The Bee's Knees Welcomes All Who Must Be Careful of What They Eat
Cooking with Empathy
Amy Olexa-Hammer has watched other chefs cringe and listened to them swear when handed a business-style card proclaiming “I Have a Food Allergy” and listing foods a customer can’t eat.
Since opening The Bee’s Knees in West Amwell last spring, Olexa-Hammer has sworn never to become that kind of chef. Her mission is to satisfy hunger without harm. She welcomes anyone with food allergies or sensitivities with the assurance that, yes, she will accommodate all requests as best she can.
“I want people to come here and feel free to ask me anything,” she says.
Olexa-Hammer’s epiphany began two years ago, when she was diagnosed with not one but five food allergies: wheat, soy, corn, peanuts and spinach. “I’d had stomach problems since high school,” she says, “and nobody thought anything about it.”
She had been a vegetarian for 21 years and was eating plenty of peanuts and tofu, which likely were prime culprits. That ended after her allergies were diagnosed. In order to eat enough protein, she gradually added fish, meat and poultry back into her diet while eliminating her five problem foods.
The difference was immediate and dramatic. “It changed my life,” she says. “I changed my diet and felt better and better.”
She also learned quickly what it was like to enter a restaurant and tell a server about her food limitations. She understands when her customers tell her they are afraid to go out to eat because they know they are going to get sick, and that many restaurants are reluctant to help them.
Customer Susanne Greczylo knows all about the difficulties of eating out when you have food limitations. “I have an autoimmune disorder that forces me to avoid gluten,” she says; more often than not, she orders salads when she goes out to eat.
At The Bee’s Knees, Greczylo was delighted to find not only her first gluten-free black-bean burger, but homemade gluten-free buns. “They went out of their way to accommodate me,” she says, and even sold her some buns to take home. On a return visit, Greczylo sampled Olexa-Hammer’s gluten-free pancakes, a treat she rarely has the opportunity to enjoy. On other visits, when she isn’t sure what she wants to order, the chef has been happy to suggest items from the menu. In addition to gladly accommodating those with food restrictions, Olexa- Hammer strives to serve the highest-quality and most sustainably produced meals possible, a mission she declares publicly: a sign outside the restaurant reads “Responsible Food.” Her dishes contain no genetically modified ingredients. Most of the ingredients she uses are organic and come from local and regional farms, and she meets with each farmer before deciding to purchase their products.
“I visited farms to check on how the animals were cared for,” she says, adding that stopping by farms to pick up ingredients is still one of her favorite things to do.
Her yogurt and ricotta come from nearby Fulper Farms; her potato pancakes and French fries are made using locally harvested potatoes; the eggs for her eggs Benedict come from five miles away. She uses brie from Cherry Grove Farm in Lawrenceville and serves pulled-pork sandwiches slow-roasted in Weyerbacher beer from Easton, Pennsylvania. Olexa-Hammer is equally diligent about her customers’ allergies.
Her kitchen has two sets of cookware: one for traditional foods and the other for customers with food allergies. She has separate work surfaces to help ensure there is no cross-contamination and has educated her staff on the potential for problems if the pans were mixed up. Pizza is made away from the main cooking area so that no flour accidently touches a gluten-free meal.
When a customer gives a server at The Bee’s Knees an allergy card, the staffer is instructed to bring it directly to Olexa-Hammer so she can make sure that all problem foods are avoided. “I love the allergy cards,” she says of the small, personalized cards that are easily ordered online and popular among those who must frequently outline their restrictions. She also enjoys the challenge of making her customers happy with food.
Olexa-Hammer’s repertoire of dishes is a work in progress. She offers plenty of traditionally baked items, including artisanal pizzas, sourdough bread and brioches, wheat rolls and pancakes made with wheat flour. She always has a variety of gluten-free options as well, including sandwich rolls and desserts made on the premises.
The salads, soups, sandwiches, pizzas and breakfast dishes on her menu have been developed through trial and error. She painstakingly tests each dish, working out ways to remove ingredients on request. Perhaps most crucially, everything Olexa-Hammer serves is made from scratch.
“Nothing here is processed food, which makes it easier to accommodate people’s needs,” she says.
The Bee’s Knees serves breakfast and lunch most days, and is open until 8pm Fridays and Saturdays. The menu is casual, seasonal and always changing.
If you visit, you will find Olexa-Hammer in her open kitchen, satisfying each customer with food she knows is good for them. “I’m glad to be doing something that feels good inside,” she says.
The Bee’s Knees
1326 Route 179, Lambertville