FREEDOM, Maine — May in Maine is when summer feels like it’s finally inching a bit closer. Ocean breezes turn balmy, buds appear on long-barren trees, and there’s a sudden flurry of outdoor activity.
It’s also a month when some seasonal restaurants typically fling open their doors, including one of Maine’s most legendary, The Lost Kitchen, known for its exquisite, multicourse, farm-to-table dinners hosted in a renovated 1834 gristmill in the tiny town of Freedom.
But nothing is typical about this year, and as restaurants everywhere have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and are endeavoring to reinvent themselves as they comply with the CDC’s safety guidelines for reopening, The Lost Kitchen is no exception.
Owner Erin French, 39, had originally planned The Lost Kitchen’s opening for May 15. But now, even though Maine’s governor has allowed restaurants to open, French has delayed popping the champagne corks.
She is thinking hard about how to reopen safely and responsibly and whether her intimate dining room, which seats 40 at its long, communal table and several nearby smaller tables and has a wide-open kitchen, even makes sense this year. Also top of mind is how she and her team can still deliver the same level of hospitality The Lost Kitchen has been known for since opening in 2014.
But the big night is not far off, she says, revealing via video call what has heretofore been a well-kept secret: “We’re thinking about mid-to-late July, but we’ll open in a different form.” That form, she explains, will likely feature little cabins or dining pods in the woods on her land, where servers would deliver meals to much smaller groups.
Details such as menu and price haven’t been set. (In the past, cost for the seven-course, prix-fixe dinner was $135 without wine and tip.) She has higher priorities now, such as meetings with the “tree guys” about clearing space.
French seems excited at the prospect of opening outdoors, but she is also keenly aware of the challenge of recreating what she had. “People come here for a feeling even more than for the food. How can I make them feel like they are in my own home and give them the feeling of a warm hug when handing over a paper box with a mask and gloves?”
That “feeling of a warm hug” stayed with Nina Schmir, a French teacher from Portland who dined at The Lost Kitchen in 2018. She says it was one of the “best dining experiences of my life,” not only for the farm-fresh, seasonal dishes so prettily presented, but even more “because Erin and the entire Lost Kitchen staff made us feel so incredibly special.”
This personal touch extends to the The Lost Kitchen’s endearingly quirky lottery-reservation system: Prospective diners must send a 3-by-5-inch postcard during a two-week window in early April, and then hope their card is picked from among the thousands received each year from around the globe.
“We haven’t even counted them this year,” says French, adding that she and her staff have extended the timeline and are still accepting postcards.
Meanwhile, she says, she’s never been busier.
French, who penned an award-winning cookbook and has been recognized multiple times by the James Beard Foundation — including this year as a semifinalist for Best Chef Northeast — has been finishing up a memoir and filming a TV project.
Then there’s the Lost Kitchen’s primary pandemic pivot: a weekly farmers’ market that she and her team launched in late March to feed fellow Mainers and keep the farms and other suppliers that serve them afloat. It’s not a for-profit endeavor, but it has profound payoffs that seem more important now.
“We help them to survive, and that helps us to survive,” says Michael Dutton, French’s husband and manager. “It’s a symbiotic relationship, and everyone involved is ecstatic about it.”
On a recent Saturday morning, French and her volunteer helpers — Dutton, her mother, Deanna, son Jaim, and several friends who are also part of the restaurant crew — are laser focused as they prepare nearly 350 orders for the arrival of customers that pull up to the curbside market starting at noon. Orders are placed online during a live sale every Wednesday, and some items, like croissants and cannolis, sell out within minutes.
Together they set up bags and boxes of about 170 different local products, including asparagus, fiddleheads, rhubarb, radishes, mesclun and mache greens, wood-fired loaves of miche, a variety of cheeses, wines, soaps, and more. Perishables go into refrigerators in French’s Airstream trailer (which housed her former pop-up restaurant), large bunches of bright orange poppies and other just-picked flowers are placed into tall, galvanized containers, and shellfish is buried in ice.
Close to opening, Sarah Xiao pulls up in her green pickup with crates of fresh oysters and clams from Glidden Farm Oyster Co. in Edgecomb, Maine. Before the pandemic, business was bustling, Xiao says. Soon after things shut down, she saw French’s Instagram post about the market and jumped at the chance to be a part of it. Since then, she’s been selling between 300 to 600 oysters and 200 to 300 clams at the market each week.
“This market has been amazing for us,” she says. “Erin has been really flexible and super supportive.”
Shey Conover agrees. She makes the trip weekly from Islesboro to deliver mussels from Marshall Cove Mussels, a business she and her husband started in 2016. “Before the world changed, we were selling to restaurants all over New England,” she says. “We so appreciate this market and how we can sell direct to consumers.”
Soon after the shellfish is unloaded, the cars start lining up. Customers come from near and far and seem tickled to be there, and during the brief handoff, French greets them with a broad smile in her floppy straw sunhat just as warmly as if they’d arrived in her dining room.
“How many dogs do you have in that truck?” she asks a customer, as she tosses a couple of gift-wrapped meaty bones into her box. “My dog loves these.”
Another woman leaps from her car and surprises French with a big white box on which she’s drawn a red heart. “I made you chocolate croissants!” she exclaims as she places the box on the ground, then dashes back to her car.
Nicole Ashley has made the 90-mile trip north from Portland every Saturday since the market opened. She enjoys the drive, the break from her busy family life, and the products, especially the bread from Tinder Hearth bakery. But more than that, she says, “I just love these people, and I want to support them.”
Before the next car moves into position, there’s a brief lull, and the voice of Stevie Wonder singing “Higher Ground” can be heard coming from a small speaker. “The world keeps on turning, 'cause it won’t be too long.”
This market version of The Lost Kitchen will “keep going as long as there’s a need for it,” Dutton says. It’s nourishing people and strengthening community in profound ways during a painfully tough time.
But tough times and the need to adapt to them are nothing new to French, who years ago, weathered a difficult divorce and the loss of her original restaurant before landing firmly on her feet.
“The Lost Kitchen was born from struggle and as a pivot,” she says confidently. “That’s part of its spirit.”
Jennifer G. Wolcott can be reached at Jennifergwolcott@gmail.com.