Only on RCL: Chef Damon Baehrel Discusses His Restaurant, New Book, and ‘Native Harvest’ Ethos
Confession: I did the telephone and internet equivalent of digging through chef Damon Baehrel’s trash to get ahold of him. At the end of the day, that’s what a reporter does—digs, digs, digs—but it was particularly difficult to track down the man behind what many reputable magazines and websites have been calling America’s (if not the world’s) most exclusive restaurant.
The reason? He has no home phone or smartphone. And because his restaurant is in his house’s basement, the same phone quandary also exists there. He also rarely uses his computer. Which means he rarely uses email. He describes himself as a recluse.
How do I know all this? Because after leaving a phone message on a dummy restaurant service line—whose recording explicitly told me not to leave a message—and then having a back-and-forth with an anonymous publicist-type over the internet, Baehrel and I finally hooked up over email. He told me it was difficult to keep up with all his electronic messages, but he’d try to fit me in for an interview. That was Tuesday, November 15, at about 9 a.m. And by about 7 p.m. that same day, we had a date set: Friday, November 18, at 10:30 a.m. (There’s a reason I’m being so specific; it’ll become clearer shortly.)
Before I even tell you about my in-person meeting with Baehrel (pronounced BUR-ell, for those keeping count), it’s worth describing the area where his secluded restaurant, simply called Damon Baehrel, is located. Earlton, New York, is about 40 minutes south of Albany. The 10-minute drive from the State Thruway exit to the restaurant is a mishmash of gas stations, office parks, towny restaurants, and farmland. On the way to the restaurant’s front gate, I saw at least one “Farm for Sale” sign.
In short, the restaurant is about as far from New York City as you can get, culturally speaking. Skyscrapers, subways, and traffic gluts are a fantasy that people here only see in Law & Order: SVU reruns. This isn’t Westchester County. This is the real upstate New York.
The only landmark for the restaurant is a wooden sign outside it. (When I later asked Baehrel whether clients from afar ever got lost on the way to his place, he chuckled and said, “A few times.”)
So I showed up about 15 minutes early. (Can you blame me? I was more than a little excited to meet the man behind the curtain.) To pass the time, I shot a little iPhone video. And I waited. And waited. I had read elsewhere that the gates would only open at your exact “reservation” time, so I figured I’d be waiting there until exactly 10:30 a.m.
But at about 10:22 a.m., the gates lazily creaked open, and up I drove the steep asphalt slope to Damon Baehrel (the restaurant and the chef), with little by way of a road map—short of a particularly scathing New Yorker article—to light my way.
Within minutes of parking, out burst Baehrel from his restaurant-basement doors, a bundle of energy, all smiles, offering a handshake, and welcoming me to his property. (It reminded me of how my dog used to greet me when I’d get home to Brooklyn each night, before I became an upstate New York resident.) There was a true lightness in Baehrel’s step—almost a skip—and a genuine, palpable excitement in his voice.
Another confession: I assumed, in landing this in-person interview with Baehrel, that food would not play a role in the morning’s activities. (This had been part of the pre-interview negotiation with the anonymous publicist.)
Why did I assume this? First, this is one of the most exclusive restaurants in the world, with a wait list that snakes as far forward as 2025 (he quotes me guests from 80 different countries on his list at the moment) and a per-person rate of about $300 to $400, not including drinks.
And I was sensitive to that fact. As an independent contractor in the creative arts, your hands are your source of income, and anything you do with them for “free” is ill-advised. This restaurant at least appears to be Baehrel’s single source of income. And I’d never been all that high on the “free meal” aspect of journalism anyway. (It usually comes with strings attached.)
But as soon as I was waved inside the chef’s basement-level restaurant (the upper floors are his actual home, where he lives with his wife and an adult son, who is severely disabled), I could tell something switched on in Baehrel—a different gear.
