from The New Yorker
THE MOST EXCLUSIVE RESTAURANT IN AMERICA
Damon Baehrel’s methods are a marvel, and his tables are all booked until 2025. Or are they?
By Nick Paumgarten
“He is an unheralded genius,” a food critic said of Damon Baehrel. “He really should be in the upper echelons of the greatest chefs who have ever lived.” ILLUSTRATION BY ELEANOR DAVIS
The first time Jeffrey Merrihue came across the name Damon Baehrel, he was amazed that he hadn’t heard of him. “I didn’t understand how the secret had been kept,” Merrihue said recently. “The people I go around with, it’s hard for us to find something that is genuinely unique and new.” The people Merrihue goes around with are gastronomes, the trophy hunters of haute cuisine, the kind who travel the world to dine at famous, or famously obscure, restaurants. After a trip to Cape Town this spring, to a restaurant called the Test Kitchen, Merrihue, who lives in London and produces promotional videos for restaurants, became, he says, the second person to have eaten at every restaurant on the so-called World’s 50 Best list. He’s also been to eighty of the restaurants to which Michelin has granted three stars.
Around Christmas in 2013, a friend of Merrihue’s alerted him to a Bloomberg News piece about an unranked contender, which Bloomberg called the “most exclusive restaurant in the U.S.” It described a gourmet operation—in Earlton, New York, a half hour south of Albany—in the basement of a woodland home. Once called Damon Baehrel at the Basement Bistro, the place was now simply called Damon Baehrel, after its presiding wizard and host, who served as forager, farmer, butcher, chef, sous-chef, sommelier, waiter, busboy, dishwasher, and mopper. Baehrel derived his ingredients, except meat, fish, and dairy, from his twelve acres of yard, garden, forest, and swamp. He made his oils and flours from acorns, dandelions, and pine; incorporated barks, saps, stems, and lichen, while eschewing sugar, butter, and cream; cured his meats in pine needles; made dozens of cheeses (without rennet); and cooked on wooden planks, soil, and stone. He had christened his approach Native Harvest. The diners who got into the restaurant raved about it online. But at the time it was booked through 2020. “We spend our lives looking for places like this,” Merrihue said.
Undaunted, Merrihue sent an e-mail to the address provided on Baehrel’s Web site. A man who identified himself as Terrance, a friend of the chef’s, wrote that Baehrel had stopped taking reservations. “That wound me up even more,” Merrihue said. “I pride myself on getting into restaurants.” Still, it didn’t look good. “I thought, I might die before I get a chance to eat there.”
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