Zeke Freeman of Bee Raw
Food & Drink — Eat

Zeke Freeman of Bee Raw

United States

Mood of Living  /  Mar 25, 2019

Working with beekeepers around the country, Freeman’s bees use nectar from an assortment of sources to create natural, unique flavors.

The founder of Bee Raw, Zeke Freeman, has brought attention to the lack of pure, single varietal honey in the United States. Working with beekeepers around the country, Zeke’s bees use nectar from raspberry bushes, orange groves and an assortment of other sources to create a variety of natural, unique flavors. His training at the Hotel School of Grenoble and work with Dean & Deluca in New York City prior to Bee Raw, gave him the fully developed perspective of the food business, which in turn allowed him to make Bee Raw what it is today. Zeke understands the true importance of bees in our society, and speaks passionately to educate the public. Quite simply, without bees, we would not have a majority of foods we enjoy today. By supporting Bee Raw and consequently organic agriculture, people can create a more sustainable, natural world.

Beekeepers at Bee Raw.
Beekeepers at Bee Raw.

Q & A with Zeke Freeman

Mood of Living: How did your childhood experiences living on your family’s farm in Northwestern Pennsylvania influence your decision to pursue the culinary arts?
Zeke Freeman: I would say that once I was in the culinary arts, the farm I grew up on affected who I was, my interests. But, the thing that really influenced my decision to get into the culinary arts was spending all of my weeknights and weekend jobs growing up in high school and junior high school in restaurants. Those experiences really intrigued me and I enjoyed that a lot. The summers working at my family farm and working with my hands influenced me as well.
MoL: Did you think about pursuing anything else after working in the restaurants, or were the culinary arts always something that you wanted to do?
ZF: It wasn’t too straightforward. I certainly had my head going into college that I would be in some sort of business or food related business. I had a sense that I wanted to be in business. I had always had an entrepreneurial streak, and I wanted to work for myself. So, I started out in business school and then switched over to food service management at the University of Montana.
Making the honey at Bee Raw.
Making the honey at Bee Raw.
MoL: How would you describe your education at the University of Montana and at the Hotel School of Grenoble? Was that a smooth transition from Montana to Grenoble, France after you started pursuing that culinary degree, or did you take time between the two schools?
ZF: I went to the school of Grenoble, more or less directly, from the University of Montana. The University of Montana was food service management with a special focus in culinary arts and then, the Hotel School of Grenoble was more of a stage/internship than it was full-on culinary school. I really only spent three to six months there. When I was leaving the University of Montana, I went to visit a family friend in Seattle who was a chef. He probably opened the first French restaurant in Seattle and is a really amazing guy. He had several restaurants around Seattle that were quite well known, and I said “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I want to be a chef, I want to know what my next steps are. I’m not going to stay in Montana.” He said, “I think you’re crazy if you want to be a chef. It’s a terrible life. It’s the worst thing that you could possibly do. But if you’re going to do it, then you need to go to France. My brother is the director of the Hotel School of Grenoble in France, and you’ll stay at my house. You should learn French. There’s a French school down the street. You’ll eat wonderful foie gras and truffles and then go to the Hotel School of Grenoble and they will teach you how to cook and then you will have a stage.” And so that’s what I did. I spent three months in his house in Rouen, and went to a French language school there. It was immersive, and I learned French and then I transferred to the Hotel School of Grenoble. I spent about three to six months in Grenoble, and then they sent me out on a stage, and then I and worked for a 1 Michelin star restaurant outside of Lyon for about six months, which was really amazing. I was then sent on a summer stage in Monaco. In Monaco, I worked for this kind of beach club, beachfront hotel. It was very high end, but touristy. The restaurant served very basic French classics. We served salade niçoise, sole manière and chicken guillard and very basic things, which were nice to cook but it wasn’t what I was really there for. I lived in a dormitory and my next-door neighbor worked for Alain Ducasse at Louis XV. My neighbor said that I had to try to get to Louis XV. That’s what I was really there for. He put in a word and saw if I could get an interview.  So, I went and interviewed with Ducasse. At that point, I guess my French was good enough and I had had enough experience and that for whatever reason, he hired me. I spent about a year working with his team, which was really amazing. So, it wasn’t exactly straightforward, but at that age, I was adventurous.
