The Beekeeper’s Daughter

With hives or knives, Kimberly McCune has a lot cooking

“Honey is like wine, in that it is a snapshot in time.” So says Chef Kimberly McCune and she would know.

She and I are on our way to Auburn Township, where we’ll walk the family property and snap photos of McCune Family Apiary hives. A small portion of the 75 to 100 hives are situated on family acreage, with the balance scattered throughout Geauga and Ashtabula Counties on leased properties belonging to Amish and other independent farmers, and on the property of Notre Dame Cathedral Latin. These locations are selected for their abundance of desirable pollen sources in fields of wild goldenrod, berry thickets and orchards of apple and pear trees.

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Kimberley is a second-generation beekeeper, and a multigenerational industrious worker. Her grandfather built Chagrin’s Club 13 (now Sun Valley Party Center) as a social hall, which became a family affair. Kimberly’s mother, Karen, bused tables. Her father, Gene tended bar. Kimberly, then 4, and older sister Kate washed dishes and set up baskets of rolls for dinner service. A peek under a table at the end of many a long night could find young Kimberly curled up, fast asleep.

Gene McCune worked in the automotive industry for Cleveland Transmission Supply and, per Kimberly, was a “workaholic.” So much so that Karen urged her husband to please find a hobby—something relaxing, like golf, perhaps? But much in the way that animal lovers subconsciously bring home pets resembling themselves, Gene was attracted to a hobby that mimicked his own hardworking ethic. The day came when he arrived home with five hives of honeybees and a desire to produce honey from their country real estate. One year later, a “Honey for Sale” sign was posted at the end of the driveway and McCune Family Apiary was in business.

Then 6 years old, Kimberly was fascinated by the insects and began helping her father with beekeeping duties. Gene bought her a child’s bee suit, hat and veil, and once appropriately outfitted, she accompanied her father on Saturdays to check on hive production. Using a bee smoker, they would blow gentle puffs of smoke into the hives, lulling the bees into a subdued, trance-like state. Then, with minimum risk, dad and daughter could lift the tops off the hives and check the frames for honey production.

The hives consist of one or more tiers of hive boxes, or “supers,” each containing eight to 10 frames for building comb. Each hive has a top and inner cover, and a bottom board fitted with a hive entrance reducer. The uppermost frames are where the bees build the honey-filled comb, and the bottom is where the hive queen deposits her eggs. There is one queen per hive, identifiable by her longer abdomen.

Kimberly marks her queens with a dot of nail polish. With hive population averaging 65,000, the extravisible indicator is key to easy queen-spotting.

Honey collection begins by pulling the honeycomb-filled frames. The tops of the beeswax caps are sliced off with a hot knife, and the comb, frames and all are dropped into a deep metal extractor. The extractor operates as a centrifuge, spinning the frames free of the sticky and golden fluid of honey, which collects at the bottom of the tank. The McCune Family Apiary honey is a whole food product, bottled raw and unfiltered.

I sample the McCune’s honey and allow it to roll and warm over my tongue and throughout my mouth. It’s lovely honey, with high berry notes coming through with a glowing, full, hygroscopic quality.

Much as an oenophile can detect nuances in wine specific to terroir and climate changes, the same can be applied to honey production, each batch imprinted with its own unique marker in time. Detailed journals are maintained to track weather and other agricultural conditions affecting honey production and flavor. Kimberly feels a fierce connection and commitment to Geauga County, where she was born and raised. Aside from keeping bees, McCune grew up practicing earth-to-table eating by growing, cooking and preserving vegetables with her family. She entered their honey in the Geauga County Fairs, where it brought home many a blue ribbon. By her junior high school year at Kenston, she decided on the culinary arts as her future, and with encouragement from family and community, Kimberly spent her junior and senior years participating in the Auburn Career Center for Culinary Arts.

The center soon had Kimberly competing and winning many culinary competitions, and upon graduation she was awarded a substantial scholarship from the Chagrin Rotary to attend the Culinary Institute of America. Taking advantage of the opportunity, she worked her way through the two-year associate’s degree program, referring to that time as “the best learning experience for classical training I could have had.”

Returning to Cleveland, McCune landed a job as part of the opening crew for the 2003 incarnation of Cleveland’s (now closed) Classics, in the InterContinental Hotel. During that time, she names then-manager and sommelier Manny Nieves as mentor into the exploration of the world of fine wines. A bee was now buzzing in her toque to travel, taste and learn about wines at the source. Full immersion came in the shape of a lengthy stay in Arezzo, Tuscany, and Kimberly went on to add “level two sommelier” to her resume.

Once back home in Cleveland, McCune was ever more determined to drive her career forward, but there was also a romance blossoming on the line between Kimberly and a lovable Moxie chef, Jimmy Gibson. Kimberly married her “love of her life, the greatest,” in a pastoral wedding ceremony last summer. Though Heather continued to find herself in wonderful culinary positions at Red, Luxe Kitchen & Lounge and The Loretta Paganini International Culinary Arts & Sciences Institute, her entrepreneurial fires were burning. Partnering with marketer Ann Larrance, they formed Grassroots LLC with two separate enterprises: Hungry Bee Catering and ReHive Ale.

Hungry Bee is a full-service catering operation, stressing farm-to-plate cooking. In addition to large-scale events, Hungry Bee provides meal delivery packages (Baby on Board, a popular order), and offers “Girls Night Out,” where Chef Kimberly arrives to your home armed with groceries and a cooking experience, whether it be sushi rolling or an appetizer extravaganza for up to eight women. Hungry Bee dazzled a crowd of 200 at last year’s Emerging Chefs Return to Earth dinner, with McCune’s theme of “ReHival,” marking the debut of McCune’s ReHive Ale.

ReHive Ale brewed from Kimberly’s desire to craft a honey-based beer from the McCune’s honey. I sipped on a ReHive expecting something akin to a fizzy mead, but what I drank was crisp and hoppy with citrus notes and honey apparent yet uncloying with a softness belying the 7.9% alcohol content. Boston brewers Sam Adams have taken interest, but locally, look for ReHive to appear on shelves of Heinen’s, Giant Eagle, Miles Market and select restaurants.

Post Script

When I reconnect with Kimberly in late spring I find her busily pursuing her enterprises. She is thrilled with the attention and health that came from being on Food Network’s Fat Chef earlier in the year, and she’s continuing a regimen to reach her goal weight. Hungry Bee has exploded—so much that she has rented a commercial kitchen to accommodate the influx of catering and her latest “Dinner in a Bag” delivery option and the McCune hives are in full honey production.