The Country Restaurant
August 25, 2016 3:25 AM   Subscribe

The Most Exclusive Restaurant in America
Damon Baehrel’s methods are a marvel, and his tables are all booked until 2025. Or are they?
posted by Joe in Australia (94 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
This almost reads like fiction, and the line about having to make him up if he didn't exist didn't help. For the cash and trouble, I'd rather eat at Alinea or Noma or something, though I couldn't afford either.

The idea that the meat and seafood is coming from some unnamed source skeeves me out more than the mythbuilding in this case.
posted by papayaninja at 4:30 AM on August 25, 2016 [9 favorites]


What a weird story. I can't quite figure out what we are supposed to conclude from this. The food seems genuinely good, the chef inordinately secretive. But is he a fraud? Is he just exaggerating certain aspects?

And what's with the closing line of the article? "It tasted like—asparagus." What was it supposed to taste like?
posted by vernondalhart at 4:58 AM on August 25, 2016 [7 favorites]


I can't quite figure out what we are supposed to conclude from this.

That everything in the restaurant is bullshit, from the guest list, to the meat and seafood sources, some or all of the foraged plants, and perhaps even his wife and son.

This guy is cooking once a week, or less, as a hobby. He is not running a restaurant. That doesn't mean the food is bullshit, but everything else about him sure is.

On the other hand, he's selling a fantasy experience to rich foodies who seem to like it, so whatever.
posted by ryanrs at 5:17 AM on August 25, 2016 [18 favorites]


"It tasted like—asparagus."

Sometimes things are exactly what they seem?
posted by papayaninja at 5:35 AM on August 25, 2016 [3 favorites]


What Payaninja said -- this read like some kind meta fiction to mock a certain New Yorker non-fiction story, or maybe a pure invention. If it is real I still want to see what kinds of rich-people-problem stories can be parodied (homaged?) this way.

Assuming the story is real ... genius only gets you so far, and there are no lack of frustrated geniuses who react bizarrely to hitting some obstacle or another.
posted by MattD at 5:42 AM on August 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


“There are services on the Internet that generate fake names.”

And here I am working 9-5 like a sucker.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:50 AM on August 25, 2016 [18 favorites]


yes, it sounds like it's a smaller business than he makes out - but the food is good, and as for the price: for that amount of labour in prep it sounds reasonable. Not that I could afford it, but it reminds us that making food (harvesting, processing) without an industry is a LOT of work. It used to be 80-90% of all human activity.
posted by jb at 5:51 AM on August 25, 2016 [9 favorites]


That first glass of largely tasteless sap is actually a powerful hallucinogen, after which you get a shitty hamburger and some leftover pizza.
posted by Segundus at 6:12 AM on August 25, 2016 [47 favorites]


yes, it sounds like it's a smaller business than he makes out - but the food is good, and as for the price: for that amount of labour in prep it sounds reasonable. Not that I could afford it, but it reminds us that making food (harvesting, processing) without an industry is a LOT of work. It used to be 80-90% of all human activity.

Is that all, that his volume is lower? Or is the argument that it's not actually possible for him to make all the stuff on-site (like the cheese)? Like a noka chocolate shell game?
posted by leotrotsky at 6:22 AM on August 25, 2016 [3 favorites]


I really want to try some sycamore sap, now. Anyone else interested in tapping trees of unusual provenance can check this out.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:25 AM on August 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


>Consider a favorite of his book publishers, the Morrises—what he calls
>“the phony egg.” “I use native components to build an egg,” Baehrel
>told me. “The egg white is cattails. The yolk is pickled heirloom
>tomatoes in a broth of wild parsnip juice. I use willow bark to make
>the home fries, and squash as bacon.”

I'm just not buying it. It's a fantasy, an elaborate hoax.
posted by kcds at 6:26 AM on August 25, 2016 [5 favorites]


"the Web site"

I would say "Ah, New Yorker, never change", but I don't think they need encouragement.
posted by howfar at 6:26 AM on August 25, 2016 [9 favorites]


Also, everyone should try shagbark hickory syrup and hickory nut syrup (can't find a link, but I think they're in upstate New York).
posted by leotrotsky at 6:28 AM on August 25, 2016


The most exclusive restaurant I know of is the one run by my wife. She is an amazing, intuitive cook who is able to take varied ingredients and always concoct something intricate and delicious. The cooking methods range from French to Mediterranean, Italian and even Mexican and Japanese-inspired.

It is exclusive because it is almost impossible to get in unless:
1) You are me. There's only one of me that I know of so this one is impossible.
2) You are a special guest. Few and far between. You cannot ask for an invite but still might get one, especially if you invite one of us to your exclusive restaurant.
posted by vacapinta at 6:28 AM on August 25, 2016 [43 favorites]


I'll bet I know what's in the back of that litle red barn: a shipping container of King Arthur's All-Purpose flour and a couple of 55 gallon drums of canola oil.
posted by valkane at 6:33 AM on August 25, 2016 [18 favorites]


Wow, that was exhausting. I really envy people who go gaga over food, because I am not one of them. I like good food, and I like to cook, but if cooking takes more than an hour or so (unless it's something that can be left in the oven or needs to rest, like bread or a turkey), I lose interest. I can't distinguish "depth of flavor" at all, and I've been to some really fine restaurants.

So I often think that people are making up a lot of what they think they're experiencing, even if that's really rude and dismissive of me. I know it's just that I don't taste what they're tasting, and it's probably sour grapes. Then again, I'd probably be told that sour grapes have the most woody notes layered on top of chocolate hints of pops of something, but again, that could just be my own bitterness.