MoL: What was it like working with Ducasse? What were the most important lessons that you learned from him?
ZF: There were two things that really came out of Ducasse. One was just a tireless search for quality of ingredients and building from that quality. That’s where the connection of my family farm really started making sense to me. There was one life lesson that I always remember from my mom when I was going to look for a job in college. I had worked in pretty decent restaurants in high school. I wanted to get a different job waiting tables and I thought “maybe, Olive Garden?” And my mom said, “Why would you do that? If you’re going to go wait tables, go find the best restaurant and get a job there at the bottom. Don’t start as a waiter at Olive Garden. Start on the bottom rung at the best possible restaurant.” That was a smart thing to say, and that’s what I did. I found the best restaurant I could find. I started as a food runner, as opposed to a waiter, but then I worked my way up as a waiter, and that was really positive. That kind of always stuck with me. The quality of the produce on the farm, that freshness, really started making sense, how precious that was from a culinary standpoint.
MoL: Did you realize the importance of quality ingredients before working for Ducasse, or was it through working for him that you truly realized the value?
ZF: I don’t think I realized the value. I mean I certainly knew it. I knew it when I spent summers in Montana and going back home and spending summers on the farm. I wouldn’t buy corn at the grocery store. I knew that it wasn’t any good. I recognized it, but I certainly didn’t understand what the difference was until I really worked with somebody who cared about the quality. I feel like today, all of those things are kind of expected, that’s the way it is. But 20 years ago, people did not care about quality as much as they do today.
MoL: When did you decide to return to America? How soon after that did you decide to work as a buyer for Dean & Deluca?
ZF: It was pretty quick. I worked for Ducasse for about a year, and when I was kind of getting ready to go, I spent some time with the chef. We talked about what my next steps were. He really thought that New York was the best possible destination. All the best restaurants were there. So, I came to New York and worked in several restaurants. Daniel Boulud is what really felt the most like the Ducasse experience. I spent about a year with Boulud, but it probably wasn’t the best suited for me. It just so happened that when I was in culinary school that I fell in love with cooking. I think that clouded my judgment to an extent in terms of what my goal was. I probably shouldn’t have focused on cooking, but it served me really well. And it was at that time that I decided to leave Boulud. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do yet, but I found my way to Dean & Deluca and thought that being a buyer would employ my international skills, my language skills and my depth of knowledge in terms of ingredients well in that kind of job. Now, I’ve lived in New York for about 20 years.
MoL: How long did you work for Dean & Deluca? When you discovered Beehive products (what would become Bee Raw), what drew you to the company?
ZF: I was with Dean & Deluca for about five years, and then BeeHive came around. Jan Decker, the founder, was a really great person. She came into Dean & Deluca one day. She had these vials of honey, and I met with her. Jan had this beautiful vision to have a product but it wasn’t really complete yet. It was this really pretty honey in these vials but she hadn’t developed the packaging or the finished product, which is pretty much what it is today. Dean & Deluca became her first customer, and that was our relationship for the first several years. I think that she had a fair amount of success in the beginning, but she really wasn’t a business person or manager. She hired managers  but she just really wasn’t successful with it. Eventually, I left Dean & Deluca and became a brand manager for an olive oil company. I moved to Italy for a while, and she was traveling and happened to come and visit me. She told me that she was trying to sell the company. I said, “Oh that’s too bad. I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Good luck.” One year later, I left that job, came back to the states, and got in touch with her to say hello. She was literally in the process of shutting the company down, and I hadn’t figured out what my next thing was. I said “Well look. Why don’t you let me take over the company?” I took over a majority share of the company, and she took a minority share. That was 15 years ago. And that was the beginning of what really became Bee Raw, my baby.
MoL: What differentiates Bee Raw from other honey companies?
