Erin French Has Made The Lost Kitchen a Maine Institution

Erin French Has Made The Lost Kitchen a Maine Institution

This spring Erin French published her memoir, Finding Freedom, about the years that led to the founding of her renowned restaurant, The Lost Kitchen, in Freedom, Maine. 

At first, she said, “I felt too young to be saying that I had a memoir,” but she came to recognize that, “actually, a lot has happened in a short period of time.” 

Not all of what happened in those years was good or easy, but it all made her who she is today. 

Erin grew up in Freedom, often working for her dad at his diner in Belfast. In Finding Freedom, she writes about starting college at Northeastern University, with the idea of becoming a doctor. After two years, she set aside that dream, she writes. Instead, her path led to joblessness, single parenthood, a harmful first marriage, anxiety, depression, and addictions to alcohol and prescription medications. 

Life, as she says, can be full of “imperfect moments.” 

With her son Jaim as inspiration, Erin went into rehab in 2013 and gradually righted herself. She turned to her lifelong love affair with food and cooking. For her, cooking has similarities with being a doctor—in that both involve, “working with your hands and caring for people.” In the summer of 2014, her natural culinary ability, self-taught skills, and tremendous capacity for hard work led to her opening The Lost Kitchen, located in a restored 19th-century grist mill. 

People come from all over the world to experience the exceptional cuisine and warm atmosphere. 

It was a great pleasure to speak with this strong, resourceful woman and to learn more about her remarkable life. Happily married to media executive Michael Dutton, Erin has found a new sense of community, along with new opportunities to share what she loves best: good food that is down to earth and in season—elegant, but not fussy. 

When I asked her, “Do you have a favorite dish?” she answered, “Oh, my gosh. Oh, there are so many. I mean, one of my favorite recipes is my rhubarb spoon cake. I love making that one. It’s a really simple cake made in a skillet. It’s just simple and delicious.”  

 

Mary: 

How did you do all you’ve done? How did your success happen?  

Erin: 

“It happens slowly, but quickly. I don’t know. It has surprised me with how popular it’s been since, really, day one. I don’t think we’ve ever had an evening, back to even my first restaurant, that wasn’t totally slammed and booked out. And I’ve never placed an advertisement, never even had a sign. There’s no sign! So, people really found it out, and it’s been wild. 

“I wondered what makes this place so special? I think it’s just that feeling of home and food that makes you feel loved. And it’s approachable at the same time. You can be comfortable in your skin when you’re in our space.” 

Mary: 

Would you say you have found your comfort zone? 

Erin: 

“Being right here in Freedom is really my comfort zone and having an amazing group of women around me—that are my village, my coworkers, my neighbors, my best friends. Having that comradery has been empowering for me. When I really decided to just dig my feet into the dirt and love where I lived and love where I came from, the world just seemed to open up for me. 

Mary: 

What about your cooking talent? Was it something that was in you? Something you just had to do? 

Erin: 

It was in me, but I think I learned it from a young age. My father bought the diner in Belfast when I was five years old, so I was always surrounded by food. And coming from a family that always enjoyed cooking, it was my comfortable place. I was learning how to cook through intuition and not from formal training. I was teaching myself what I thought tasted good together and how I thought dishes should be, as opposed to going to culinary school where they tell you this is what you make and this is how you make it. I was making it up on my own.  

I had a lot of play time at the diner, where—because it was my dad’s diner—I felt I could have that freedom of expression. Whereas if I was working for someone else, maybe I wouldn’t have. I probably would have followed the rules a little bit better. 

Mary: 

Can you describe how your restaurant, The Lost Kitchen, works?  

Erin: 

Well, I change the menu every day. So, it’s whatever I’m making. You come in, and it’s a prix fixe menu. There are eight to ten courses. You just sit down and don’t make any decisions and I just start bringing out the food. 

Mary: 

Do you still do all the cooking? 

Erin: 

Yes.  I mean, if something happened to me and I couldn’t be here, the restaurant could not be open for that evening. Can’t give it up yet. 

Mary:  

You handle table reservations by a postcard lottery system.  How did you come up with that idea? 

Erin: 

Well, we had gotten to a point, year after year, where the restaurant just kept getting more popular. The first year we were shocked. We were booked out two weeks in advance. I thought that was just insane. But then the next year, it was booked months out. And then after that, it just exploded, and we couldn’t keep up with it. 

We realized that we were at a point where I didn’t want to grow the restaurant, and we had hit our ceiling. We were never going to be able to seat everyone who wanted to eat here. And we had also crashed our phone system. We’d be listening to these garbled messages from people leaving their names and phone numbers, which if we were lucky, we could decipher. The last year that we did phones was just an absolute nightmare.  

