A deceptive dumpling made from wild daisy cores and cedar flour, encrusted with oven-dried, pine-needle-cured goose breast, is skewered whimsically on a cedar tree offshoot.
A behind-the-scenes look at the chef and owner of America’s “most exclusive” restaurant.
By Jonathan Ortiz
Photography by Andre Baranowski
Underneath an abundance of Netflix documentaries, Food Network competitions, and curated Instagram accounts sits the idea that the modern chef is synonymous with celebrity. Imbued in the craft is a desire to be known for one’s work, to be publicized, respected. Rarely does that include being shrouded in a fog of mystery.
Even rarer do you come across a man such as Damon Baehrel.
Like a figure in a fable, the self-taught chef lives hidden away on Sagecrest Native Gardens, a 12-acre farm in Earlton, Greene County. Here, Baehrel is a modern-day alchemist, exploring ways in which the natural offerings of this upstate New York property can be transmuted into ingredients for his fanciful, small-portioned tasting menu.
The result is, quite literally, what the Hudson Valley tastes like.
“You have to know what’s edible and what isn’t edible, and I’ve taken everything to almost a molecular level over the last decades just to know the make-up of each of the plants that I’m using,” says Baehrel.
Baehrel’s 26-seat namesake restaurant, located in the basement of his home, is farm-to-table in the most unvarnished sense, using solely those ingredients, save for meat and seafood, he himself harvested by hand. Baehrel calls the self-discovered doctrine by which the menu is shaped “Native Harvest,” spelled out in full detail in a recently released book of the same name. It relies on the underlying principle that, in matters of food and flavor, Mother Nature has it all figured out.
Before serving his first course, Baehrel likes to hold a toast to his guests, genuinely thanking each of them for providing him the opportunity to live out his lifelong dream.
“When you’re trying to achieve a certain culinary result, Nature usually provides the means to get you there,” reads the book’s introduction.
It holds a Buddha-like perspective, and abiding by its tenets certainly requires a similar temperament. Natural environments are dynamic; relying on such an untamed resource requires the patience to imagine, experiment, observe, and fail without concern of going out of business. For example, Baehrel almost gave up on the idea of a flour made from acorns after several batches were overly tannic and bitter — an issue he later resolved by soaking the acorns in his stream through the winter.
In syncing with the ebb and flow of Sagecrest Native Gardens over the last 30-odd years, Baehrel has developed a list of ingredients virtually unheard of in contemporary culinary spheres: flours made from dandelion and cattail, oils pressed from beechnut, brines from pine needles, vinegars from maple sap. When asked about the influence of Native American culture on his methods, Baehrel says, “Big inspiration, big inspiration.”
“I just literally learned to develop these techniques, but also embrace the time. I don’t think of it as work. This is a way of life and I love sharing this with folks. And I love doing it,” says Baehrel. “I feel like I’m just scratching the surface, but I’m 30 years in.”
This “just scratching the surface” forms the basis of a menu that defies conventional cuisine in the most fantastic ways. But before the first bite, Baehrel holds a traditional toast.
“I thank [my guests] all in advance to be given the opportunity to live this dream for all these years,” he says. “It’s not just an opening line, it’s the truth. Because of the dining guests coming here all these years, it’s the reason I’ve been able to live my life this way, and I really feel like the luckiest person in the world.”
On a recent visit, imaginatively handmade place settings Baehrel crafted from accoutrements like twigs or moss framed bites the chef envisioned months in advance. Playing waiter, his nirvanic grin practically sings “Pure Imagination” with every dish he sets down.
A dumpling made from wild daisy cores and cedar flour, encrusted with oven-dried, pine-needle-cured goose breast, sat upon a stone, skewered whimsically on a cedar tree offshoot. It looks unconventional, to say the least. But its creator encourages us to simply pick it up and take a bite. The goose breast, cured for 17 months, lends an unparalleled crunch to a pillow-soft dumpling.
“I don’t think of it as work. This is a way of life and I love sharing this with folks.”
