.
Inside the wooden box, called an apiary, the family of bees work magic across seven frames. The staff harvests about one frame from the hive every month, yielding one gallon of honey which can be used in 128 glasses of Johnson’s specialty cocktails.
Unless someone were to pick up a menu at the Hotel Indigo’s King Bar and Bistro, Gambold’s bees and Johnson’s cocktails are somewhat under the radar – until recently when a group of bees buzzed around downtown.
“We had the swarm two weeks ago in downtown and a lot of people were thinking they were our bees,” Gambold said. “But our bees are still here.”
While the swarming bees didn’t belong to the boutique hotel, Gambold was able to recommend a beekeeper to collect the swarm and move them. Before that beekeeper could get there, however, the bees had moved on.
When Johnson joined the staff two years ago, he was tasked with incorporating the existing garden ingredients and future honey into the menu. He came up with a list of featured cocktails and a number of food items, like the heirloom tomato flatbread, which uses a trio of basil, rosemary and thyme.
“I wanted to do fresh ingredients, things that we grow ourselves from upstairs and do a local flair as well,” Johnson said. “We were working with the corporate entities and I wanted to change that to be more local and the eclectic type.”
In addition to the homegrown ingredients, Johnson said, he visits the local farmers market on Saturdays and uses local producers for everything that he can’t manage on the hotel’s roof, like meat or dairy.
He started his menu research with reading mixology journals and studying up on the success of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey. He quickly learned how the honey takes the edge off of alcohol, whether it be vodka or bourbon, and how it pairs well with juices.
“It’s making and crafting food and alcohol to make it an art,” Johnson said. “The honey brings the balance to the bourbon and the thyme just smooths out the vodka.”
Before experimenting on the roof, in the kitchen and behind the bar at the downtown boutique hotel, Johnson worked at the Louisiana Country Club. But he got his start simply waiting on his mom and grandmother to finish fixing dinner.
“I would wait because I was hungry,” Johnson said. “They’d say ‘almost done.’ So I just started watching them when I was like 5 or 6. And then I started helping. We had a farm so we raised all of our own produce and slaughtered pigs. I did it all.”
He grew up around his 16 aunts and uncles on his grandparents’ Plaquemine farm, where they grew cabbage, turnip greens and mustard greens. He distinctly remembers getting parsley from their neighbors.
“Only reason we went to the store was for detergent, soda, my grandfather’s cigars, chewing gum, stuff like that,” Johnson said. “But anything else we either grew it or raised it.”
Johnson has a scar on the back of his left hand from when he burned it making popcorn balls with his grandmother – an occupational hazard even for a young chef. But now Johnson has to add bee stings to that risk list, thanks to his sometimes feisty co-workers upstairs.