Tucked away in rural Earlton, N.Y., about 150 miles from New York City, is one of the hottest restaurant tickets around:
Guests come from around the world to pay about $300 for dinner, and that doesn’t even include the wine.
But it does include all the acorns, pine needles and weeds you can eat.
“Every vinegar, every cheese, every cured meat I create from ingredients on the property. It’s just a way of life.”
- Damon Baehrel
Only you’ll have to be patient. Right now, the waiting list to enjoy a four-hour, 19-course meal in the basement of Baehrel’s home is a mere 10 years.
“We’ve always been low key and I’ve never sought out publicity,” says Baehrel, who who didn’t go to culinary school and is self-taught. “But we’ve had dining guests who are advocates. They tell other guests who tell other guests, and it’s just been this constant growing list.”
Baehrel’s cuisine, which he calls “Native Harvest,” is hardly a conventional one. Every ingredient he serves he grows or forages himself from his 12-acre property. If he doesn’t grow it, it doesn’t make it onto his plate. The only things he buys are meat from a farmer down the street, seafood and salt.
He says that he makes every vinegar and cheese, and cures all meat himself, which is created from ingredients on his property.
Baehrel is tight-lipped about the celebrities who have dined at his eponymous eatery, though there are reports that they’ve included Jerry Seinfeld, Martha Stewart and President Obama. Baehrel simply maintains that he treats every patron like a VIP.
“They do a lot of research before they come. And after they do that, they realize there is nothing quite like it anywhere in the world,” he says.
“There’s no one making cattail flour or pressing oil out of acorns. So they are really curious about what they are experiencing.”
Dinners lasts four hours because, in addition to having 19 courses, the chef seats just 16 guests at time. And Baehrel does everything himself from start to finish. He not only cooks and serves each dish, he buses the tables and washes the dishes, too.
“You really have to pay attention to what you are cooking,” he says. “It’s not just a product that came in a box and put a spin on it. You really have to create those components and take them through every stage before you serve them to the guests.”
It can take Baehrel up to a year and a half just to make his ingredients. Take a simple cracker – made with the inner bark of a pine log. He carves the bark off of the tree, removes the inner ring and bleaches and blanches it until it’s ready to be made into flour. Even the water he serves comes from the sap of a sycamore tree.
But what is so remarkable about Baehrel’s cooking is the end product. His plates are carefully constructed, with each component playing off the one before it.
Though Baehrel has been in the business and cooking for more than three decades, he’s created a buzz in the foodie world only over the last few years. In 2013, he was a James Beard nominee for Best Chef: Northeast. (Melissa Kelly, from Primo in Rockland, Maine, won the prize.)
And though he refuses to call himself a celebrity chef, he is being treated like one these days. He’s already turned down offers to star in a reality show and to expand his brand, preferring to do things himself – like writing a book about Native Harvest that’s due next year.
He says he’s happiest on his farm, living in the house he and his wife built by hand – and, of course, spending his days harvesting, cultivating, cooking and serving his unique meals.
“It’s been a lifelong dream to do this with the property,” he says, “and I’m just getting started!”