I distill my own bitterness. It's very exclusive.
posted by xingcat at 6:40 AM on August 25, 2016 [20 favorites]


>Consider a favorite of his book publishers, the Morrises—what he calls
>“the phony egg.” “I use native components to build an egg,” Baehrel
>told me. “The egg white is cattails. The yolk is pickled heirloom
>tomatoes in a broth of wild parsnip juice. I use willow bark to make
>the home fries, and squash as bacon.”

I'm just not buying it. It's a fantasy, an elaborate hoax.


If you think that sounds so elaborate it can't be real you mustn't have heard much about Heston Blumenthal. I totally believe someone would do this although personally I would rather have an egg.

I also don't get the point of the article. If they're saying he couldn't produce that much but they're also saying he can't serve that many people, then do those things not cancel each other out? So he produces a few things and serves them to a couple of people - so what? By all accounts he's still a genius chef and people enjoy the food and the mystery. Jeez just let everyone enjoy their part in the show.

By the by I went for dinner last night with a 24 hour advance booking and got penne and it was lovely and they even gave us a free limoncello!! $400+ elaborate tasting menus would be wasted on me. I still think people should be left to enjoy their distilled pine needles and whatnot without someone busting their balls to prove the Emperor is naked.
posted by billiebee at 6:59 AM on August 25, 2016 [9 favorites]


So a restaurant like this does exist in truth, near Kyoto in Japan. It has a Michelin star. You go in, they go to the back, grab a free range chicken that had been killed and cleaned an hour earlier, fed off of what they grow in the area, and cook it up for you. It's called Seto. I wanted to go while visiting Japan, but the cost, plus the time kept us away. I'm comparing the description in my link to the description of this restaurant and well, even for a restaurant with two seatings, running off a small farm in the back and only serving the chicken, she still has three other people working with her.

I don't know if this guy is locally sourcing everything like he says. If he is, fantastic. But there is no way he is serving more than one or two seatings a week if he is working alone.
posted by Hactar at 7:07 AM on August 25, 2016 [9 favorites]


I was waiting for the Sysco truck to show up.
posted by clawsoon at 7:13 AM on August 25, 2016 [22 favorites]


To me, there is something essentially American about this guy. It's really strange and somehow fascinating. I'd definitely go to the restaurant if I could afford it.

As I read it, the point of the article is that it is weird how he invents an elaborate scam instead of just selling his stuff as it is: a really amazing supper-club that opens when it pleases him, and which is to some extent based on his own produce. That's just great in itself. But there is this strain of American culture where things have to be BEST! and FIRST! and ORIGINAL! In my experience, this goes very well with conspiracies, secrecy, snake oil and the like. Once I did an interview with one of my design heroes, in the Appalachians somewhere (just the fact that he was there..), and it was almost exactly like this, including the secret red barn. Why?????

My current dream is to do what this guy is doing — not create a 15 course tasting menu — but open a supper-club out in the country and announce when I'm open for business on the local bulletin board. I may run a trial during September. I can't imagine how that can happen without any help.
posted by mumimor at 7:15 AM on August 25, 2016 [11 favorites]


It looks very down-homey

Come to think of it, he also reminds me of my gran, who always threw people out of the kitchen when she was applying the magic touches, which included hour-long prep, ketchup, flour and soy sauce. No-one could reproduce her recipes, because she always lied about them.
posted by mumimor at 7:24 AM on August 25, 2016 [8 favorites]


Metafilter: I often think that people are making up a lot of what they think they're experiencing
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 7:27 AM on August 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


This guys ingredient list reminded me of something naggingly familiar. Oh yeah, it's what free-range pigs live on!
posted by valkane at 7:27 AM on August 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


Yeah, a single person serving a twenty-three course meal to five people while also keeping his kitchen immaculately clean? Then, you know, going out and foraging clover for hours and hours in the middle of the night?

Buddy, I worked at a barbecue shack for a year and a half. I had lots of help, and I was the most scrupulously clean of all the employees. I was not in the mood for hours of nocturnal clover-picking after my shifts. And we sure as shit weren't booked up ten years in advance -- like, I had some days off.

I could maybe believe the stuff about the ingredients, but the idea that he does it *entirely alone* and at the volume that he claims is totally absurd.
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 7:29 AM on August 25, 2016 [12 favorites]


Count me as another who was interested to read the article but found it weird that it was written to lead up to a "gotcha!" moment, when all it was is...this guy does make his own food but at not the volume he says he does. I mean, it's weirdly presented but no less weird than a very good chef who is oddly ashamed that he really only does one to three covers a week.
posted by Kitteh at 7:29 AM on August 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


Here's an account from Vincent Price about the couple of times he dined at this restaurant.
posted by dng at 7:30 AM on August 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


I don't care how good the food is. I'm not sitting for five hours in one of those wooden chairs.
posted by archimago at 7:38 AM on August 25, 2016


I can't quite figure out what we are supposed to conclude from this.

They key was the JT LeRoy line.

