As the legend of hermit chef Damon Baehrel goes, his upstate New York restaurant is the world’s most exclusive dining room (reservations are said to be booked out for a decade), nearly everything he serves is from his own property, and his idiosyncratic “Native Harvest” cuisine is the product of something like divine inspiration. The mystique surrounding Baehrel has grown in recent years, as the dining world, increasingly aware of farm-to-table myth-making, has became fascinated with the man making acorn and cedar flour in the woods for his impossible-to-get-into restaurant. For well-heeled restaurantgoers who prize exclusivity over all else, it’s become the place to dine.
According to Baehrel, his restaurant serves thousands of people a year, is booked through 2025, and has been visited by the likes of Rene Redzepi and Aziz Ansari. As is often the case in the food world, the story may be too good to be true. In the latest issue of The New Yorker, writer Nick Paumgarten set out to dine at and learn about the restaurant – only to find that not everything is as it seems. Both Ansari and Redzepi insist they’ve never been; Baehrel refuses to disclose his suppliers; and Paumgarten becomes suspicious of just how many people the restaurant even serves. The entire story is truly fascinating. And there are some great takeaways.
1. Baehrel claims to have invented his style of hyper-local cooking — which he dubs “Native Harvest” — after casually realizing everything he needed to cook was growing on his property. Then he didn’t sleep for three days straight. These moments of inspiration happen regularly: One time, he says, it occurred to him that pine needles make the soil sour, and he could use their acidic properties – via pine-needle juice, powder, and pulp – to cure meats.
2. Baehrel’s claims that he’s completely self-taught ring false. Paumgarten tracks down at least one restaurant where Baehrel worked in the past: a French bistro near Albany called Chez René. The former owner, René Facchetti, says he was the one who taught Baehrel to forage in the woods for chanterelles and other wild goodies. Baehrel, as Fachetti’s wife, Corrine, points out, has never acknowledged this.
3. Redzepi and Ansari aren’t the only influential people Baehrel claims to have hosted at his restaurant who deny ever going there. After Albany Times-Union columnist Steve Barnes published news, via Baehrel, that an official had inquired about the Obamas dining there, the White House communications office denied that claim as well.
4. Aside from special seatings, most of Baehrel’s diners may or may not be phantoms. Despite trying for several months, Paumgarten fails to track down a single diner who has been to Damon Baehrel for a conventional meal. Everyone he finds instead arranged a “special seating.” Paumgarten also found reason to suspect Baehrel’s claims about the number of seatings at his restaurant, as well as the number of reservation requests Baehrel has received.
5. Regardless, everyone raves about the food. Baehrel’s creations do sound revelatory and fantastically resourceful. He claims to have once found out, while chopping wood, of course, that a type of lichen tastes like onion for a few weeks every year; he uses hickory sap for brining because it’s salty; he soaks inedible cedar bark in water for 12 to 18 months so he can turn it into flour,;and he creates a “phony egg” out of cattails, pickled heirloom tomatoes, and wild-parsnip juice. During his tasting menu, Paumgarten was also served “Earlton Chocolate”: fermented leftovers of acorn-and-hickory-nut faux coffee.
6. Baehrel appears to believe there is an active conspiracy by locals, whom he dubs the “Albany club,” seeking to undermine him. He even suspects this upstate shadow group, which includes Barnes, has hacked Yelp to make it seem as if his restaurant is closed.
7. The media has been complicit in inventing Baehrel’s legend. A reservation list for the restaurant was showed in a segment on the ABC News digital series “Garage Geniuses,” but producer David Fazekas admitted that he simply made up a phony reservation roll to imitate Baehrel’s, “like a reënactment in a documentary.” Paumgarten found this out after trying to reach individuals on the list, none of whom exist.
8. If many of Baehrel’s claims really are false, there seems to be no reason for it. The chef is, by all accounts, extremely talented, and the myth-making allows him to charge high prices (around $400 per person for a multi-hour tasting menu). But if he only serves a small number of diners each week, it wouldn’t add up to a big haul. Instead, Paumgarten writes, “Baehrel has concocted a canny fulfillment of a particular foodie fantasy: an eccentric hermit wrings strange masterpieces from the woods and his scrabbly back yard. The extreme locavore, pure of spade and larder. The toughest ticket in town.”