I went to someone’s house for dinner recently. It was quite a house.
Chef Damon Baehrel refers to early December as “the season under the leaves,” the time of year when foliage blankets his 12-acre property in Earlton, NY, insulating the ground beneath, creating a perfect environment for a whole world of growth: wild onions, mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns, sorrel. “Nature has it all figured out,” he says. “All you need to do is look.”
When Baehrel was in his early 20s, he says, he had an epiphany. “It occurred to me one day that everything I needed was right here. I could use all these components that thrive naturally.”
With nature as his muse, Baehrel set out to build an “experience like nowhere else in the world,” a restaurant with a menu created almost exclusively from the wild and native plants that flourish on his overgrown woodlot. In 1989, he opened his restaurant, Damon Baehrel, in the basement of his home. Nearly three decades later, Baehrel’s creative cuisine, which he calls Native Harvest, attracts visitors from all corners of the globe—including no small number of celebrities. But if you were thinking of booking a reservation, think again: The restaurant, which is located about an hour’s drive from Saratoga Springs, is booked solid through 2025. (Yes, you read that right.) To that end, in 2014, the eatery stopped accepting new reservations altogether.
Regarding those out-of-town patrons lucky enough to have landed a reservation at the restaurant, Baehrel tells me that they often choose to stay in the Saratoga region before their long-awaited night at his establishment. “We’re very fortunate to have Saratoga Springs in our neck of the woods,” he says.
Throughout the years, Saratogians have also been fortunate to have Baehrel. Before getting into the restaurant business full-time, he and his wife co-owned Sagecrest Catering, which saw them cooking for events all over the Capital Region, at venues such as Canfield Casino and the National Museum of Dance. Sagecrest had been catering locally for more than 20 years when the Baehrels decided to fold the business and went all-in on the restaurant. Smart move.
Damon Baehrel, the restaurant, with its 20-course tasting menu, is an undeniable, one-of-a-kind experience; unlike Neapolitan pizza, ramen, poke or any other de rigueur restaurant cuisine that can be found almost anywhere in the world, Native Harvest cannot. Baehrel’s plot of land with its ever-evolving plants and vegetation, cannot be copied, and moreover, Baehrel himself, a remarkable human being who proudly wears many hats, cannot be cloned.
In addition to being the restaurant’s grower, forager, miller, preserver, curer, baker, cheese-maker and creator, Baehrel is also the greeter, server and dishwasher. Without any formal culinary training, Baehrel has relied on instinct, his legendary palate and his curiosity to guide his cooking. Many of the techniques he employs he attributes to observing nature—deer eating tree bark, for instance, or pine needles acidifying soil—and years of experimentation. His curiosity is rooted in his childhood, which was spent outside, exploring and gathering, and then researching his findings with his mother, an avid gardener, at the local library. By the time he was a teenager, Baehrel knew how to identify wild edible plants.
Given the restaurant’s fully booked reservation calendar, I didn’t get the full Damon Baehrel experience during my visit last month, but I witnessed firsthand the chef’s warmth, hospitality and passion for his vocation. No sooner had I stepped out of my car than Baehrel appeared, welcoming me into his home/restaurant and leading me through a newly built vestibule abutting his eatery’s front door. Using stones and wood from around the property, Baehrel built the space envisioning it as a place where guests could eat surrounded by the outside elements, where they might hear the owls hooting and the frogs peeping.
Inside, in a small, warm room furnished with a handful of cedar dining tables, Baehrel offered me a drink, an ice cold glass of water flavored with a frozen ball of sap, a foundational ingredient, I’d soon learn, of Native Harvest cuisine. Baehrel collects sap from many different species of trees—maple, birch, sycamore, hickory, cherry, beech, butternut, walnut and mulberry—noting that sycamore has smoky notes while hickory is salty, and that cherry is at once salty, sweet and bitter, with some hints of lavender and marjoram. Though he says the sap, which is mostly water, is delicious straight from the tree, he typically boils it down, then uses the concentrated liquid to brine, cure, infuse, sweeten and preserve. He even uses sap to make vinegar.
Standing by a table, every inch of which was covered with ingredients—from bowls of staghorn sumac and burdock to jars of flour and natural thickening agents to bottles of sap and oil—Baehrel described how he creates the various items found in his Native Harvest pantry. “When guests come, the question isn’t ‘What do I want to prepare today?’ The meal is months, if not years, in the making,” he says. Many of the meats he serves cure for years; the cheeses age for weeks and the flour, from the gathering to the milling, can take more than a year to produce. Baehrel’s biggest challenge, he says, is creating enough flour, all of which is pulverized with a hand grinder, from various plants and nuts including cattails, acorns, hickory nuts, goldenrod, clover, dandelion, the inner bark of pine and cedar trees, and beechnuts.
Yet another challenge is creating enough oil, which he makes from grape seeds, acorns and hickory nuts, by pressing them using a shop vise. He doesn’t use any sugar, relying instead on sap or stevia, an herb whose leaves and stems are many times sweeter than sugar. In addition to turning stevia into a powder, he steeps the leaves to make teas and syrups, which he thickens with wild violet leaves.
Baehrel also refuses to use butter or cream in his cooking to prevent overwhelming his diners’ palates. “When dairy coats the palate, that’s all you taste, and it becomes much more difficult to experience the main components of a dish,” he says. Baehrel doesn’t serve any traditional pastries, offering instead sugarless ices or slush made from native plants, berries and fruits as well as wild and cultivated roots, including wild Queen Anne’s lace root, wild elderberry, sumac and carrots.
And while most of his time is spent foraging, the chef tends to his extensive garden, growing tomatoes, squash, green beans, beets, corn, Swiss chard, peppers and peas, as well as apples, peaches and apricots, all of which he sells via an honor system at a little stand at the front of his property.
If it all sounds a bit exhausting, that’s because it is. The meticulous, singular process this chef goes through to serve each and every meal isn’t only mind-blowing, it’s unprecedented. For me, the idea of having to do this on a daily basis doesn’t even compute, but it’s a mere day in the life of Damon Baehrel. How—and, more important, why does he do it? “It’s a way of life,” he says. “I spend my days exploring, discovering and creating—how am I not the luckiest person in the world?”
“About the only option we’ve been able to suggest for the past four years is an occasional Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. We’re not normally open those days—Thursday through Sunday are the regular days of operation—but try to add small seatings from time to time when my schedule allows to accommodate an enthusiastic waiting list (and sometimes returning guests). There’s no ‘list’ for these occasional seatings that are normally planned up to a dozen weeks in advance. I try to add a few of these seatings several times each month.” —Chef Damon Baehrel