FREEDOM, Maine — Erin French takes a seat at the head of an empty table that fills her tiny cabin along with the smell of fresh pine. “Last year we were set up to have the best year ever, so I bought this table — a real piece of furniture — for my own house,” says French. “Then COVID hit and I said, ‘Oh, that’s going to the cabin.’”
She tells me everything’s riding on this tiny house and two more tucked a stone’s throw away along a pond in the woods of Maine, since her world-renowned 44-seat restaurant, named one of Time Magazine’s Greatest Places in 2018, hasn’t reopened in COVID. Private cabin dining will start this spring, and eventually transition into overnight glamping, as part of French’s COVID plan to keep business going. Over the past year, outdoor patio lunches and a few dinners, and popular farmer’s and online markets have also kept her afloat. The Lost Kitchen will eventually reopen seasonally to diners all over the globe — by postcard reservation lottery as always — in the old mill across the pond here in French’s hometown of Freedom, population 722.
Her bottom line may be down 86 percent since early last year, but things are starting to look up all over again for French, who’s no stranger to resilience. In 2021, she’s already celebrated the April 7 release of her memoir, “Finding Freedom,” which earned glowing reviews from Martha Stewart and Ina Garten. Meanwhile, French’s six-episode TV series, “The Lost Kitchen,” premiered on Magnolia Network on Jan. 6. From Chip and Joanna Gaines of “Fixer Upper,” viewers get a behind-the-scenes look in and around the mill over the course of the pandemic.
The series, which her husband, Michael Dutton, helped produce, begins in the tail end of French’s successful 2019 season in a bustling single-room restaurant with just the right candlelight, her signature flower arrangements, and beautiful dishes from local farmers from what’s in season. By episode two, COVID’s hit and viewers are watching what feels like an entirely different show: French’s fight to maintain her creative vision while pivoting to save her restaurant for the second time. “I was scared that I was going to lose it all again. But there’s something about Maine. People here are scrappy and resourceful. We have to go through these four seasons and transition every year,” she says. “I think there’s a bit of that built into us to just keep going.” French and her close-knit female staff with no formal training got here in the first place through love and grit. “I didn’t want to make the restaurant, the show, or the book about anything other than what was the honest truth,” says French, who once turned down an offer to star on Bravo TV’s “Top Chef.”
The foundation of her business was built on learning how to respond and pivot, even when things aren’t going well. Almost 20 years ago, after getting pregnant in college, she moved home to Freedom to raise her son. “I saw Freedom as a dead-end place,” she says. With skills from her teenage years of flipping burgers at her dad’s diner up the hill, she persevered to open her first restaurant, only to lose it all 10 years ago in an ugly divorce.
In mud boots, French and I walk out of the cabin to the mill, passing a 1965 Airstream where she lived in her parents’ driveway back then, after she hit rock bottom. “I thought literally, everything’s over, you can never do this again. Your entire dream has been crushed,” she says.
But she got help for her depression and addiction, decided she wasn’t going to let four walls define her, and started the supper club that evolved into The Lost Kitchen in 2014. The Airstream, which represents her undeniable willingness to adapt, was put to good use again last year to host a handful of patio lunches and dinners outside the mill, as seen on the show. “That was another moment of, ‘OK, time to reinvent yourself again. You’ve done this before,’” she tells me.
Now we get to know a deeper side of French, who grew up on diner food before school and chasing feral barn kittens in the afternoons, as she candidly describes in her book. Through the highs and utter lows, it chronicles how cooking gave her the strength to dig herself out of difficulty and follow her dreams, listen and adapt, and come to love her home state of Maine, which she calls a lifestyle choice. “It’s a special place. I love being where my mom is less than 10 minutes down the road and my friends all live nearby. It’s a little village that we built,” she explains, over the rumble of a chainsaw that belongs to her neighbor, who doubles as her landlord. His daughter runs the small private school in the space above The Lost Kitchen, and his son supplies French’s produce and meats from the Villageside Farm next door — one of many area organic farms that she’s been determined to continue supporting throughout the pandemic. She’s as thoughtful about the people around her as the food that she cooks. “If I’m working with an ingredient from someone that I care about a lot, that dish means that much more to me. It’s so much richer because of that friendship, because of that connection. It just makes the ingredients feel that much more special,” she says.
For French, The Lost Kitchen has always been about providing comfort for her guests with simple, fresh, locally sourced ingredients at what feels like a perfect dinner party with your best friends. But last year, things got more complicated for all of us. Some of the patio guests she welcomed hadn’t been out to eat in seven months. “They were expecting us to give them the best meal of their lives and trusting us to keep them alive,” says French. With cameras rolling, she broke down in tears the morning before that first dinner when learning a staff member had a positive COVID test — which she later found out was a false positive. The dinner was canceled, and she sent to-go boxes with a $2,000 tuna steak home with the cast.
Even with an additional bank loan last year, The Lost Kitchen isn’t about going bigger with more restaurants. “It was about that first restaurant and the toxic marriage I was in, and saying, ‘What is it all worth? How do you really want to live your life?’ I think it does take realizing what you don’t want, to get what you want,” she says. “Once we were happy with a certain level, opportunities came to us when we weren’t looking for them.” And that proved to be true even during a very difficult year.
Anna Fiorentino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.