One of the World’s Top 50 Restaurants, perhaps the most difficult venue to obtain a reservation for in America, is apparently operated by one man out of a basement in a village (Earlton, New York) half an hour south of Albany. Servings are reputedly fully booked up through 2020, or possibly 2025.
Nick Paumgarten, in the New Yorker, reports:
[T]he 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. …
The dining room was snug, seating no more than sixteen guests, with a table set up in the middle as though for a single party of six. It was tidy, not really rustic, more varnished than one might expect. The walls were painted a brushed ochre. A stained-glass panel in the wall read â€œGood Foodâ€ backward. Baehrel had installed it that way so you could read it in a nearby mirror. Along the back wall, a broad table was arrayed with bowls of seeds, nuts, leaves, roots, berries, and mushrooms; Mason jars of sap and flour; and vials of oil, all marked with painterâ€™s tape describing the contents and the vintageâ€”â€œAcorn oil 8/15,â€ â€œGolden Rod flour â€™14.â€ The Native Harvest tag had been his wifeâ€™s suggestion. â€œI was inspired by Native Americans,â€ he said. â€œI wanted it to be based on the people who were here in this country before we were.â€ Supposition was his guide: he said that he had never actually read anything about Native American cuisine.
He worked through the items on display. Lily tuber, cattail stems, milkweed, bull thistle. By watching deer in the woods, he had discovered that the inner barks of certain trees have a salty taste. While chopping wood, he found that a particular lichen takes on an oniony flavor for three weeks a year. He made a cooked powder from it. â€œYouâ€™re gonna love it!â€ Baehrel relies heavily on starch and stock made from rutabagas. He uses wild-violet stems as a thickener. He inoculates fallen logs with mushroom spores. Heâ€™ll spend seven hours gathering three-quarters of a pound of cloverâ€”enough to fill a steamer trunk. â€œI do it at night, with a headlamp,â€ he said.
He had me sit at a table in the corner, a two-top, from which I couldnâ€™t see the door to the kitchen. He wanted me to have the dining experience. He said, â€œDonâ€™t worry, Iâ€™m a professional. Iâ€™m not going to kill you.â€ He filled my glass from a pitcher. â€œItâ€™s sap. Sycamore sap.â€ It tasted like water, with a hint of something. A few minutes later, he came out with another pitcher. â€œThis is sparkling maple sap, with dried lemon verbena. I have lemon trees in containers, but I donâ€™t get many lemons. Just the leaves.â€ He said he harvests about a dozen saps: maple, birch, sycamore, hickory, walnut, butternut, beech, hardwood cherry. â€œSycamore sap, when concentrated, is a little salty. You can brine things in it. Hickory sap is very briny and salty. Good for long cooking. Iâ€™ll brine a pork shoulder in hickory sap and pine needles for nineteen days. Cherry sap is salty and sweet, bitter, with herb hints like marjoram and lavender.
â€œMy biggest challenge is creating enough flour,â€ he went on. â€œI make it from cattails, pineâ€”the inner barkâ€”dandelions, clover, goldenrod, beechnut, hickory nuts, acorns. A huge part of my life is making flour. It takes one to one and a half years to make acorn flour. Acorns from the red oak have bitter tannins. White oak is more like a nut. In fall, I gather the acorns up in burlap sacks. Around New Yearâ€™s, I put the sacks in the stream, tied up. I leave them there all winter, under the ice. By spring, the tannic bitterness is gone.â€
I asked him how heâ€™d figured this out.
â€œSoaking didnâ€™t work. I tried a circulation tank, and that didnâ€™t work, either. I press them by hand, in a vise, or with stones. No machines.â€
The first course was served on a slab of sawed wood. It was a small rectangle of what looked like salami atop a curled cracker. He said, â€œIt takes me sixteen to eighteen months to make cedar flour. I use a pull knife, a two-handled grater, to shave off some cedar under the bark. The shavings are bitter, tannicâ€”inedible. I soak them in water. Every four to six weeks, I soak them. After a year or a year and a half, I can grind it into cedar flour. So the crisp is made from cedar flour, with a little hickory-nut oil, duck-egg-white powder, water, sea salt, which I sometimes render.â€ He produced a jar of sea salt from the sample table. â€œI made the batter and baked the crisp today.â€ The rectangle of meat, he said, was blue-foot chicken cured in pine-needle juice, pulp, and powder for eighteen months.
