If you haven’t heard of restaurant Damon Baehrel, you’re not alone. I first learned of it several years ago when doing research on the best places to dine in the Hudson Valley. Although sparse, the reviews were all in utter reverence of Chef/Grower Damon Baehrel and his eponymous restaurant, which is nestled on a quiet road in Earlton, New York. So I couldn’t quite imagine why I had never heard of this hidden gem, which, previously dubbed The Basement Bistro, has been open since 1989. Either this was a scam, or Damon Baehrel is one of the most impressive chefs in the world, among the ranks (and the waitlist) of Noma and the late El Bulli. After a recent visit, I found the latter to be the case.
Early last week, I received an opportune email. An extra weekend seating had been added. Was I available? Despite the tasting menu’s $235 price tag (not including wine), my confirmation did not skip a beat. Two days later I found myself pulling up to a lovely house amid Sagecrest Organic Gardens, and was genially greeted inside by Chef Baehrel himself. I quickly realized that not only was my small group the only diners on the property, but that Baehrel was the only employee. Baehrel himself played the grower, host, waiter, and chef—a lofty accomplishment that could only be achieved by a man who admittedly needs little sleep. Baehrel, who is self-trained and says he hasn’t eaten out for over 10 years, is not inspired by other chefs or by his travels, but instead by nature. His love of the outdoors was evident by the jars of ingredients displayed in his dining room. The presentation of unusual curiosities included green eggplant powder, acorns, hickory nuts, moss, and gem-studded puffball mushrooms from Baehrel’s oak log “yard.” Even the water at our table was not water at all, but instead iced sycamore sap with lemon verbena.
And the food? Chef Baehrel’s autumnal “Native Harvest” menu was heavenly. His lifelong obsession with food and nature pours out of every dish. The plates he served were developed, well-composed, and thought-provoking. The meal consisted of about 14 courses plus several extras, some of which Baehrel had been perfecting for decades and some of which were invented that day. In fact, many of the ingredients were seasonal and picked from his gardens that very morning, while a variety of ingredients had been preserved for years, waiting to be utilized at just the perfect time in their aging process.
One of Baehrel’s new concoctions on the day we visited was a bowl of clams, warm pressed with wild hickory nut oil infused with spruce needles and "cooked" in a sauce made from ostrich ferns and topped with burdock root chips. Later, we sampled a dish that Baehrel has been continually refining: chicken thigh brined in staghorn sumac powder, then cooked in a blend of concentrated sycamore sap and Baehrel’s fresh grapeseed oil, surrounded by a sauce of rutabaga cooked in the soil it was grown in.
Baehrel does not use butter in his dishes, nor does he use flour in his sauces. Instead, his sauces are often thickened with rutabaga. The buttery quality of a mouthwatering lobster dish served was deceivingly cooked instead in white oak acorn oil that was roasted with fresh white oak acorn, giving it a rich flavor.
Inevitably, the process of creating each dish is the daily manifestation of a lifetime dedicated to food, nature, and self-sustainability. Damon Baehrel remains open even through the cold New York winter months, and Chef Baehrel manages to source most ingredients from his own property. To accomplish this, five to seven foot deep cold frames are dug around his property and filled with compost that ferments during the winter, helping to prevent the cold frames from freezing. In the extreme cold, Baehrel utilizes a form of radiant heat from a 10-watt solar panel connected to heating rods in water containers about 4-5 feet underground. Baehrel actually claims that with the sunshine, fermentation, and radiant heat that warms up the cold frames, "winter in Earlton, New York is the best time of year for root vegetables."
Each and every dish we ate that evening told a story. They told a story about Baehrel’s culinary development, a story about the last winter, a story about Baehrel’s growing process, a story about Baehrel’s life dedication. It is rare to truly see a master devote his life to his craft. The real essence of Baehrel’s devotion, however, is not just the food he presents, but also the people to whom he presents it. He has opened up his home and filled it with warmth and cuisine unlike any other I had ever experienced. That evening, Baehrel left us sated with awe and delight, and even gave us a parting gift of plants, goodie baskets of vegetables, and sumptuous bread for the road.
I finally understood why only those who are really looking come upon this restaurant (and wait four years for a table). Baehrel simply cares more about the food he serves than the press he receives. Though he has been offered book and television deals in the past, he has focused his energy on doing what he loves: growing, cooking, and hosting the thousands of diners that come from around the world to enjoy the culinary experience of a lifetime in Chef Damon Baehrel’s care.