ZF: For one, the large majority of honey that is sold and consumed, especially in the United States, is imported from outside of the United States. It is highly processed and heated to a really high temperature to microfilter it so it won’t crystallize. It becomes a product that is basically a honey flavored syrup. It’s not really honey anymore because it’s stripped of all the things that make it unique: the color and the flavor. These kinds of honey are then blended with honey that is similar in color to try to get that golden, amber, clear honey, that everyone thinks is honey. That’s the first thing that differentiates us. We work with small family owned apiaries around the country who have very unique honey. The honeys they produce are what we call single floral-source honey, or single-varietal honey. Hives are placed in the middle of single flowering plant field like a wild raspberry patch, an orange grove, or a buckwheat field. Because bees do not stray too far from their hive they are collecting nectar from that single flower source. It changes everything. It changes the color, it changes the flavor, it changes the texture. After that, we don’t do anything. We strain it to make sure there aren’t any big chunks of wax or bee parts in the honey, and we put it in a jar; it’s what we call completely raw, and unprocessed. We have one of the largest arrays of single floral-sourced honey in the United States. Most of the beekeepers we partner with have been with us from the start. We work with our beekeepers on finding really good, non-GMO, organic, floral sources. Through these practices, we are always getting the best quality product possible.
MoL: Where are the farmers located?
ZF: All around the country. Wherever we have a specific floral source, wherever we find that specific floral source, we have beekeepers. We have wild raspberry and blueberries from Maine. We have orange blossoms from Florida and buckwheat from Washington State. For the farmers, it really all depends on where the floral source grows. I actually became very close with Lincoln Sennet, who is the Master Beekeeper at Swan’s Farm in Albion, ME where we source our blueberry honey. I went up there with my family to meet the farmers in person and try their product and I remember being super impressed by Lincoln’s knowledge of the local flora and awed by the beauty of the Down East region of Maine – the blueberry fields spilling into the sea. It’s really important for us to know where our honey is coming from in a much more intimate way than I think most other honey purveyors do.
Italian honey bees at Bee Raw.
Italian honey bees at Bee Raw.
MoL: Do you have your own farm/hives?
ZF: We have offices in an area of Brooklyn called Industry City, and we have hives on our rooftop here. The bees use Greenwood Cemetery to pollinate and harvest nectar. Those hives are more for pleasure and interest than for production, but we’re trying to grow the number of hives so that we can have our own Brooklyn Industry City honey as well.
MoL: How do you incorporate sustainability into the company?
ZF: We take sustainability very seriously. All of our glass and packaging is post-consumer packaging, meaning that it’s all been recycled or upcycled. We do not use any plastic at all. What appears to be plastic labeling on our glass jars is actually a label fired onto the glass. All of our cardboard packaging is post-consumer and recyclable. Our shipping materials are modular and made out of recycled cardboard so our jars fit perfectly in the slot. Popcorn and Styrofoam peanuts also do not go into our shipping materials. We hold our farmers we partner with to the same standard we set for ourselves. It is so important to take care of our planet and bee population. Without them there would be no Bee Raw. Bees are responsible for pollinating about one-third of our food. Without that pollination, our food would be much rarer. Imagine not having foods like strawberries, and broccoli, and peppers and oranges. Just a great number of foods would be either nonexistent, or harder to cultivate.
MoL: What are the health benefits of honey, if any?
ZF: I’m very reticent to talk about health benefits with honey. At the end of the day, it’s sugar. It’s better than non-refined sugar like any sweetener or agave or other forms of sugar. It has the lowest glycemic value, meaning that it has the longest duration of energy so you can avoid spikes of energy. You get much more of a long-lasting energy, which is good. You’re going to get healthier eating honey instead of refined sugar. Additionally, honey has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties, which often help with sickness and sore throats. Honey contains trace amounts of flower pollen and repeated exposure to small amounts of allergens can actually help with allergies. It’s also full of antioxidants which is great for skincare! I know people who apply raw honey straight to their face to moisturize and soothe the skin. This is one of the reasons why I really wanted to explore the beauty line more and grow Bee Raw Body.
MoL: What is the Bee Raw Save the Bees Fund? What is its mission? In what way does Bee Raw save the bees?