The room, which seats about 20 (Baehrel told me in an email that he likes to keep it down to fewer than 15 people per night these days), has a decidedly rustic feel to it. It’s along the lines of a restaurant you might find in a national park’s main lodge, with place settings at each table consisting of red glasses and a “plate” made out of a thinly cut circle of actual tree wood. Even the handles of the metal silverware were meant to look like twigs.
Baehrel ushered me in to a corner table and said, “I’ve got a little sap for you to try.” To me, the sap looked (and tasted) a lot like an ice-cold glass of tap water. But according to Baehrel, it was frozen sycamore sap with a floating orb of sycamore-sap ice from earlier in the year. (I could barely make out a piece of greenery trapped inside the ice ball.)
From there, Baehrel regaled me on the process of making a table’s worth of natural ingredients each night—the experience he says he provides for guests when they first arrive at the restaurant. “I always try to have a table set up with a display of the ingredients that I’m utilizing,” he told me. “It changes every day, really.”
Baehrel is as interested in the total dining experience as he is the cooking of the food. At every point of my visit, he went out of his way to make me feel at ease and explain each aspect of the process.
“It’s about the guests,” Baehrel explained. “That’s what I try to tell folks like you. This isn’t about me. When they come, they know they’re going to get 150 percent of me like it’s the last time I’m ever going to see them.”(Which, given the length of the wait list, is likely true.)
He told me I have the same glint in my eye that his guests do when they arrive. “It’s like, ‘What are we doing in this guy’s basement?'” he half-joked.
The table to the right of where I was sitting was stacked high with ingredients Baehrel said he’ll be using to cook the evening’s 13 guests a 23-course meal: pine tree flour (which takes about a year and a half to produce, start to finish); stag’s horn sumach (which can be used to make lemonade); cattails (which he also turns into flour); eight types of tree sap (he uses many of the cured saps as a sugar replacement, as he doesn’t cook with sugar); acorns (for oil and flour); pine needles (juice and powder); wood ear mushrooms (self-foraged); various types of hand-pressed oils; and other jarred delicacies
It looked a lot like what I’d imagine a mad vegan scientist’s desk might resemble. (Baehrel is not a vegan or vegetarian himself, but said he does cater to patrons with specific dietary restrictions.)
Actually serving food to patrons is “the final stage of a long, ongoing process that I don’t think of as work,” he told me. “This is how I live my life.”
Baehrel’s restaurant opened in 1989, sprouting out of a successful catering business, Sagecrest Catering, that he and his wife ran from ’86 to ’07. (Baehrel grew up in Massapequa, Long Island, but spent time with his family in the Earlton area when he was growing up, which is how he ended up here.)
He and his wife bought six of the 12 acres of property their restaurant-house sits on in ’85, believing it to be the place where they’d build their first home and settle. (They moved in a week after they got married, and the windows weren’t even in yet.) At the time, besides being an upstart chef, Baehrel was a motocross racer and played in a rock band. But a year later, he had a major epiphany, he said:
“That everything I needed would be here on this property. It was just overwhelming to realize, because conventional wisdom would tell you, back then, if you’re a cook or a chef, you’d want to be in a great location and have nice suppliers and a great staff.”
That evolved into an ethos that all of Baehrel’s ingredients (with the exception of the proteins he uses) would be sourced from his land. He refers to the process of making all the oils, flours, and spices as “Native Harvest.”
It just so happens that Baehrel is publishing a book by the same name in January. He told me it’s filled with information about how to create the natural components he cooks with, as well as recipes and guides to practical hobbies like cheese-making. (You can find exclusive excerpts from the book at a link at the bottom of this article.) In line with his DIY ethos, Baehrel wanted to write and photograph the book himself. (Big publishers had contacted him about the concept, he said, but they all wanted to set him up with a writer to write the book with him.)