I take grim pleasure in watching self-created legends collapse under the combined weight of their own bullshit and hubris. I look forward to learning that he's sourcing his meat from the supermarket and has ticked off a number of high end cheesemakers by failing to inform them that he was selling their products as his own.
posted by thivaia at 7:38 AM on August 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


The penultimate line of the page about the upcoming book on his website: "Damon really wrote and photographed the book." Sounds legit!
posted by vathek at 7:40 AM on August 25, 2016


Here's an account from Vincent Price about the couple of times he dined at this restaurant.
I remember that story, and I've been looking for it. For some reason I thought it was by Edgar Allen Poe, and that the sheep were pigs.
posted by mumimor at 7:49 AM on August 25, 2016




After the famous debunking of two notorious chocolate makers, I was expecting the writer to pull away the curtain, but nothing. Meh.
posted by Beholder at 7:52 AM on August 25, 2016


"Damon really wrote and photographed the book."
He also made the paper from a special group of larch trees on his own property. He cuts the trees with piano wire, which takes around 6 weeks per tree. He printed the books himself using sap from four leaf clovers that grow in one corner of a meadow on the edge of his property. The binding glue is made from swamp moss and the drool of gullible gastronomes.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:56 AM on August 25, 2016 [31 favorites]


I was expecting the writer to pull away the curtain, but nothing. Meh.

Maybe here?
Baehrel has concocted a canny fulfillment of a particular foodie fantasy: an eccentric hermit wrings strange masterpieces from the woods and his scrabbly back yard. The extreme locavore, pure of spade and larder. The toughest ticket in town. Stir in opacity, inaccessibility, and exclusivity, then powder it with lichen: It’s delicious. You can’t get enough. You can’t even get in.

If Baehrel didn’t exist, foodies would have to invent him. And to a certain extent they have.
posted by Mister Bijou at 8:02 AM on August 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


Maybe the reason people manage to be so skeptical but not truly go for the jugular with him is that, however much bullshit there is around the edges, the food really does look and sound (and presumably taste) amazing.

I mean, I tease... but if I had the means and the opportunity, I'd eat there.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:02 AM on August 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


Yo Jeffrey Merrihue, I’m really happy for you, Imma let you finish, but I've been to the most exclusive restaurant all time. OF ALL TIME.

My 3-year-old, she has this Ikea kitchen set, with all sorts of fruits and vegetables and fish and shit, and she fires a mean roast tomato-cantaloupe-garlic-cheese-and-haddock dish. The ingredients are made out of felt, and stuffed with some sort of polyester fill, but they're all immaculately presented on a green plastic plate, and the menu changes daily according to whims that only she can grasp. She only works when she wants to, and keeps erratic hours, so we're all booked up through the year 2031 when she leaves for college. But I had a last-second cancellation in early September, so I miiiight be able to squeeze you in. $12,000 a head, which includes corkage (you can get beverages here, but it's a little heavy on the teacups for my taste), and then you can brag to all your equally ridiculous friends about your culinary adventures when the New Yorker inexplicably prints 20,000 words about your experience.
posted by Mayor West at 8:05 AM on August 25, 2016 [6 favorites]


What a weird story. I can't quite figure out what we are supposed to conclude from this.

That the New Yorker wasn't quite able to get anything super interesting, but they'd spent enough reporting resources so it was time to publish.

I mean, it seems like he grossly exaggerates the demand for his own place, which as they say is pretty standard (though he does do a lot of it). Even that they haven't nailed, it's just the numbers seem implausible. Also a lot of self-mythologizing. Everything else they look for--secret suppliers, definitive lies about guests--comes up empty. They really wanted something there so they'd have a real story, but they failed. And the food is apparently good.

They should have done the stakeout.
posted by mark k at 8:05 AM on August 25, 2016 [13 favorites]


They should have done the stakeout.

This is exactly what I thought. Why did he dismiss that idea so easily, if he was interested in finding out what was really going on?
posted by not that girl at 8:09 AM on August 25, 2016 [10 favorites]


Maybe the reason people manage to be so skeptical but not truly go for the jugular with him is that, however much bullshit there is around the edges, the food really does look and sound (and presumably taste) amazing.
When they see us coming, the birdies all try'n hide;
But they still go for peanuts when coated with cyanide . . .
posted by Herodios at 8:15 AM on August 25, 2016


I admit that this comment is more about me than about TFA, but I was inspired so here it is. I will not be offended if you ignore it entirely.

It seems to be that the phrase "exclusive restaurant" is one of those frozen expressions where the adjective means something different from what it means when it is free to move about the language.

For some reason an "eligible bachelor" is not one who is available and qualified, but one who is desireable.

For some reason a "moot point" is not one that is debatable, but one that is settled or irrelevant.

Likewise, in the US today, I find it unlikely that there are all that many "exclusive" restaurants around. Restaurants, like resorts, private clubs, colleges, and the like, used to be able to legally exclude certain types of people. Often these were expensive places. When examined in the field today, the phrase seems to mean no more than "expensive". You're only excluded if you don't want to pay those prices (or wait for years).

So upon seeing the title of TFA, I was inclined to ask, "So who exactly is excluded: Negroes? Jews? Irish?

= = =

But: Having read it, I see that the answer is: "darned near everybody but food writers".
 
posted by Herodios at 8:17 AM on August 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


There is more to the dining experience than the food, and this guy seems to well understand the two sides of it. It would not be the same if he was just some guy would cooked for people every now and again.

The Chicago analog to this is Schwa . It passes all the food standards - it's the restaurant Charlie Trotter took many of the great chefs in the world for his 20th anniversary - and reservations are impossible to get. The only route is through leaving a message on the answering machine, a machine which is always full, and waiting for a call back to tell you when you can have a reservation, which rarely happens. A lot like winning the lottery. And because of that, eating there is considered one of the greatest culinary coups in the city.
posted by rtimmel at 8:17 AM on August 25, 2016 [5 favorites]


if he was interested in finding out what was really going on?

Perhaps what the author thinks "is really going on" is people kidding themselves about provenance, authenticity, sustainability, back-to-nature etc: the story is really questions about "us", the seduced/ (willingly) conned/ grifted/ inveigled. Not the chef, even though he's a thing.

