The Lost Kitchen

With grace and grit, Erin French finds her way back to Freedom.

Just before dinner is served at the Lost Kitchen, owner Erin French stands in the center of the simple dining room. Her blonde hair is pulled back in a ponytail and her slim jeans are tucked into Bean boots. She wears a black linen apron, made by her mother, over a black t-shirt. French taps on a glass and diners turn their heads to pay attention. “It boggles my mind that you all keep showing up,” she says. “Thank you for proving everyone wrong. Thank you for coming to the middle of nowhere.” Her words are heartfelt as she continues, “I feel safe, I feel loved. Cheers to Freedom. There’s no place I’d rather be.” With a gentle clinking of glasses, dinner commences.

Getting to Freedom takes time. There’s no hurrying on the country roads east of Waterville and northwest of Belfast. It’s a journey over hills and past tumbledown barns, open fields, and family farms. Freedom is French’s hometown, and it’s been a long road back, with many lessons learned along the way. She left for college with dreams of medical school, but an unexpected pregnancy brought her back to Maine instead. Her career in the kitchen took hold when she began working for Trillium Caterers in Belfast. “Karen Ruth really opened my eyes to seeing food as beautiful,” says French.

After her thirtieth birthday, French reassessed her career trajectory. “I had to push forward and be my own boss,” she says. She created a donation-only supper club in
a Belfast apartment, serving 24 people at a time on Saturday nights. It was hugely popular, with friends and eventually strangers jockeying for a place at the table. A year later, in the space below that apartment, French opened a restaurant she called the Lost Kitchen. There were no signs, and patrons had to search for the door. Still, the reputation of her fine food brought acclaim and even a prestigious invitation to cook at the James Beard House in New York City. But success is a double-edged sword, and can bring stress in many forms, including strain on a marriage. It was a painful time for French, culminating in a contentious divorce in which she lost every single thing but the rights to the restaurant’s name.

You can hear the gratitude in French’s voice when she speaks of her return to Freedom and her parents’ home. With their help, she took time to regroup both personally and professionally. Much of her healing process took place in the kitchen; eventually the instinct and desire to cook for others took over. She purchased a 1965 Airstream trailer with the intention of turning it into a mobile restaurant, and soon was back in business. With staff from the Lost Kitchen offering help, she hosted pop-up dinners in and around Freedom, always with an eye towards a more permanent arrangement.

It wasn’t long after that when a space in Freedom’s old grist mill became available. The landlord had rehabilitated the space without knowing who the future tenant might be. “The space was empty, just walls and a floor and a waterfall outside the window,” she says. Her do-it-yourself attitude is now evident in every corner of the room. Tables have been crafted from wood salvaged from a bar down the street, legs on the communal table in the room’s center are made of metal piping from a home improvement store, and Windsor chairs, purchased unfinished, are painted dark pewter.

On one wall is a gorgeous, six-burner Lacanche range, the only one in commercial use in the country. It’s both a centerpiece and a workhorse. French refers to it as her piano because “it sometimes looks like I’m playing it when I cook,” she says. A smooth concrete-topped island with a selection of cookbooks separates the kitchen from the dining area. I take one of four seats at the counter, which gives a full view of the culinary magic just a few feet away. I feel as if I’m watching a caring friend cook dinner for me in the big kitchen of an elegantly simple farmhouse.

French has decorated the room simply with free and foraged items, including large glass cylinders filled with cut birch logs and sprays of red berries. At one end of the room, a salvaged Hoosier cabinet holds glassware. Tables are set with charmingly mismatched vintage china and flatware scored at auctions and tag sales, with a few pieces that belonged to her grandmother. Gray linen napkins were sewn by French’s mother, Deanna Richardson.

Richardson proudly fills the role of her daughter’s right-hand assistant, handling napkin-ironing, procurement, menu- printing, reservations, and, perhaps most importantly, buying and selling wine. An old-fashioned law in the town of Freedom prohibits the sale of alcohol in restaurants, but the pair have turned that problem into the loveliest solution. Below the dining room, they have created a small wine cellar in the stone foundation of the mill, displaying bottles on top of barrels and antique shelving. The evening’s menu is printed out for guests, so that they may choose a bottle from Richardson’s carefully curated selection that best complements the food.

While guests are visiting the candlelit cellar, French is upstairs, still at work on tonight’s dishes. When we first arrived earlier in the day, she was still unsure of what would be on tonight’s menu. A large saucepan of pears is slowly poaching on the stove, in an aromatic mixture of cinnamon, bay leaf, wine, and cognac. “I’m just making it up,” she says, having not yet decided what the fruit will be used for. “And I screwed up the gougères again,” she says unapologetically, taking it in stride. She quickly mixes up a new batch and pipes the savory dough onto baking sheets.

It’s important to note that Erin French is a self-taught cook. She learned the fundamentals and the joy of creating food while working at her father’s diner, starting at the age of 12, but soon realized she wasn’t satisfied with the standard fried chicken and burgers. “Not going to cooking school has been a blessing in disguise,” she says, “Instead, I’ve been able to develop my own style. I cringe at the title of chef.” Her style is loose and unpretentious, driven by the availability of local ingredients. “They’re the stars and I just let them shine,” she says, arranging bright watermelon radishes alongside salted butter, bread, and olives on a “welcome board” fashioned from wood scraps left over from making the dining tables. French will serve these herself as a way of greeting guests.

There is one seating a night at the Lost Kitchen, and dinner is a single prix fixe meal of four courses, but French can’t seem to keep herself from expanding, usually into eight courses. She tries to explain: “We keep finding goodies at the market that I want to include.” Each extra is an enchanting surprise, starting with the new batch of pecorino gougères served with a ramekin of lemony crab salad, presented on a scrap of newspaper upon a slate tile. Next, a pair of sparkling-fresh Damariscotta oysters is enhanced with a tangy and sweet apple mignonette. Afterwards, French presents us each with a palate-cleansing apple cider and fennel sorbet, possibly the most delicious, refreshing single spoonful I’ve ever tasted. And we haven’t been served a single item from the set menu yet.

Those pears that were poaching on the stove? French has determined that they belong atop a salad of arugula and mustard greens with toasted hazelnuts, blue cheese, and cider-shallot vinaigrette. She admits that she’s never made this particular salad before, but her instincts are spot-on. The sweetness of the pears plays well with the bitter greens. It’s this sort of unbound, experimental approach that makes each meal a revelation. Now French is back at the stove, tending to eight smoking-hot cast iron pans. She sways gracefully as she places fish fillets in the sizzling butter, seasoning as she goes, then moving them to the oven. It’s a joy to watch her and the all-female staff work together like choreographed performers, elegantly in synch with French and her “piano.” One server spoons out parsnip puree, another piles on a bit of carrot salad, and Richardson stands by with sprigs of thyme for garnish. French places the delicate fish just so, and finishes the dish with buttery pan juices. Tonight’s dessert is a light and creamy frozen orange terrine with a crunchy vein of salted pecan brittle and a drizzle of pure maple syrup. But for good measure, French pulls a batch of gingersnaps from the oven and serves them to us, chewy and warm.

To say that the Lost Kitchen is just about this evening’s dinner, or the glory of any particular dish, would be to diminish the experience. From the arrival at the old mill, to the hidden wine cellar; from the first glimpse of the unpretentious, gracious dining room to the last warm farewell from Erin French and her attentive staff; it all adds up to a celebration of creativity, excellence, and genuine hospitality. Freedom is the location of the Lost Kitchen and it is also French’s current state of mind. “I figured out how I want to live my life and I’m so happy. I’m right where I’m supposed to be,” she says.