Two years ago, chef Erin French lost almost everything. Then, in Freedom, Maine, she started anew. Here, recipes from her brilliant restaurant.
To eat at the lost kitchen, you first have to find it. From the mid-coast town of Belfast, Maine, drive 17 miles inland through woods and rolling farmland on a two-lane country road. Watch closely or you’ll miss the sign for Freedom. Take a quick left on Main Street, and there’s The Mill at Freedom Falls—The Lost Kitchen’s once crumbling, now beautifully renovated home. Cross a narrow bridge over a rushing stream, and you’re there.
The dining room has sanded plank floors, exposed beams and suspended mill trestles. A wall of windows looks out onto the stream and bridge. Upstairs is a school for local kids; downstairs, a stone-walled wine store with bottles carefully curated by The Lost Kitchen’s sommelier. There are no restaurant liquor licenses to be had in tiny Freedom, but you can buy wine at the store to drink at The Lost Kitchen, or bring your own.
The restaurant has only been open since last July, but news of it has spread, and customers now come from many miles away. Chef Erin French, who is entirely self-taught, creates unfussy, astonishingly delicious food using as few ingredients as possible in combinations that are both exciting and viscerally satisfying. She doesn’t rely on fancy sauces or avant-garde culinary techniques; she is rooted in tradition. She gets some of her recipes from her mother and grandmother, elevating them and making them her own.
French’s almost entirely female crew, whom she counts as close friends, are also local farmers. “I get the best produce,” she says. “My friend will text me a photo of a cauliflower in her field, and I’ll say, ‘Bring me 12 of those.’ ” Later, that friend will serve the cauliflower herself. Another friend who raises ducks taught French how to confit them. A third plates the salad greens she grows. Everything French serves is in season. Even in late-winter months, when local ingredients are scarce, she is resourceful, using wintered-over root vegetables like beets in complex-tasting sauces for braised short ribs, or crisp endive in a salad brightened with citrus and mellowed with a smoky bacon dressing. The Lost Kitchen is as farm-to-table as it gets. French even made the tables, in classic Maine DIY fashion, out of barn boards and plumbing fixtures.
French herself is as local as it gets. She was born and raised in Freedom. By the time she was 14, she was flipping burgers on the line in her parents’ diner, the Ridge Top, only a mile from the old mill. After college at Northeastern in Boston, she moved to California to become a doctor. At 21, an unexpected pregnancy derailed that dream. She moved back home to have her son, Jaim, now 12; her mother was her Lamaze partner.
Returning to Maine proved to be a good decision. French sold her own baked goods and worked for a local caterer for years; then, when she was 30, she started an underground supper club out of her apartment in Belfast, calling it The Lost Kitchen. She experimented and studied cookbooks obsessively. Her rigorous autodidacticism paid off—her weekly dinners sold out within minutes. She and her then-husband bought their building, an old bank; after a five-month renovation and build-out, French opened The Lost Kitchen downstairs. “It had crazy success,” she says. “I had a following.”
Almost two years ago, she lost the restaurant and many personal possessions, even her grandmother’s china, in a painful divorce. Broke, homeless and heartbroken, she moved to Freedom with Jaim, back in with her parents (“Thank God for them!”). They helped her raise money to buy a 1965 Airstream. She gutted it with a sledgehammer, then built a kitchen inside and gave pop-up dinner parties across Maine.
A friend, a farmer whose chickens are now served at The Lost Kitchen, told French to check out the town’s old mill. The first time she walked in, her jaw dropped. She presented a business plan to potential investors (mostly friends and family), cashed in an inheritance from her grandfather and signed a lease. Over the next several months, she built out a simple open kitchen behind a polished concrete island.
With symbolic aptness, The Lost Kitchen reopened last Independence Day. Four nights a week, French cooks with focused but easy efficiency for a sold-out room while her crew moves from fryer to counter to tables; the feeling in the candlelit space is calm, festive and homey all at once.
Ensconced in her community, French is bringing the world to Freedom. “I’ve come full circle,” she says. The Lost Kitchen, 22 Mill St., Freedom, ME; 207-382-3333.
Kate Christensen’s new book, How to Cook a Moose, will be published by Islandport Press in September.