I have nothing against the “buy local” crowd, the foraging crowd, or the urban gardening crowd per se. I have no problems with people liking each of the concepts. My complaints and problems with each of the groups stem from absurd and cult-like adherence to each dogma as if it were its own religion, forced on others, or taken to the extreme.
While buying local might be worse for the environment in some cases, or more expensive than mass-produced items shipped from a distance, people should be free to pursue the best course of action they see fit. Even if it means more harm to the environment and their wallet. Urban foraging, provided you’re not stealing from your neighbor — like chefs in local-food-crazed Portland are doing — is a little weird, but if that’s what you want to do, fine.
This recent story I read in Bloomberg Businessweek is an extreme example in buying local, urban gardening and foraging craze — or as I call it, going Authentically Amish (with apologies to the local furniture store.) A half hour outside of Albany, NY is Earlton. Here, there is a restaurant with a five-year waiting list.
The restaurant with the longest waiting list, five-years to be precise, is a small, nondescript, 12-table basement located in Earlton, N.Y ., named simply enough Damon Baehrel after its owner and chef. Its guests come from 48 countries and include such celebrities as Jerry Seinfeld, Martha Stewart and Barack Obama himself. However what makes Baehrel’s restaurant the most exclusive restaurant in the world is not the decor, nor the patrons, some who fly overnight from Manhattan to pay $255 for dinner (before wine and tip), nor the hype (although all the advertising is through word-of-mouth), but the food, which is all cultivated, grown, prepared, cooked and served from and on the property, and where Baehrel is literally the only employee. “I’m the chef, the waiter, the grower, the forager, the gardener, the cheesemaker, the cured-meat maker, and, as I will explain, everything comes from this 12-acre property.”
By that math, if this restaurant is open five days a week, with 12 tables and two people at each averaging $255 a head, Mr. Baehrel is raking in close to $1.5 million a year.
Bloomberg notes that it’s about half that, but still:
This hyperlocal, hyperunderground strategy is paying off. Baehrel won’t provide exact numbers but says he serves a few thousand guests each year and generates annual revenue of at least $750,000.
For foodies, visiting the so-called “Michael Jordan” of the movement has to be a big treat. There are similar restaurant concepts here in Washington.
But it is a cautionary tale of foodie-ism taken to the extreme. A five year waiting list? Must be nice if your last name is Baehrel, but to those wanting to go to a nice restaurant, pay a more modest price, and not have to wait five years, it’s good that the market offers other options.
The world would look a lot more like this if the extremist-type locovores were able to impose their whims on the rest of us, but that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. More likely, the locovores wage smaller, more winnable battles. And what start out as suggestions often become requirements later.
If you are among the Manhattan elite and can afford to pay and wait for such food, I hope it’s worth the wait. And to some, I’m sure it is. Nobody should begrudge Baehrel his success in offering something that clearly has high demand.
As for me, I’m happy to get my corn from where it’s most efficient to grow corn, beef from where it’s best to raise cattle, and my high-fructose corn syrup from the plant best able to deliver a quality product to the Coca Cola bottler near me. Or Mexican coke with that cane sugar. Delicious imports.
So long as the market isn’t unduly inhibited by regulations, locovores and free traders should both be able to enjoy the fruits of the harvest in harmony.