I live perhaps 250m from one of the World's Top 50 Restaurants. I've been there. The CHEF is a thing. O, he forages in the laneways of the locale. My old dog pissed there. It breaks the mood.
posted by hawthorne at 8:23 AM on August 25, 2016 [6 favorites]


When examined in the field today, the phrase seems to mean no more than "expensive".

I think it just means difficult (or impossible) to get a reservation.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:24 AM on August 25, 2016


Ew. He's intentionally using the word "native" to market himself without knowing a single thing about native american cooking. "Supposition" indeed.
posted by Omnomnom at 9:01 AM on August 25, 2016 [7 favorites]


His restaurant is quite close to Result which is a great place name (you'll likely have to search for it for the name to show up on the map). Especially since Climax and Surprise are quite close by. Surprise! Climax! Result!
posted by Death and Gravity at 9:01 AM on August 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


This guy is cooking once a week, or less, as a hobby. He is not running a restaurant. That doesn't mean the food is bullshit, but everything else about him sure is.

Yeah, the idea is that every seating is a "special" seating and he's not booked up and he's not cooking multiple nights a week. Also that he's lying about being self-reliant and self-taught. And it's possible he's not really growing and producing everything onsite and maybe the "phony egg" is actually just a damn egg. But he's still brilliant and a good cook and the meals are probably worth $450 (if any meal can ever really be worth $450).

Given all that though, I laughed at the "small" 200 sqft kitchen. My kitchen is about 20 sqft and I could definitely cook a meal for a group of 6-8 in there. Maybe not a 23 course meal but that's mostly about my own limitations.

(I think he refused the stakeout because he's doesn't want to harass the guy?)
posted by capricorn at 9:01 AM on August 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


I felt like what the article was trying to say without coming right out and saying it, because they really didn't have proof, is that this guy--who seems to have some genuine talent and skill--is sort of cosplaying as a super-chef with the world's most exclusive restaurant, and, at least for the time being, has everyone bamboozled, at least to the point where they can't or won't prove him wrong.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:09 AM on August 25, 2016 [3 favorites]


I too was reading waiting for the curtain to be pulled back a reveal the fraud. Clearly, he is not who and what he says he is, but the bottom line is you go to his place for a good meal and regardless of how he actually produces it or says he produces it, he produces a damn good meal. I am not sure why that is not good enough for him.

I also found it interesting that he was a motocross racer. My own preconceived notions, but master chef using only natural ingredients found on his property and motocross racer don't fit together easily in my mind.
posted by AugustWest at 9:24 AM on August 25, 2016 [3 favorites]


“I wanted to show you the power of the sycamore sap,” he said. It was Scottish salmon, which had been brined for thirty-nine days. The chip was a slice of black burdock root. “I peel off the fibrous outside of the root, slice the inside, and bake it.” 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. “With another stone, I mashed them into a paste. Added homemade green-strawberry vinegar and wild-sorrel vinegar and grapeseed oil. That’s the paste. The copper-colored powder is the ground leaves of wild marsh marigold.”

this is like, Chris Onstad levels of glorious food nonsense
posted by prize bull octorok at 9:32 AM on August 25, 2016 [17 favorites]


this is like, Chris Onstad levels of glorious food nonsense

can't we like use ingredients that are native to this area and stuff

posted by Navelgazer at 9:48 AM on August 25, 2016 [15 favorites]


I'm sure someone can pick apart my finances for hypocrisy, but it is just incomprehensible to me that someone would pay $400 for a meal, however good it is. I'd better be able to fast for at least another week after that.

At any rate I love this sort of article even though there wasn't a big payoff. The Noka saga is one of the most memorable articles that's ever been posted here.
posted by AFABulous at 9:55 AM on August 25, 2016


What does the logo on the web site represent? It looks like a golden foot to me.
posted by moonmilk at 10:00 AM on August 25, 2016


Yeah, I am a forager. I have manifested my foraging skill over many years, and my immediate skepticism was about numbers, because six acres just... no way could you sustain large numbers on six acres. I mainly roam about five square miles and could surely harvest more, but it wouldn't be sustainable over time.

So I think it's obvious that he's created a mythology about the numbers. Maybe the guy made up his friend Terrance and other stuff because he's a recluse/hermit who's kind of weird and maybe got some sort of anxiety problem. And so he cooks for paying guests on occasion, but that's it.

That bit about marsh marigolds (which we have in abundance in my foraging area) also pricked my spidey senses:

"Medicinal use of Marsh Marigold:
Every part of this plant is strongly irritant and so it should be used with caution. The whole plant is anodyne, antispasmodic, diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant and rubefacient. It has been used to remove warts and is also used in the treatment of fits and anaemia. The root is antirheumatic, diaphoretic, emetic and expectorant. A decoction is used in the treatment of colds. A poultice of the boiled and mashed roots has been applied to sores. A tea made from the leaves is diuretic and laxative. All parts of the plant can irritate or blister the skin or mucous membranes."

Also: "Edible parts of Marsh Marigold:
Root - must be well cooked. The raw root should not be eaten. Some caution is advised, see the notes above on toxicity. Flower buds - raw, cooked or pickled and used as a caper substitute. Eating the raw flower buds can lead to intoxication. Some caution is advised, see the notes above on toxicity. Young leaves - raw or cooked. The leaves are harvested in the spring as the plant is coming into flower and is used like spinach after cooking in two or more changes of water. Eating the raw leaves can lead to intoxication. Some caution is advised, see the notes above on toxicity. Older leaves, before the plant flowers, can be eaten if they are well cooked. Some caution is advised, see the notes above on toxicity."