ZF: Our mission is to collect money for our fund which we then use to fund research. We partner with institutions like UC Berkeley or the Xerces Society who are really focused on bee health and pollinators. We use the Save the Bees Fund as a way to tap into our customers and gain donations that we then in turn use to donate to entities. We also donate to botanical gardens and other small entities that are doing beneficial work for pollinators.
MoL: How can people help to save the bees in their daily lives?
ZF: The reality is that the majority of bees aren’t in our backyards. People keep bees sometimes, but there aren’t many bees in people’s neighborhoods. Bees are kept in an agricultural area. The thing people can do is support organic agriculture. It’s important. Support companies like Bee Raw who really focus on sustainable production and beekeeping. Keeping bees yourself is certainly not a bad thing do, but that’s out of the realm that most people would be willing to do. I think supporting local and organic agriculture probably is the best thing that people could do. Another small way you can help is by planting bee-friendly flowers in your garden. We sell Good Bug Bloom and Eastern Pollinator seed packets that attract and sustain bees and other pollinators.
MoL: What are the most rewarding aspects about your work? What do you find most fulfilling about Bee Raw?
ZF: There’s a lot. Certainly, what we do for beekeepers is really important to me, and I do find that rewarding. I think the most rewarding thing about it is when I talk to customers and they taste our honey for the first time – the absolute delight people get in tasting quality, raw, floral-sourced honey and understanding the difference between what honey bear honey is, which most people are accustomed to, and what real raw, varietal honey is. There’s just so much joy that I get to experience in those first couple of moments.
MoL: Is there something that you wish you would have known when you started Bee Raw? What is a piece of advice you would give yourself?
ZF: From my 15 year ago self to now, money and profitability have far more importance in my life, and I’m a lot more responsible today than I was 15 ago. If I were to counsel myself by then, I would have said, “really think about the growth potential and potential profitability of your company over time and what that can look like, and how much can that provide.” Because in the long term, that’s going to be more important in 15 years than it might be today. Think about the business and what is long-term potential, how you’re going to make that leap, how you’re going to grow to that next stage. It’s something for people to think about when they’re starting a business.
MoL: How do you make time for life outside of work? What do you like to do in your free time? How do you live the life that you’re creating for others? Do you buy organic, sustainable products?
ZF: I buy almost exclusively organic and non-GMO products. I cook a great deal, probably more now than when I did when I was a chef. I eat pretty cleanly, so I definitely walk the walk from that point of view. In terms of the other stuff I do, I have a streak of design interest. Over the past 10 years, I’ve restored a couple of houses on the Jersey Shore that were old, Cape Cods. I also am a martial artist. I practice Brazilian jiu-jitsu and types of boxing.
Bees raised at Bee Raw.
Bees raised at Bee Raw.
MoL: I love the diverse interests that you have.
ZF: I think that as a business owner it’s really important. You get so engrossed in your business and that really takes over your life. You have to have some kind of diverse interests to keep yourself sane. In the first several years of my business, I wasn’t able to have a mental fortitude to find that time. Now, I force myself to find the time.
MoL: Do you have favorite honey that you sell?
ZF: I like to say that they’re all my children, so it’s not fair to pick a favorite, but I still have a favorite. I think North Carolina Sourwood is probably my favorite. It has a really super interesting taste like roses and begonias, and then this really deep, brown butter flavor. It’s also very rare. It’s grown in the Appalachians, and the bees don’t always fly when the weather’s bad, so you don’t always get a production of it. It’s just a really interesting, rare honey.
MoL: Do you have a favorite recipe, or favorite thing to cook?
ZF: One of the funny things is that I’m not a recipe person. I do cook a lot, and I cook certain things often. I don’t have a recipe for any one thing, and I probably never make the same thing the same way twice. That’s just one of the things that comes from focusing on technique and the quality of ingredients. I think that if you learn techniques, get really masterful at a technique, and you buy good ingredients, then no matter what, you’re going to end up with a good recipe. I guess my favorite technique is probably braising. I like any kind of meat or vegetable that braises well. The ingredients that go well with braised dishes are less expensive and you can bring out  interesting flavors.
Photography courtesy of Bee Raw

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