Damon Baehrel had many naysayers back in 1989 when he and his wife decided to build a restaurant in Earlton, a rural town in upstate New York over 100 miles north of Manhattan. Saying “he showed them” might be an understatement, as Damon Baehrel (which is also the name of the restaurant), has thrived, with glowing reviews and one of the longest wait lists you’ll ever come across.
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“There were folks that sent us letters when they found out we were opening a restaurant here in Earlton, letting us know that we were wasting our time,” Baehrel said. “They would say, ‘You seem like nice kids but no one is going to eat in Earlton, so don’t waste your time.’ But now I have reservations confirmed through 2025.”
Baehrel lives on a mostly wooded 12-acre lot, where he and his wife built their two-story house with their own hands shortly after getting engaged over 30 years ago. Soured by the negative atmosphere he saw in the restaurant industry and not wanting to work as a chef for someone else, Baehrel decided to transform his basement into his very own restaurant, where he would be the cook, waiter, host and busboy.
“What I learned by working in other places was what not to do," Baehrel said. “I said, ‘If I do the complete opposite I think I could make a go of it.’ Really cherish every guest that comes and appreciate them because they’re the reason that you can have the lights on, the reason you have a house. And here I am cooking in my basement decades later.”
What makes Baehrel’s basement restaurant so unique is that every component of his menu must come from his 12-acre property. When he’s not in the kitchen cooking, he’s out and about on his property searching for anything that is edible, either in his gardens, or growing wild in the woods.
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“I just realized that everything I needed was here on the property,” Baehrel said. “I create every component for every dish, every flour, every oil, every seasoning. I make all my own cheese. All those ingredients have to come from the 12-acre property. I’m not cooking on pans and grills and that kind of thing, I’m using wood planks that I create from the property, I’m cooking on all the stones from the property. I’m cooking in soils and I’m cooking in saps that I concentrate, a dozen different kinds of saps. Everything takes so much time to create the component.”
Baehrel is a self-taught chef. He never went to culinary school, but fell into cooking at a very young age, heavily influenced by his mother.
“I was always curious about all these plants, and I would ask my mother, ‘What is this? What is that?’” Baehrel said. “She would tell me, ‘This is staghorn sumac and it’s edible. You can make a lemonade out of this.’ The next thing you know we would do that together. I’ve spent my life, pretty much my whole life exploring and studying what’s edible, what isn’t edible and just taking it to a different level by creating the components.”
To dine at Damon Baehrel, not only will you have to wait a decade, but the 20-plus course meal 5-hour experience will cost you somewhere between $300 and $375 per person. Baehrel’s business grew steadily though old-fashioned word of mouth.
“We’re pretty close to a lot of the ski areas and it seemed like a lot of the folks we had were just up for the weekend or had a house in the area,” Baehrel said. “Everything was built on old-fashion word of mouth and it was just unbelievable.”
Then once the media got wind of his restaurant, things really took off, rocketing reservations from a mere five-year wait to a decade-long wait.
“We had about a five-year backlog before a whole bunch of national and international media coverage just took off,” Baehrel said. “It was an overwhelming experience and we were getting tens of thousands of table requests each week for over a six-month period. The requests are a good 10 years out.”
Baehrel said he is hopeful that he will have the same passion and stamina to run his business ten years down the line.
“That’s what I’m shooting for, as long as my body holds up and people still want to come,” Baehrel said. “It’s really not a job. I never thought of it as a job. I don’t dread it at all. It’s just a way of life and I just feel so lucky to be able to live my life this way.”