I mean, people can be very sensitive to stuff they're not used to eating, so I basically never serve anything I've foraged to others—even my own family gets the stuff in sparing amounts, just in case it gives them stomachaches. So I'm wondering now how he grinds up the leaves and doesn't leave his customers shitting at the nearest gas station bathroom.
posted by RedEmma at 10:03 AM on August 25, 2016 [14 favorites]


Needs more William Gaddis.
posted by Slothrup at 10:09 AM on August 25, 2016


Come to think of it, he also reminds me of my gran, who always threw people out of the kitchen when she was applying the magic touches, which included hour-long prep, ketchup, flour and soy sauce. No-one could reproduce her recipes, because she always lied about them.

It made me think of my friend's grandmother, who was similarly secretive about her secret touches. My friend, aged about 14 or so, did stakeout the kitchen. The secret? Very large amounts of a Kraft seasoning whose main ingredients are salt and monosodium glutamate.

Shutting people out of the kitchen for an hour while the cook downs a large sherry just adds mystique and expectation.

(Note that I don't think this is exactly what is going on with either this guy or mumimor's grandmother. But it's a good illustration of the power of suggestion.)
posted by Vortisaur at 10:27 AM on August 25, 2016 [3 favorites]


This reminds me (and perhaps other MeFi geezers) of the New Yorker piece by John McPhee, published in 2 parts, no less, in 1975, called Brigade de Cuisine. Basically McPhee wrote up a super-glowing profile of a chef running a small country restaurant, using a pseudonym and not identifying the name of the place or its location for fear that it would be overrun by foodies. It was therefore one of the few pieces ever published in the New Yorker that was not at all fact-checked. Before long, New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton figured out where the place was. The chef had moved on to a new venue, which Sheraton visited, along with the paper's wine critic Frank Prial. They were not impressed.
posted by beagle at 10:37 AM on August 25, 2016 [10 favorites]


I'm glad I read this as I learned that goldenrod is edible. I grow tons of native flowers on my property including a few species of goldenrod and had no idea that the flowers are tasty. I need to invite someone over and point out what I can do with various things. Mostly I've concentrated on the Monarda Mojito's.
posted by misterpatrick at 10:46 AM on August 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


Ooh I adored this story. My take is the writer left it open-ended for the reader to reflect on (a deconstructed mystery).

In a way it's like the twisted, funhouse-mirror cousin to John McPhee's "Brigade de Cuisine," another great New Yorker piece about an obscure (so obscure that he refused to let the story divulge his identity) but lauded chef in the woods (paywalled, but can be found in McPhee's fabulous short story collection Giving Good Weight).

Myself, I think this guy is lying not just about his volume of customers, but also the source of nearly all his food and supplies. A key line came in the very beginning, where the highfalutin' globe-trotting foodie said "Would it be my favorite if it had been made by twenty people? O.K., no." On the other hand, he is providing a foodie's greatest desires: deliciousness, exclusivity, innovative methods...with a side of subtle fraud. Is this not hospitality, so long as no one peers behind the curtain? Is this "just deserts" for people who spend their time and money flying all over the world in the pursuit of food?
posted by sallybrown at 10:55 AM on August 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


I don't get why people are saying, "who cares if he lies about stuff? All that matters is that it's good food!"
When, clearly, it's not all that matters to his guests. It's not even the important part, to them. The whole mystique is what they're paying for, and the article all but spells out that it's based on lies.
The entire article is all "I couldn't prove it so I couldn't outright say it. You decide for yourself."
posted by Omnomnom at 11:21 AM on August 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


The author seems really desperate here to write an exposé. I mean, the way author insinuates that, for insance, there couldn't possibly be cheeses, but then there are and so we are supposed to conclude...what? That the chef bought the cheese? That the whole barn pantry is like a set in a play? The author never wades through his own confusion enough to conclude anything but that the food was really good and write about fact checking in a way to subtly pique suspicion even when the fact checking does work out. I don't know, the dude definitely is exaggerating about guest amounts, etc. But I was so put off by what seemed to me to be the author looking way too hard for a reason to expose the chef as a giant fraud but never really articulating it in almost a passive agressive way. Like, he never said that he didn't think the chef had enough cold frames for drying cattails for flour. But he flagged the readers attention to the small amount of cold frames he walked by. But, you know, the food was really good. Obviously, I don't know how much of the chefs claims are exaggeration. But I do know who I'd rather have over for dinner.
posted by branravenraven at 11:40 AM on August 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


You can't grow shit on 12 acres of mixed upstate new york grabass to feed your own kin let alone a decade's worth of daily twenty courses for goddamn food dopes who are into river rinsed acorn sop and hyssop syrup cured potato whispers.
posted by boo_radley at 11:44 AM on August 25, 2016 [22 favorites]


As I read it, the point of the article is that it is weird how he invents an elaborate scam instead of just selling his stuff as it is: a really amazing supper-club that opens when it pleases him, and which is to some extent based on his own produce. That's just great in itself. But there is this strain of American culture where things have to be BEST! and FIRST! and ORIGINAL!

This stood out to me, as did this part: "It's hard to know why Baehrel is so steadfast in insisting on his total self-reliance. There's mythmaking in it, clearly, but of a kind that seems unnecessary." That statement could also describe all the worst, most obnoxious Americans I've known. Why lie about something nobody cares about?! Is it a macho thing (guess the gender of these Americans) where weaknesses cannot be acknowledged? It's so corrosive* and so fascinating.

