Feed your soul with hyper local honey at Kettlestrings

Community collaboration brings bee boss and chef together in trio of dishes

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By Melissa Elsmo

Food Writer

Bee boss and Oak Park resident, Debbie Becker, began keeping bees on her property in 2012 after learning how to manage hives through a volunteer experience at Chicago's Garfield Park Conservatory. She worked to change the local ordinance allowing for bees to be kept on private property before establishing her backyard hives. Today, approximately 100, 000 honeybees call her yard home. 

"If you see any honeybees flying around Oak Park, it's probably one of mine," said Becker.

Becker, who also manages the honeybee hives kept at the Oak Park Public Library, is sensitive to the importance of protecting native bee populations. Differing from the bees in her hives, native bees are solitary, stingless ground-dwellers and their populations are declining. Honeybees can only support the essential efforts of these efficient native pollinators. Honeybees are the "gate-way" insect according to Becker and she was hooked on managing her hives well before the native bee movement took hold.

Although she checks the hives for evidence of a queen and treats her bee population for mites annually, she considers herself a "hands-off beekeeper." Rather than manipulate the hives for maximal production she prefers to limit extraneous hive management and let nature take its course.

Even without doing much to encourage her bees, honey extractions have kept Becker unusually busy this summer. The duo of hives produced a whopping 13 gallons of honey—at 12 pounds per gallon Becker's bees have yielded 156 pounds of honey in a single season. Becker notes the honey is lighter in color than in years past.

With such an excess of sweetness to share, Becker reached out to her neighbor, Kettlestrings,  the new restaurant at 800 S. Oak Park Ave., to offer their chef a gallon of honey for use in the restaurant.

"Debbie reached out and she lives right around the corner, so we thought it'd be a great opportunity to meet more of our neighbors," said Rob Guenthner, Kettlestrings co-owner. "To be totally honest, we didn't even know how popular Debbie and her bees were when she made us this great offer."

Guenther and his business partners are all Oak Park residents raising their families in the community -- they established Kettlestrings with the intention of being a hyperlocal community hub. He and his partners are natural collaborators and his chef, Mike Gussis, is creative in the kitchen. Kettlestrings' bartenders are always eager to create new drinks.

"Chef is a real artist; he's been asking me for bee pollen to work with," said Becker. "If you can feed your soul with honey, you're good."

Inspired by the honey harvest, Chef Gussis, created a duo of dishes using the hyper-local sweetener. The first honey offering is used in a savory entrée application. Gussis' sweet and spicy steak frites features Becker's honey infused chimichurri, red wine reduction and three chili crema. For dessert Kettlestrings is offering a plum crostada made with handmade pie crust, plum compote, honey whipped ricotta.

Kettlestrings bartenders have used Becker's honey to craft syrups for use in a variety of drinks. Notably, the Golden Kettle is a lemonade-based bourbon cocktail made with honey infused simple syrup.

"You know, I never would've thought about a honey collaboration, said Katie Ashton, Kettlestings co-owner and Guenther's wife. "We started with the local breweries like Kinslahger, but I hope this [process of collaboration] keeps growing year-over-year."

Kettlestrings opened just days before COVID-19 shuttered restaurant dining rooms throughout Chicagoland and Becker, who also hosts Airbnb guests in her home, was sensitive to the timing of the restaurant's opening.

"My guests love walking over to Kettlestrings and I love having it there," said Becker. "They opened at a terrible time and I wanted to support them by offering them something unique to attract local interest."

Kettlestrings has been doing a robust patio and carry-out business, but the owners do have some concerns about sustaining their business when the weather turns cold. To compensate, the young business is looking into tents and tabletop heaters to combat the forthcoming chill.

"This type of collaboration is just one of those things that I really love about Oak Park. I mean a restaurant doesn't work in a pandemic without the community rallying behind it," said Ashton. "We've been blown away by how many people have gone out of their way to support us."

Editor's note: Deb Becker is a long-time staff member at Wednesday Journal where she is an editorial and ad designer.

Email: melissa@oakparkeats.com

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