“She’s an old girl, she’s got a weight limit,” Val Benner, sous chef at The Palmer House Hilton, says. What she’s referring to is the fact that she can’t put garden beds down on the 87-year-old structure’s roof. But using about 70 containers, she’s established an impressive garden of vegetables, herbs and flowers, and now an apiary as well making the hotel’s own honey, which she hopes to debut as early as July. Her story isn’t just about what’s happening on her own hotel’s roof, though— after she started work on improving the hotel’s breakfast buffet to include farmer’s market produce, she was able to get the support of Hilton’s corporate chef, Marc Ehrler, to redesign breakfast offerings for 376 hotels throughout North America and start moving all of their kitchens and staff toward a similarly farm-to-table, in-house products focus. From the safety of the ground, we talked with Benner about what’s happening at Hilton 25 stories up.
So what all do you have going on up there?
Well, it’s finally hot enough so I just planted my peppers. We’ve got vegetables, herbs, edible flowers, some non-edible flowers for the bees. We just added aeroponic tower gardens— have you seen these? They’re kind of shaped like a Christmas tree with all these little pockets in it, and it sprays them with water and vitamins from inside. So we’re going to grow lettuces and escarole in them.
We just saw a picture of them that Homaro Cantu posted— he has them at Moto.
Yeah, they’re very new. They were first demo’d at O’Hare and now they’re starting to move out into restaurants and places. They were a gift from my general manager. A lot of things we’re doing are first tries like that. It’s an adventure.
And speaking of adventure, you have bees.
We started with two hives, but one of the queens got sick and we incorporated them into one hive. They make wicked awesome honey. I cracked a little bit of the corner of one of the honeycombs so I tried it. It was just crystal clear, beautiful, golden… I think urban honey has better flavor, frankly. It comes from more diversity in the flowers and tree pollen that they feed on.
When will you start serving the honey?
It depends on Mother Nature. I want to make sure it’s sustainable for the bees before we harvest any— the first thing is to make sure they have food for themselves. If the summer is nice, we might have a surplus as early as July, but if there’s a drought, which I have a feeling there might be, I’ll hold off until the fall.
What flowers are you growing just for the bees?
Oh, lots of things, forget-me-nots, hydrangeas when they were in season, we’re starting marigolds now, lavender— I love lavender honey— tuberoses. Peonies didn’t work. Shamrocks.
The idea is to entice a few of the bees to stay home and want to pollinate some of our vegetables later. Bees will fly three to six miles for food, but I want some of them just to stick close to the hive, too.
How will you use the honey?
Every way I can! Obviously we’ll have some dessert specials. And we do a beautiful cheese plate with local cheeses, that we can put a bit of the honeycomb on. If we have enough, I’d like to put it on the breakfast buffet.
That would be nice, to have something on the breakfast buffet that was fresh and you can say, it’s ours.
It all is! I’ve totally changed the breakfast buffet since I came here, not just for our hotel but for 376 Hiltons in North America. When I came here I said to my GM, this is so Old Country Buffet. It’s so ghetto. We’ve got to do something here to make it cheerful and fresh. So we get farmer’s market produce in, we just started getting local strawberries. And we make all our own preserves from fruit from Seedling and others.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not a morning person. So I wanted people to walk in for breakfast and feel like they’re walking into a farmer’s market— you know that feeling? Where everything’s fresh and colorful and smells good? You can’t help but be happy then.
And our new corporate chef, Marc Ehrler, he’s French and he grew up on the Riviera. So he was all for farm to table. That’s why they hired people like me and Greg [Elliott, executive chef of Lockwood]. And he said, let’s take what you’re doing and do it everywhere.
Are they really getting farmers’ market produce in Hiltons all over America?
They are! They’re trying, as much as it exists in their area. And we’ve got lots of rooftop gardens out there, we’ve got a couple of apiaries. And I offer to go to other hotels and show them how to garden, how to beekeep. That’s my diabolical plan!
You know, rooftops are all wasted space. There are some tweaks you have to learn about gardening 25 stories up, but it’s not any more work, it’s just a few tweaks. But honestly, everybody in Chicago should be doing this.