*My sister got in a fight with our quasi-stepfather one day when he brought home a new Dell laptop. "It's the best computer ever made," he said. My sister, still a child, said "well, maybe not the best..." and he exploded with rage. "IT'S THE BEST, GODDAMMIT!" Damon reminds me of him.
posted by witchen at 11:49 AM on August 25, 2016 [3 favorites]


In that 8 Takeaways article DirtyOldTown linked to there's a comment by man called Jeffrey Contray who ate there in 2008 when it was called The Basement Bistro and was an actual functioning restaurant. His blogpost is fascinating, because he makes it clear that while there's a lot of foraging/growing going on, there are still various things sourced from regular places, e.g. Valrhona chocolate. The meal was then only $75 per person.

What seems most plausible to me is that he's well enough off from the money he made catering to not have to make food for customers except when he feels like it. He likes the idea of being a world famous chef and has somewhat strong ideals, which he may or may not be able to live up to, and wants his fame to be for the "right reasons", i.e. being a hyperlocal chef. I don't have the level of knowledge necessary to estimate how much could be grown on a 12 acre property (though having spent some time in the company of a forager in Sweden, there was a surprising amount of food that could be found in a relatively small area).

The other, less plausible explanation, is that he's a cannibal camouflaging his leftovers in haute cuisine.
posted by Kattullus at 11:57 AM on August 25, 2016 [10 favorites]


The other, less plausible explanation, is that he's a cannibal camouflaging his leftovers in haute cuisine.

Chez Bland?
 
posted by Herodios at 12:09 PM on August 25, 2016


The other, less plausible explanation, is that he's a cannibal camouflaging his leftovers in haute cuisine.

It could also be a sort of 11/22/63 situation -- he has a secret portal in a closet to another time or another world, where he's enslaved the locals to gather his ingredients and fussily make faux eggs.
posted by Etrigan at 12:23 PM on August 25, 2016 [3 favorites]


Two things:

1. Useless without stakeout.

2. For a consummate craftsman that spares no expense or effort to bring transcendent creations to life, he has a fucking Flash site?!?!
posted by dozo at 12:32 PM on August 25, 2016 [3 favorites]


I didn't mention it above, but the more I reflect on this article, the author seems to be leaving open the possibility (probability?) that his wife and disabled adult son don't even exist. The whole thing is odd. Included in the odd part is that people are willing to pay $400 to eat acorns and have a large but unknown expense of just getting to his place. I loved the line about the foodies taking the limo up and then the limo driver going into town to get a slice.
posted by AugustWest at 12:50 PM on August 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


For a consummate craftsman that spares no expense or effort to bring transcendent creations to life, he has a fucking Flash site?!?!

All restaurants are required to have the worst possible website. Read your Constitution.
posted by AFABulous at 1:30 PM on August 25, 2016 [12 favorites]


"You can't grow shit on 12 acres of mixed upstate new york grabass to feed your own kin"

I don't know about upstate New York specifically, but 1 acre is enough land to grow a family's food on in many places. (My sister does just that in VA.)

Speaking of grabass, er crabgrass, "in parts of Africa crabgrass (fonio) is a staple grain, and as forage it can produce a whopping 17 tons per acre" http://www.eattheweeds.com/crabgrass-digitaria-sanguinalis-2/
posted by joeyh at 1:40 PM on August 25, 2016


The parts about his food preparation make me think of him as a culinary Patrick Bateman.
posted by gucci mane at 2:51 PM on August 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


I didn't mention it above, but the more I reflect on this article, the author seems to be leaving open the possibility (probability?) that his wife and disabled adult son don't even exist.

This was a weird insinuation on the part of the author, because public records and various other easily Googleable stuff suggests that his wife is a real person. He catches Baehrel in enough lies that the between-the-lines suggestion that his wife and child are fake seems gratuitous and overly personal.

I just dug into this a bit on the Wayback Machine, and it seems clear that sometime around 2011, Baehrel retconned his business history. In 2010, his website said that they only accept reservations six weeks in advance. In an Eater article from 2014, he's asked about when his restaurant became so popular and claims that things popped off around 2006 and that before then he always had a three or four month waitlist anyway. Similarly, in 2010, his website says that his "menu items were created based on a careful search for the most beautiful ingredients Chef Damon could gather from a network of area farmers and growers raising a variety of organic meats and produce for him" and that he grows some of them on the farm. There is little indication that he's foraging for unusual ingredients. This blog post from 2007 mentions that Baehrel claimed to grow or forage most of his ingredients, but all of the ingredients on the menu they provide look pretty conventional, especially compared to what he now claims he cooks with. That blog post does include eye-raising claims about late night meals, though. Strange stuff.
posted by vathek at 4:44 PM on August 25, 2016 [6 favorites]


This thing, I just…what? Markov Canapé?

"It 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, tannic—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.” He produced a jar of sea salt from the sample table. “I made the batter and baked the crisp today.” The rectangle of meat, he said, was blue-foot chicken cured in pine-needle juice, pulp, and powder for eighteen months.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 4:51 PM on August 25, 2016


Lies, all lies.
posted by glitter at 5:14 PM on August 25, 2016


This reminds me of the motel voyeur story in some weird way. The "do we believe him? I dunno, but there's easy ways we could have disproved what he was saying and we didn't bother" lazy journalism vibe. Like, it's a better story if we make it all a mystery, so lets not clear anything up.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:23 PM on August 25, 2016 [3 favorites]


You can't grow shit on 12 acres of mixed upstate new york grabass to feed your own kin [...]

