The Bee Charmer
Talented Sean O’Keefe’s events raise awareness too sweet to resist
written by ERIN GREER
photography courtesy of SEAN O’KEEFE EVENTS
In the minute and 42 seconds I’d been on the phone with Sean O’Keefe of Sean O’Keefe Events, I’d learned that the Canadian-born, once-Hollywood-chef-to-the-stars had three wire-haired dachshunds (Justice, Dexter and Mr. Butters) nipping at his heels and 400 yellow roses and 700 hydrangeas in his home studio, the latter of which still needed to be spray-painted teal for the weekend’s gala.
“It’s the ovarian cancer survivor remembrance color,” he said. “Teal, yellow and bright green…should be lovely.”
I was attempting to process these revelations – and take copious notes – when he sprung the bees on me.
“Yes, I raise honey bees. I have a hive with about 100,000 or so bees in my yard,” he somehow managed to say into the receiver from beneath his very literal bee bonnet.
THE BLACK TIE BEEKEEPER
Perhaps it’s appropriate that my first encounter with O’Keefe began with the industrious insect, for, if the phrase “busy as a bee” ever applied to anyone, it would most certainly be the Black Tie Beekeeper, whose talents in food, fl oral and design are proving honey-sweet for local charities like the Georgia Ovarian Cancer Alliance (GOCA), which credits O’Keefe with its now-signature annual event, the Shaken, Not Stirred Gala. (The spray-painted hydrangeas were a hit, by the way.)
Signature events for charities have become something of a trademark for O’Keefe as well. To date, he has designed events for the GOCA, the Child Development Association (CDA), the Youth Villages Inner Harbour Campus, Operation P.E.A.C.E., Cure Childhood Cancer and Georgia Lawyers for the Arts, among others. The events, O’Keefe said, raise more than money for these charities – they raise awareness. That awareness is the first step in making a positive difference in the lives of others.
At his core, O’Keefe is a caretaker. He does not tell me this, and he doesn’t have to.
“Creating [Sean O’Keefe Events] around the nonprofit community put me into contact with the most amazing people who had all gathered to help other people. And the situations I found myself in – be they classes of children or children’s equestrian therapy programs or working with inner city youth or on environmental issues or within the cancer survivor community – that’s humbled me. And there’s happiness in humility I think,” he said.
At his core, O’Keefe is a caretaker. He does not tell me this, and he doesn’t have to. As he prepared breakfast for the two of us – French pressed coffee, peppered applewood smoked bacon, fresh berries, “toad-in-the-hole” (fried egg in toast) and peppered roasted tomatoes with olive oil and finished with champagne vinegar and parsley – he took multiple breaks to make sure Justice (who was once paralyzed but whom O’Keefe nursed back to health), Dexter (“an unwanted pregnancy”) and Mr. Butters (abandoned in a Delta hangar) were peaceful and well. He separated out their daily medications. He told me the tomatoes from the garden will be delicious this year. He credited the bees. When and if he does speak about himself, it is always with reverence to the contributions of others.
It’s a trait his charity partners have also noticed.
GOCA Executive Director Doug Barron, who met O’Keefe through a mutual contact five years ago, said his greatest strength lies in his ability to unite others around a common cause.
“He gets vendors to buy in and truly become partners with the organization,” Barron said. “When he works an event, he is an extension of that organization. He’s not just a vendor. He takes pride in becoming involved in the organization and wanting them to succeed.”
Barron said it’s O’Keefe’s personal dedication to the charity’s mission, which has grown the Shaken, Not Stirred Gala from 400 people in its first year to 660-plus in its fifth year. Donna Smythe, executive director of the CDA, met O’Keefe by fortuitous happenstance. A Kentucky native, she was missing her precious Derby and wanted to stage one for the CDA. She traveled to local farms to find the perfect venue, but what she found was the perfect partner. O’Keefe, who has a lifelong love of horses, had just moved to Georgia and was working on the farm.
“We hit it off instantly,” Smythe recalled. “He has an infectious spirit. He’s a quirky, innovative thinker. There is nothing that cannot be accomplished. There is nothing that will not be spectacular. He just sweeps people up in his vision. As he paints a picture of what an event can be, it’s irresistible.”
That same irresistible vision translated into irresistible reality; the CDA Down Home Derby is now in its seventh year and has become, like so many of O’Keefe’s signatures, a must-attend event.