When the restaurant first opened its doors, the clientele was mostly weekend residents, as Earlton is close to some of the top ski areas in upstate New York like Hunter Mountain and Windham Mountain Resort. The area is also a popular getaway for New York City dwellers. (This includes my wife and me, long before we decided to pack it in and move upstate permanently).
The media coverage of Damon Baehrel (the restaurant) started in earnest about five years ago, he told me. He described it as “scary, to be quite honest with you.” (I’ll return to that soon.)
In showing me the restaurant’s kitchen (there’s a larger test kitchen in the building next door), Baehrel explained that it’s just him in there night after night, plating all the courses he serves his customers. Given that he was serving 13 people the day we spoke, you can understand what a tremendous undertaking something like this could be. (It’s impossible to bring journalists in during the dinner hour to give them experiential access to his process, he told me.)
Despite our no-food pre-interview agreement, though, I ended up receiving a special three “bite”-course meal, which consisted of the following:
Course 1: two pine flour crackers (that took about a year and a half to prepare and consisted of pine flour, wild butter nut oil, duck egg white powder, water, and sea salt), with a silver-grey oyster mushroom and butter-and-oil topping. (He doesn’t cook on conventional pans but stones he picks up from around the property. This stone in particular got up to 515.1 degrees—he showed us the thermometer reading.)
Course 2: a brined salmon wedge, brought to about 85 degrees, in concentrated sycamore sap (which took about 31 days to prepare and has a smoky, sweet, and salty taste to it). This is served in pickerel weed seed paste on a spoon, along with a wild burdock root chip, and seasoned with wild marsh marigold powder.
Course 3: a palate-cleansing “sorbet,” made from frozen sweet stevia herb tea and wild Queen Anne’s Lace root juice (a type of wild carrot found on the side of the road in upstate New York during the fall), then seasoned with a green, onion-flavored lichen powder and sour-flavored moss powder.
It was while that piece of stone from Course No. 1 was heating up ominously on the stove-top behind us that I directed the interview to the giant elephant in the room: the recent New Yorker feature about Baehrel and his restaurant. (Read it here.) In all fairness, the article was an incredibly well-written (and as far as I could tell, thoroughly researched) piece of journalism that has likely gotten Baehrel’s restaurant even more publicity and buzz than he knows what to do with.
If you’ve read the article, you’ll know that it’s above all a great story, as most New Yorker articles are. A Big City reporter contacts this small-town chef, who supposedly has this extremely exclusive restaurant, and the reporter makes his way upstate, only to find that it wasn’t exactly what he thought it would be.
“I can’t say when, exactly, I began to question the myth,” wrote New Yorker staff writer Nick Paumgarten. By the end of the piece, he’d called into question the length and depth of Baehrel’s reservation wait list, his nightly guest totals, his food-growing and food-making operations, portions of his backstory, and even a variety of direct quotes.
At one point, one of Baehrel’s supposed former restaurant employers—a French chef in Glenmont, New York—all but sniveled at Paumgarten about teaching Baehrel how to forage for mushrooms and other “Native Harvest”–esque items. (Baehrel bluntly told me, “This never happened.”) Paumgarten’s conclusion? That Baehrel’s food is pretty damned good, but he doesn’t buy the backstory.
I wanted to hear Baehrel’s response, and this is what he told me: “In the end, [the New Yorker article] was probably the most factually incorrect article that I’ve ever been covered on in my 30 years in business.” He told me more than once that the magazine had the facts verified and chose not to report them in the story. “There’s no credibility. Is it a bias? Is it a personal agenda? Something didn’t make any sense,” said Baehrel.
To be clear: I’m not saying what the The New Yorker wrote was incorrect or reported in an unethical manner. Paumgarten clearly set out to write a feature profile and ended up doing a quasi–investigative journalism piece about a buzzing chef. After running into trouble fact-checking some of what the chef said—this is the most difficult part of our trade as journalists these days—Paumgarten’s b.s. detector (and his editors’ b.s. detectors) started fluctuating wildly.