I actually looked for his place on Google Maps. The satellite image shows a couple of vegetable beds, maybe the same footage as a couple of houses. The rest is mostly woods. There's a creek not far away where I guess you could find cattails, but it's not on his property or anything. Also, there is a remarkable lack of Scottish lochs from whence Mennonite fishers can extract creels of wild salmon, but maybe I didn't zoom out enough.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:24 PM on August 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


I'm well within driving distance of this place and the temptation to do a "stakeout" is strong, although I won't do it of course because I'm not Sam Spade and it seems pretty skeevy. Still I wan't to know if it's real. I'd skip my mother's funeral if it conflicted with reservations to The French Laundry and there's allegedly the world's greatest restaurant in my backyard? I really want to eat there, but I don't want to wait until 2026.

Also, there is a remarkable lack of Scottish lochs from whence Mennonite fishers can extract creels of wild salmon, but maybe I didn't zoom out enough.

There are a lot of Mennonites NY and maybe they're getting their salmon from Lake Ontario (but really we know he probably gets it at Whole Foods).
posted by dis_integration at 8:01 PM on August 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


He told me, as he had told others through the years, that he got his meat and dairy from a Mennonite farm in the area, and his fish from a seafood broker who delivered it several times a week.
Presumably, he couldn't think of a suitably twee source of fish when the reporter asked.
posted by Etrigan at 8:08 PM on August 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


I think a lot of the "it was different and described as different before" supposed-inconsistencies are actually exactly what you'd expect. Nobody, on the day they open their restaurant-like thing, has figured everything about about how to spend 18 months making flour from cedar and eggs from cattails or whatever. So he starts off with locally sourced ingredients and some mushrooms he forages from his land and all the while he's experimenting with acorns, or whatever. When he gets some acorn thing down, he adds it to the menu etc. It's only many years later that he would have the know-how and the stockpile of ingredient staples to be able just buy meat and milk somewhere else and do everything else from his own stuff.

Those of you saying 12 acres couldn't support a family let alone a restaurant probably aren't picturing a family eating cedar bark or cattails. 3 sittings a day for up to 16 people, maybe not, but if you're willing to make your food from pine needles and cattail roots or whatever, then that certainly opens up how many people you can feed compared to eating conventional stuff we eat.

That said...what was that line about having lemon verbena because his plants don't give lemons, but the leaves are good? Lemon verbena doesn't come from lemon plants. It's a completely unrelated plant. I wonder if he's using leaves from a lemon tree and thinking that's lemon verbana or he has a lemon verbena plant that he was hoping to get lemons from? If asked, I'm sure he'd say he was misquoted and actually said he wished he had a lemon tree, so I guess there's no point asking.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:09 PM on August 25, 2016 [6 favorites]


I think the authorities should check his electricity usage. He is probably hiding a huge grow operation on that property and uses this whole restaurant thing as a huge cover.
posted by AugustWest at 8:12 PM on August 25, 2016 [3 favorites]


At some point you need to ask the question: at what point does puffery and storytelling become a lie? At what point does exaggeration heighten the experience, and at what point does it become fraud?

At some point, you realize that David Sedaris' stories are not literally true. Maybe the mysteries behind the Mystery Spot are more easily explained. Maybe the movie Fargo wasn't actually based on a true story. Maybe WWE Wrestling is not entirely decided entirely by the skill of the wrestlers in a fair competition.

The problem is this: all of those things are undeniably entertaining. And for the most part, the cost of admission is entirely justified by the level of entertainment offered, even if you may harbor second thoughts in the weeks thereafter. That Haunted House you went to for Halloween? I hate to break it to you, but it wasn't haunted like they said it was. It was just college kids trying to scare you.

So here we have someone offering a particular experience to a particular audience. Perhaps it blends fact and fiction. Perhaps some of the processes are not quite as they're described. Perhaps vagaries and elusive statements get in the way of a clear picture of the exact process that occurs during the creation of this meal.

Here's the thing: nobody says the food is bad. People tend to find it an enjoyable experience that appears to be, for those individuals, worth the money. It doesn't sound like anybody who has visited this Basement Bistro would go bang on the door to get their money back if they found out that (shh!) there was someone helping out, or some of the food wasn't sourced on the lot, or maybe that waiting list wasn't quite as packed as it seemed.

This doesn't sound like a scam. It sounds like a peculiar, Barnumesque sort of entertainment. It's not my bag, but I don't hold it against this guy, since it really does sound like it's quite a singular experience. There are plenty of times in modern life where we're bombarded with misinformation in an attempt to skew our opinions or behaviors towards those less than virtuous. I'm pretty sure this isn't one of them.
posted by eschatfische at 9:49 PM on August 25, 2016 [7 favorites]


eschatfische: At some point, you realize that David Sedaris' stories are not literally true.

While I agree with your larger point, eschatfische, as far as I can tell Sedaris' stories are true. Certainly the ones that appear in The New Yorker.

Or as true as any subjective account of experience can be.
posted by Kattullus at 12:05 AM on August 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


After reading the blog post Kattullus linked to, and looking at the pictures, I feel less convinced that the food is amazing, destination class. I believe it is good, but there is a fussiness to the presentation that in my experience often hides blah tastes. The appetizer plate with green stuff on each cheese and the cheese plate with all the fruits are the worst, but most servings look fussy to me.
(I can't explain this, because I am an amateur, but in my view there is a huge difference between the complex and rich tiny servings one gets at NOMA and the fussy plates of the restaurants at fancy hotels, for instance)
Also, there is a lot of puree. And why would anyone cure duck in oil for confit??
I can see how someone with a catering kitchen at hand could do this mostly alone, though. Specially when it is for reservation only and very few people some days of the week. Nearly all the food in the images is made in advance and only needs the fussy plating to serve. Obviously, he has developed new dishes since 2008, and maybe they are far better now - and I can see how the whole setup is charming and his foraging skills are special. But among the best chefs in the world? Nope, I don't believe it.

