Damon Baehrel has what most chefs in the world would kill for – a restaurant with a five-year waiting list. The restaurant is aptly named after himself; in his own words he’s “the chef, the waiter, the grower, the forager, the gardener, the cheesemaker, the cured-meat maker,” and everything on the menu comes from his 12-acre property.
Formerly known as the Basement Bistro, the place is actually located in Baehrel’s basement and has only 12 tables. Each night, he cooks and serves a 15-course meal for 18 guests. Although he has never received professional training, Baehrel is a master of molecular gastronomy. All of his small bites are dehydrated, infused and tinctured on their way from the garden to the table.
One of his signature dishes is a palate cleanser called the ‘sumac flavored ice slush’. It involves the steeping of sumac leaves to make tea, to which he adds liquefied wild violet stems (cut from his backyard) and a dozen varieties of fresh grapes (from his garden). He freezes the mixture and serves up one spoonful for a refreshing bite.
Photo: Damon Baehrel
Baehrel himself built the red-and-white-trimmed kitchen-as-barn that he works in. He works hard to keep it squeaky clean, laying down plastic sheets to protect the linoleum floor. The steel prep tables are lined with regular restaurant gear – blenders and food processors. You’d also find a multitude of unique ingredients in the shelves like powdered bracken ferns or pickled maple leaves.
Another interesting dish from Baehrel’s kitchen is the ‘Acorn Ice cream Cone’, which actually takes an entire year to prepare. He forages the acorns and submerges them in a stream for months, according to a Bloomberg news report. Then he dehydrates them and grounds them into a powder that he uses to make a cone. On top of the cone, he serves a frozen eggplant ice cream of sorts.
Photo: Damon Baehrel
As odd as the food sounds, people really do seem to like it. At $255 a meal (without wine and tip), it certainly isn’t cheap. And yet, people are almost queuing up for a taste. Many travel three hours from Manhattan and some even fly in overnight to dine at the modest basement restaurant at Baehrel’s home in Earlton, N.Y.
I’m not surprised though, that Baehrel’s guest list consists of several celebrities like Jerry Seinfeld and Martha Stewart. He has had patrons from 48 countries so far. Reportedly, even the Obamas had requested a table in 2011(we don’t know if this is true because Baehrel keeps his guest list private).
Photo: Damon Baehrel
I think it’s a combination of great food and exclusivity that’s worked so well for Baehrel. Up until recently, there was absolutely no mention of the discreet restaurant in the media. He never went the traditional way – no money spent on marketing, no business manager and no endorsement deals. The only way to book a reservation at Damon Baehrel is by email.
I suppose you couldn’t really call Baehrel a businessman; he seems to be all about quality food. And yet, his place is pulling in a pretty decent revenue of about $750,000 a year. That’s just slightly behind the $1million mark of a successful restaurant in Manhattan. Very impressive for a former motocross racer who had nothing much to do with the food industry.
Baehrel said that he learned to cook from his mother, who was an avid gardener. He also spent a few years doing odd jobs in mountain kitchens in the Northeast. “I learned bits and pieces along the way, but I never did the research, never looked in a cookbook. In my family, we just learned do it ourselves, and the inspiration came from nature.”
After an injury in 1985, when Baehrel’s career in racing was practically finished, he and his wife bought the 12-acre property. Initially they opened a catering business that specialized in foraged foods, and the concept eventually evolved into the bistro that it is today. “It occurred to me one day – and this was really an epiphany, 25 years ago – that everything I needed was here,” he said. “And I was going to spend the rest of my life developing and exploring what was possible.”
If you would like to experience dining at Damon Baehrel, you do need to hurry and make a reservation soon. Not only is there a five-year waiting list, but 51-year-old Baehrel isn’t accepting any bookings beyond 2018 – that’s when he plans to retire.