The morsel was delicious, though it was difficultâ€”and would continue to be, during the next four hoursâ€”for an amateur and glutton like me (in fact, for anyone who is being honest with himself) to tell whether my appreciation, fervent as it often became, had been enhanced by the description of the work and the ingredients that had gone into it. The tongue is suggestible. New words register as new flavors. As numerous blind wine tastings over the years have demonstrated, you taste what you want to taste.
He cleared the slab and arrived with a plate with a spoon on it, and in the spoon a piece of fish with a chip on top.
â€œI wanted to show you the power of the sycamore sap,â€ he said. It was Scottish salmon, which had been brined for thirty-nine days. The chip was a slice of black burdock root. â€œI peel off the fibrous outside of the root, slice the inside, and bake it.â€ A drizzle of sauce bisected the plate and spoon. It consisted, he said, of pickerel-weed seeds and unripened green strawberries stored in homemade vinegar of a low acidity, then blanched in water in a stone bowl. â€œWith another stone, I mashed them into a paste. Added homemade green-strawberry vinegar and wild-sorrel vinegar and grapeseed oil. Thatâ€™s the paste. The copper-colored powder is the ground leaves of wild marsh marigold.â€ Of course. Every milligram seemed hard won. …
Over the next several hours, as he brought in course after course, he appeared and disappeared (â€œIâ€™ll get you some more sap!â€) like a character in a resort-hotel farce. But the dishes were a dizzying array of tastes and textures. Oyster mushrooms, palate-cleansing ices (one was made of wild carrot juice, stevia tea syrup, pickled baby maple-leaf powder, violet leaves, and lichen powder), cured turkey leg, mahogany clams, lobster, prawns, swordfish ham, brined pork with goat sausageâ€”all of it subjected to a jumble of verbs and nouns, many of them new to me. Bull-thistle stem, chopped barberry root, ostrich fern. I deployed an index finger to dab up every woodland fleck. The platings were whimsical and inspired. The sprigs and needles that adorned the mid-meal platter of cheese and cured meat brought to mind Saul Steinberg or Paul Klee.
The fifteenth, and final, course was something he called Earlton Chocolate. It consisted of the fermented leftovers of his â€œcoffee,â€ which he makes in the autumn from hickory nuts and acorns. (He does not serve actual coffee.) The nut dregs become a kind of paste. â€œIt gets gloppy after three months, then it relaxes.â€
Read the whole thing.
Black Book was pretty enthusiastic.
Chef Baehrelâ€™s autumnal â€œNative Harvestâ€ menu was heavenly. His lifelong obsession with food and nature pours out of every dish. The plates he served were developed, well-composed, and thought-provoking. The meal consisted of about 14 courses plus several extras, some of which Baehrel had been perfecting for decades and some of which were invented that day. In fact, many of the ingredients were seasonal and picked from his gardens that very morning, while a variety of ingredients had been preserved for years, waiting to be utilized at just the perfect time in their aging process.
One of Baehrelâ€™s new concoctions on the day we visited was a bowl of clams, warm pressed with wild hickory nut oil infused with spruce needles and “cooked” in a sauce made from ostrich ferns and topped with burdock root chips. Later, we sampled a dish that Baehrel has been continually refining: chicken thigh brined in staghorn sumac powder, then cooked in a blend of concentrated sycamore sap and Baehrelâ€™s fresh grapeseed oil, surrounded by a sauce of rutabaga cooked in the soil it was grown in.
Baehrel does not use butter in his dishes, nor does he use flour in his sauces. Instead, his sauces are often thickened with rutabaga. The buttery quality of a mouthwatering lobster dish served was deceivingly cooked instead in white oak acorn oil that was roasted with fresh white oak acorn, giving it a rich flavor.
Inevitably, the process of creating each dish is the daily manifestation of a lifetime dedicated to food, nature, and self-sustainability. Damon Baehrel remains open even through the cold New York winter months, and Chef Baehrel manages to source most ingredients from his own property. To accomplish this, five to seven foot deep cold frames are dug around his property and filled with compost that ferments during the winter, helping to prevent the cold frames from freezing. In the extreme cold, Baehrel utilizes a form of radiant heat from a 10-watt solar panel connected to heating rods in water containers about 4-5 feet underground. Baehrel actually claims that with the sunshine, fermentation, and radiant heat that warms up the cold frames, “winter in Earlton, New York is the best time of year for root vegetables.”
Each and every dish we ate that evening told a story.