The next taste, cubes of steelhead trout brined in sycamore sap for 27 days, sports a brown-and-beige spotted chip, a green paste, and an orange dusting. Baehrel discloses its components: The chip was toasted burdock root; the green paste acutely juxtaposing the bright-pink fish was pulverized from unripened green strawberries and pickerelweed seeds, thinned out with a mix of green strawberry vinegar, wild sorrel vinegar, and grapeseed oil; the light dusting comprised wild trout lilies and marsh marigolds for a touch of pepperiness.
At no point does a plate fail to surprise both visually and with its components. A tortilla-like chip, topped with lion’s mane mushrooms and a dusting of thistle root ashes, is in fact made of butternut oil and pine flour (best harvested from the tree’s inner bark in early spring, as it comes out of dormancy). Stevia-sweetened carrot slushes were used as a sugarless palate cleanser.
The bread, served as a course of its own, was a blend of cattail, clover, and dandelion flour with a naturally occurring yeast Baehrel found on grapes. It is served with a velvety cow butter aged in cheese cabinets and dusted with wild angelica.
Finally, what appears to be a miniature ice cream cone is in fact an acorn-flour cone, whose dessert-like filling is made from white oak acorns, cooked in walnut sap, sweetened with stevia, and mashed into a tasty paste.
Even the water isn’t what it seems, but sycamore sap strained twice through a cheese cloth. The ice, frozen balls of maple sap.
Like his menu, the story of what Baehrel does has evolved to a great degree since the days of Sagecrest Catering, his operation from the late ’80s and ’90s that reportedly catered a few hundred weddings each year. The Long Island native and his wife, Elizabeth, opened Basement Bistro around the same time period to allow potential catering clients a chance to sample Baehrel’s cooking. Around 2006, Sagecrest closed, and Basement Bistro was later transformed into Damon Baehrel.
As a caterer, Baehrel employed hundreds of part-time workers; these days it’s just a one-man show.
“I’m the dishwasher, too. And I’m a good dishwasher, I’m telling you. I don’t break anything.”
And that’s just the way Baehrel likes it. According to the man himself, Baehrel typically prepares a 20-plus-course tasting menu for six to 16 guests around four times per week — though not 52 weeks a year as, Baehrel states, there are “short breaks” planned into each season — with an extra seating sprinkled in a few times each month. The going rate for one of these experiences currently fluctuates between $350 to $425 per person — not including sales tax, wine, or gratuity.
So is it true that there is a 10-year waitlist to get a reservation at Damon Baehrel? And, knowing how much goes into each individual ingredient on every single plate across an astonishingly expansive tasting menu, can one man do it all on his own?
A notoriously skeptical New Yorker article from 2016 questioned the waitlist and took great pains to discount Baehrel’s self-spun narrative, going as far as digging into the chef’s supposed Mennonite meat and dairy source, as an investigative powerhouse such as the New Yorker is wont to do. These days, Baehrel says he explores a variety of local options, like Pura Vida in Hudson, Highland Hollow Farm in Schoharie, and a host of Maine-based seafood suppliers, often as an “anonymous finicky customer.”
As far as reservations go, Baehrel says, “Guests that currently have confirmed reservations…have been waiting since 2013–2014 for the most part. We took an extended break from accepting new requests for the regular days of operation beginning about five years ago (March 2014) to continue to work through at least part of the list. At this time, we’re still working through it.”
To call into question the success of Damon Baehrel would be to question the chef’s apparent culinary abilities. And when this character, smiling in knowledge that he’s found his one true calling, plates a piece of his life’s work before you, all doubts seem to melt away. In its place is utter confidence that, when it comes to his craft, this man knows exactly what he is doing.
“Part of being a good cook or chef is just knowing what folks like. It’s not about trying to make myself happy, it’s what will appeal to folks. How many things can I do with this one ingredient, to make people happy. It’s all about making people happy,” says Baehrel. “But I’m happy along the way, I’ll tell ya.”
Even the crazy green hermit holed away on the swampy planet of Dagobah turned out to be Yoda, a Jedi master. And who else but a master could make a dessert out of acorn?