What I do believe is that he is largely self-taught and doesn't go to eat at fancy restaurants. And I don't see that as a positive. Regardless of what craft you practice, you need knowledge, and book knowledge isn't enough - you need to feel and smell, and taste food in order to "get it", and you need to learn from experienced masters how to make things.

I've given this a lot of thought and studied all the online reviews, because yesterday, I seriously thought about trying to book a table for next time we are going to New York. If it really is in the top ten of restaurants, it could be an amazing adventure. If not - it's one meal that would cost us the equivalent of two months rent.
posted by mumimor at 1:06 AM on August 26, 2016


If I were about to eat one of these meals I'm not sure whether I'd be more worried by the fear that he was lying or the fear that he was telling the truth.
posted by Segundus at 1:38 AM on August 26, 2016 [4 favorites]


And why would anyone cure duck in oil for confit??

Curing or slow cooking food in fat or oil is what confit means. Curing duck in duck fat is the most commonly known form of confit, but other forms certainly exist, and duck prepared in an olive oil bath is still confit.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:34 AM on August 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


I know what a confit is - it's just that I worship duck fat ;-)
posted by mumimor at 9:43 AM on August 26, 2016


At some point, you realize that David Sedaris' stories are not literally true.

While I agree with your larger point, eschatfische, as far as I can tell Sedaris' stories are true. Certainly the ones that appear in The New Yorker.

Or as true as any subjective account of experience can be.


Sedaris himself admits that he makes stuff up for the sake of the story:
In an author’s note in his most recent book, “When You Are Engulfed in Flames,” Sedaris seemed to concede that not every experience he describes happened. He called his tales “realish.”
Dunno how much overlap there is with the stories noted in that article and his New Yorker pieces, but he is definitely not always being 100 percent literal, subjectively or not.
posted by Etrigan at 9:52 AM on August 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


Does chicken "cured for 18 months" sound hinky to anyone else?
posted by sevenyearlurk at 11:00 AM on August 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


I like scams like this where the story may be bullshit but the experience is still incredibly satisfying and nobody gets hurt except for rich people being bilked out of a few thousand dollars.
posted by StopMakingSense at 11:03 AM on August 26, 2016 [2 favorites]


unless you get the fireshits from marsh marigold
posted by prize bull octorok at 11:11 AM on August 26, 2016


Does chicken "cured for 18 months" sound hinky to anyone else?

⚗ 💉 🐔 😰 🚽
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 11:15 AM on August 26, 2016 [4 favorites]


This doesn't sound like a scam. It sounds like a peculiar, Barnumesque sort of entertainment.

That's a sophist argument, akin to saying that it's OK if a newscaster lies because nobody (well, almost nobody) thinks that Star Trek is real. Someone lying to you about what you put in your mouth is not even in the same ballpark as David Sedaris tweaking a few anecdotes for This American Life.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:21 AM on August 26, 2016 [1 favorite]


Does chicken "cured for 18 months" sound hinky to anyone else?

There is also that salmon "cured" in sap for ages. It shouldn't scare me since I eat pickled herrings all the time. But...
posted by mumimor at 11:40 AM on August 26, 2016


I know nothing about fancy food, but I know a little Botany and mycology and I did live in upstate NY so:
1) Upstate NY had a lot of farmland back in colonial times, but most of it was abandoned for being poor soil. Acorns, fungi, daylilies, sure. Cedar bark, sure, for a while. Lichens? For a couple of years.
2) As Penguin noted, lemon and lemon verbena are different things and everybody who cooks should know that.
3) He says he puts his acorns in a bag in the stream and allows them to soak for 1-1.5 years. I can't say that isn't true-- it's possible, I guess-- but as soon as the bitter compounds leach out the acorn meat would be susceptible to rot. From what I can tell from a quick internet search, Native Americans dried acorns, ground them to a coarse flour and then leached the flour in streams for a few days.
4) Cedar flour, lichen powder, dried milkweed pod-- is the FDA testing this stuff for carcinogenicity? Lichens are edible if you boil them, rinse them, boil them, rinse them, but then you are left with something that is technically edible, but not very enticing; starving arctic explorers ate lichens, but you don't hear that much about eating them otherwise. "While chopping wood, he found that a particular lichen takes on an oniony flavor for 3 weeks a year." I would seriously like to know the name of that lichen and the time of year, and how much of the oniony flavor remains after repeated boiling. Plus, what's wrong with wild ramps?
4) How salty is the sap that is used to brine these meats? I would seriously decline eating meat that had been kept in tree sap brine for 39 days or in pine needle pulp for 18 months unless I was absolutely sure the method was sound. If you have to boil sap to a millionth of its original volume to get it briny enough, what's the point?

I can't get very riled up about this. I'm really happy to eat tandoori chicken for $9.95.
posted by acrasis at 4:33 PM on August 26, 2016 [7 favorites]


> The author seems really desperate here to write an exposé.

No, MeFites are really desperate to read an exposé. There's a difference. The article is excellent, but some people seem incapable of dealing with anything that's not a straightforward thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
posted by languagehat at 3:12 PM on August 30, 2016 [6 favorites]


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