O’Keefe is the consummate host and has become a local celebrity. In the last year, he has appeared on 11Alive, CBS and The Weather Channel. The exposure – and the path that led to it – remains a source of wonderment and humility for O’Keefe, who grew up fishing, jigging for cod and snaring rabbits with his grandfather in St. John’s Newfoundland.
“My earliest memories are [at ages] 3 and 4, being with my grandfather and being left at the pot to stir the jam for an hour,” O’Keefe recalled. “I think he thought it was a punishment, but I loved it.”
It was his grandfather that taught him to grow potatoes and to skin a bird. Cooking became perhaps O’Keefe’s first passion; it’s the one that led him to Toronto where he opened his first business, HouseHusband, an in-home food preparation service based on dietary request. It’s the one that took him to Hollywood to serve as personal chef to the industry elite. And it’s the one he sees paving the way for his next ventures.
“The only difference between me and Martha Stewart is a bad wig, a jail sentence and a sex change. And I can get all of those in Atlanta.” – SEAN O’KEEFE
“There’s something very special about being in the kitchen. The kitchen has always been a place of refuge for me. It’s a place I can go and get lost in a soup or stew. It becomes a healing time,” he said, noting that, while Sean O’Keefe Events allows him to manage what comes from the kitchen, he doesn’t have the hands-on opportunities that being a chef provided. “I think I need to do that – get my hands back into the culinary world,” he said.
That start may come in the next few weeks, when O’Keefe gets his hands back in the dirt, growing his own tomatoes, onions, potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, ghost chilis, eggplant, jalapeños, cucumber, herbs and red, orange and green peppers in his garden. He also grows watermelon, various lettuces and sundries other veggies. He uses his figs to make gifts for clients and friends.
“I jam. I can. I make booze,” he laughed, showing me a mason jar of golden amber liquid mixed with figs. “Well, to be fair,” he admitted, “I infuse spirits.”
Signature events and signature cocktails – O’Keefe endorses and provides both. And perhaps the only thing more intoxicating than his fig bourbon is his personality. O’Keefe is a beautiful mix of humility, humor and charm: “The only difference between me and Martha Stewart is a bad wig, a jail sentence and a sex change. And I can get all of those in Atlanta,” he joked.
I nearly choked on my toad-in-the-hole.
SWEETER THAN HONEY
To date, O’Keefe estimated his events have raised more than $8 million for local charities, and, while he isn’t one to think about “legacy” per se, he very much wants to continue to make a positive difference. “I’m not worried about what I will be remembered for or if I will be remembered. I just know that people see what I’m doing right now and want to join me. I want to see immediate things, like I smile and someone smiles back. That’s not legacy stuff, but boy that’s important,” he said.
“Moving to Georgia changed me in very many ways. Most importantly, I began to do my work not for the very few but for the very many. The joy that this has brought me has been most humbling … Knowing that I have created for myself a peace of mind because of my charity work makes me happy. Composting makes me happy. Putting my hands in dirt makes me happy. The honeybees make me happy,” he said.
We both finished our coffee. He moved to take my breakfast dishes, and I refused. What followed was a heated exchange of attempting to “out-nice” each other: me attempting to “sing for my supper,” he insisting that he’ll allow me to mop the floors on the next visit but that this visit I should sit myself right back down. It was so very…Sean O’Keefe. Not just “do unto others,” but “do unto others without expectation.”
“Imagine a world where everyone could do for others without expectation of recognition,” he mused from the den, where he once again checked on the dogs. “My current project, Sound No Trumpet, is a way for a few to change the world – one unnoticed good deed after another. Doesn’t that sound just wonderful?,” he beamed.
Breakfast finished, we prepared to tour the gardens and talk returned to the bees. As with the many animals and people in his life, O’Keefe described his relationship with the bees as one of mutual respect and care.
“There is a sense of stewardship here that is beyond words,” O’Keefe said, noting that he will soon be able to “split the hive” and “double [his] efforts.”
He donned his English beekeeping suit with the ventilated sides – “you can tell it’s English and not American because it provides 360 degrees of visibility” – and schooled me on queen’s cells (he has one!) and his routine of nursing the bees on sugar water until the flowers come in.
True-to-humble-form, he credited his fig tree for the bee’s distinct flavor of honey and the bees themselves for the prolific output of his garden. 2015 is going to be a bountiful year. “There will be so much honey; I can’t wait,” he said.