So how do we make it fair? Now we have the system where you just write your name and phone number down on a postcard, send us the postcard, and we’ll just pull a selection from a hat. That felt like it was fair for everyone and made it easier on our staff. And it meant that people wanting a reservation didn’t have to be listening to busy signals on the telephone for six hours straight before maybe getting through to a full voicemail box. 

Mary: 

How many postcards do you get a week? 

Erin: 

I couldn’t even tell you. I mean, we have a 14-foot table here in the dining room that’s one of our big dining tables, and it is covered, every inch, with thousands—tens of thousands—of postcards.  

Mary:  

Is it true that you, your team, and others interested in the restaurant have been helping those in Maine without enough to eat, in these difficult times? 

Erin: 

Yes, we have asked people to share, to consider making a donation for our local food insecurities here. There’s a nonprofit organization, and we have raised over $330,000.  

Mary: 

Do you think about creating a restaurant chain or at least another restaurant? 

Erin: 

No. Oh, I made that commitment to myself a long time ago. It’s what I told myself. I’ve been very firm with myself that I had no intention of opening another restaurant or growing it. I recognize that part of what makes this place so special is that it’s small and it’s intimate. When people come here, they get my 100-percent attention. If I grew it and turned it into something else, that magic would just disappear. So instead of growing it over the years since its popularity has exploded, I’ve really been working on protecting it and keeping it small and keeping it sweet and keeping it special. 

Mary: 

How did you decide to write your new book? 

Erin: 

I’d written the cookbook [The Lost Kitchen: Recipes and a Good Life Found in Freedom, Maine: A Cookbook (2017)], and I remember my editor saying, “Well, your next book, you’ll just feel it. You’ll feel it burning inside of you.” 

And I did!  I had that feeling inside of me that I needed to tell my story. I had given snippets of it through the cookbook, and people had gotten little wisps of it here and there. People would reach out to me, and they said how much it inspired them. I realized that I had a story to tell that wasn’t just “a story to tell”—it was a story that could maybe inspire and change other people’s lives.  

Because as you look at this place now, it’s exploded with popularity, and it looks like this fairytale out here—this restaurant by a waterfall in the middle of nowhere, run by this young woman. I wanted people to understand everything it took to get to this point. It didn’t come on a silver platter. It came with a lot of sweat and blood and tears.  

But it could be maybe a beacon of hope for other people who have gone through similar things like I have. I know at my lowest points, I felt so dark and in the depths of despair, I didn’t know if I’d ever make it out. I thought that this story would be something inspiring that might keep people going. They could see, “Oh, you were that low, and now you’re this high—the possibilities are really endless.” 

Mary: 

How did your cooking show on TV get started? 

Erin: 

The world really has been coming at us for years now, and we’ve had every opportunity under the sun, and we’ve said no to a lot. But we recognize that, again, there was an opportunity to share stories in a meaningful and powerful way that could provide empowerment for others on their own journey. We waited. We said we were going to say no to everything until we found just the right way to tell this story in an authentic and inspiring way. And we found ourselves partnering up with a production team we felt comfortable with. My husband comes with a media background, so he’d had some friends we felt confident with.  

We felt that we were in good hands, and we put it out there and then Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia Network [streaming on Discovery Plus] picked it up. They saw the story and believed in it, and here we are. We’re shooting today, actually. It’s a documentary style, so they’ll be following me all this week as I’m making my menu, and then filming what we ended up serving. 

Mary: 

Has there been talk of a movie?  

Erin: 

Actually, I can tell you this because it just happened. I just sold the rights to the memoir, and it is being turned into a film. The production company is called Made Up Stories, founded by Bruna Papandrea [an Australian film and television producer]. There’s still so much that they have to get in place, but I think it’s their hope to start shooting next spring or summer.  It’s pretty wild.  

Mary: 

That’s great! Do you get to cast who you want to play you? 

Erin: 

I get to have a say. 

Mary: 

Where do you think your strength comes from? 

Erin: 

I think part of the answer is I was just born with it. I grew up around a very strong grandmother who had just a wild work ethic. She would work from the moment she got up to the moment she closed her eyes at night, and there was no stopping her. She was always moving things that were ten times bigger than her, always moving, running around the kitchen. There’s definitely some of that—a bit of her. And I don’t know, I guess it’s also a Maine way. When we suffer through these long winters, it builds strength and character. 

Mary: 

Where do you see yourself going from here? Where do you think that this is all going to take you? 

Erin: 

We’ll see. I don’t generally tend to plan far out. I kind of take things season by season. I hope that in 10 years, I’m still right here doing this exact same thing. 

I’m going to keep doing this as long as I love it. And I just hope that I love it for a very long time and can keep at it. 

 

For more information on The Lost Kitchen, visit, https://www.findthelostkitchen.com/ 

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