Halifax chef cultivates bees, herbs in rooftop haven in bid to serve local food

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HALIFAX - Now that the cold and grey of late autumn has settled over Halifax the only buzz that can be heard on the roof of the downtown hotel where Chris Velden keeps his bees and herb garden is from the traffic eight storeys below.
However, the executive chef at Ryan Duffy's, one of the city's premier steak and seafood restaurants, has found a way to bottle summer in tiny jars.
Since early spring Velden has been nurturing a couple of honeybee hives and several raised herb beds on the roof of the Radisson Suite Hotel building, which houses the restaurant on the ground floor.
Velden, who began as a cook's apprentice in Germany at the tender age of 15, sees it as another logical step in his commitment to fresh and local, gathering the golden nectar and snipping the herbs for use in his own kitchen.
"I'm about to rework my menu for the coming season and I want it to reflect the fact that everything here is local," says Velden.
"Tomatoes and berries don't grow here in the winter, so you won't see them on my plates."
Velden began his rooftop project in April after returning from a sustainable seafood conference in Toronto.
He was looking out the window of his hotel room at the Royal York when he saw a rooftop garden that got him thinking.
"I talked to David Garcelon, the executive chef there, and said 'What's going on?' He told me he had some herbs and bees there and I said 'Cool,"' Velden remembers with a laugh.
"It reminded me of growing up in Germany where we've always had rooftop gardens, simply because we don't have the space."
Once back in Halifax he researched beekeeping, got some raised garden beds built and explained his concept to the management of the Downtown Radisson Hotel who eventually embraced the idea.
"My bees are producing one of the best honeys because it's pesticide free," he explains.
The bees from his two hives will travel up to five kilometres to gather nectar from gardens that are all under a municipal pesticide ban.
"I have several dishes in mind for my honey, including a honey ice cream and a honey cream with scallops," he says, mapping out the culinary change of season.
A healthy hive will produce as much as 60 kilograms of honey annually and Velden is already thinking ahead to the possibilities of next year.
"Instead of giving everybody a mint when they leave the restaurant I'd like to give them a little jar of honey to try."
Velden, who has worked in Switzerland and the U.S. and was head of the Pacific Culinary Institute in Vancouver, is just as passionate about the herbs he grows, not just for the flavours they bring, but because they make economic sense too.
"I would likely spend about $5,000 a year for herbs for my kitchen, taking into account preparations, pestos, garnishes, but growing my own allows me to trim that bill by about a third."
The rosemary, arugula, basil and thyme he cultivates, among other edibles, all find their way onto what Velden describes as a classically prepared table where the primary focus is taste.
He even ages his own locally grown beef.
"After 35 days I can put it on your plate in good conscience and I know that it's good. I'm not just opening up a box and cutting it without knowing where it came from."
For now his bees have gathered around their respective queens in their rooftop hives and are hunkering down for the winter.
The workers have the ability to thermostatically control the inside temperature by fuelling themselves off the honey left to them.
"I've been told they should be able to survive the winter up there," says Velden of the rooftop he has also come to view as a haven from his hectic schedule.
"I can go up there for a half-hour of peace as I tend my bees and garden," he laughs.
"As long as I don't take my BlackBerry with me."

Organizations: Radisson Suite Hotel, Royal York, Downtown Radisson Hotel Pacific Culinary Institute

Geographic location: Halifax, Germany, Toronto Switzerland U.S. Vancouver

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