But if they had such a difficult time believing what was going on at Damon Baehrel, they could’ve easily killed the piece. They didn’t, and this is why: Because no matter how many questions you have about this man and his restaurant—and the inner workings of his one-man kitchen and the production of his ingredients—what you get in the end is something utterly new, enjoyable, and fresh.
The New Yorker, just like any respectable magazine in the Internet Age, knew it had a story that would titillate food lovers the world over and bring themselves a tremendous amount of buzz and clicks in the process. So they ran the piece.
It’s also extremely difficult to compare this one-man back-country show to the glamorous, big-budget restaurants in New York City. Baehrel’s place is open for business in a completely different world, where restaurateurs aren’t in constant fear of rent increases, competition isn’t so cutthroat, and bad reviews carry much less weight. (Go on Damon Baehrel’s Yelp page, and the lone non-five-star review is by a gentleman who readily admits he’s never even eaten there and got sick of waiting for his reservation number to get called).
This isn’t Le Bernardin, Gramercy Tavern, or Per Se. It’s some guy’s basement in the middle of nowhere! He’s not after a Michelin star, nor could he get one, being so far outside of New York City. And this is the most important part: It’s an operation manned by just one guy. He’s the reservation department, the maitre d, the head waiter, the chef, the sous chef, and the dishwasher, all rolled into one.
There’s not enough room in the place for more staff. The wait list is the wait list. If it’s just one guy making the food, day in and day out, it’s his schedule to make. If he doesn’t want to serve anyone until he’s 90 years old, it’s his call.
And though the thought did cross my mind numerous times during the tour—How does he do it all by himself?—I realized it was quite similar to what I do for a living. As a freelance writer, I work with my hands, make a nontraditional living, work from home all day, interact with few people, mostly via email or Slack or Skype. (Luckily, I don’t work out of my basement.)
It’s a reclusive existence, to say the least, one where the response from outsiders is often, “Wow, it must be amazing to be able to work from home!”
Hear this: Working from home is a constant job. You’re never far from your desk, so you never really “leave” work. You might turn off the lights in your office space at the end of the “day,” but it’s always there. And that is what The New Yorker failed to see. You can’t really fact-check a work-from-home business. You can fact-check the guy doing it, but what good does that do you?
But enough about the other guys. My conclusion after my hour-plus-long visit with Damon Baehrel? If he’s faking it, he’s a better magician than Harry Houdini. How does his food rank compared to the best meals I’ve ever eaten (at places like Babbo and Gramercy Tavern)? It’s right up there with the appetizer courses I ate at those restaurants.
Could I have thought this because it was 11 a.m. in the morning and I was getting hungry for lunch? Maybe. But I feel like I’m “expert” enough to be able to sniff out a good meal when I taste one.
Finally, do I think Baehrel’s food production and wait list are b.s.? Is it OK if I say, “Who f—ing cares?” One of the main reasons I left New York City was to trim away all of that type of fat. And by that I mean the ever-increasing rent, the cutthroat competition, the snobbery I encountered everywhere, and the negativity that seems to stem from just about every situation.
If you look at somebody the wrong way, you could find yourself on the ass end of an argument or potential brawl. But most importantly, in New York City there’s a constant need to one-up people. Who cares if I have to wait until 2025 to get a reservation at Damon Baehrel? Just like, Who cares if I never get to eat at Per Se or Daniel? Sorry, New York City, Damon Baehrel is killing it outside your precious bubble, and I think you’re just jealous. Deal with it.
Baehrel’s publisher, Lightbulb Press, told me that the chef’s book is set for bookstores in January (not this month, as it’s being reported elsewhere). And they gave RealClearLife a sneak-peek. Take an exclusive first-look at Native Harvest here. If you want to pre-order it or attempt to make a reservation at some point in the next 10 years at the restaurant, go here.
—Will Levith for RealClearLife
For more of RealClearLife’s “Best of 2016,” click here.