FREEDOM, Maine — At midnight on April 1, the phones began to ring: Reservations were now open. By 12:30, the voice mail was full. In 24 hours, the Lost Kitchen — a 40-seat restaurant located inside an old mill here — received more than 10,000 calls from people hoping to come for dinner. It took the staff almost a week to return enough of them to declare the place booked for the 2017 season.
The restaurant has turned tiny Freedom — 16 miles west of Belfast, population 700 and change — into an unlikely dining destination. (“It’s a sleepy little village, really,” says Selectman Ron Price. “It’s a good place to live.”) People come from nearby Winslow and Waterville, but also from every time zone, to eat here.
The Lost Kitchen is the creation of Erin French, 36, a self-taught cook who grew up in the area, working at her family’s diner. “Everyone has been super supportive,” she says. “I was born here and raised here. I grew up making their meatloaf sandwiches.” The restaurant is open Wednesday through Saturday from May until New Year’s Eve. It has one seating a night, and one menu: Everyone eats what is served. And it is aptly named. It has been lost and found, and found again.
French started the Lost Kitchen as a supper club in 2010, operating out of the Belfast apartment she shared with her husband at the time. The following year, she opened a restaurant of the same name downstairs. It got glowing write-ups; French was invited to cook at New York’s prestigious Beard House, headquarters of the James Beard Foundation.
But she was working 20-hour days, drinking too much to cope with the stress. Her marriage was coming to a painful and bitter end. It took the restaurant down with it. She went to rehab, and her ex locked the doors and fired the staff, she says. She never got back in. He kept all of her pots and pans, her grandmother’s dishes. “For a minute I thought, ‘I’ll just kill him,’ ” she says, grating lemon rind for Bundt cakes in the downstairs kitchen, an apron tied over her striped shirt, her blond hair pulled back in a short ponytail. “But that wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere.”
She pauses, then laughs. “It must suck for him to look around and see all my [stuff].”
That’s French, part vulnerability, part grit. She speaks quickly — passionate when talking about food and Freedom, frank about her past, prone to self-deprecating, edgy jokes.
She needed to keep moving forward. She found an old Airstream trailer that was for sale, knocked out the insides, and turned it into the Lost Kitchen on wheels. She was living back home in Freedom with her parents, another unexpected turn in her life. She had attended Northeastern University for a time and hoped to go to medical school, but her plans were derailed when she got pregnant. Her son is now 14.
Meanwhile, the historic gristmill in town was being restored, set on the banks of Sandy Stream, on a slope beside a waterfall. The people who were giving the mill a new life were looking for a tenant for the main floor. It felt right: second chances all around. The Lost Kitchen opened in June 2014. Since then, magazines like Food & Wine and Martha Stewart Living have taken notice; in 2016, French was a semifinalist for a James Beard award. Her first cookbook, “The Lost Kitchen: Recipes and a Good Life Found in Freedom, Maine,” came out in May.
“I feel like when I stopped swimming upstream and just let go, it brought me to where I’m supposed to be,” French says. “I pinch myself that I’m here. Sometimes I go in the corner and have a quiet, silent cry because I’m thankful.”
Getting to the Lost Kitchen is a journey in itself. After finding the tiny town, and then the mill, customers cross over the waterfall on a long, narrow bridge that leads to the restaurant. Inside is all wood, from floorboards to beams, and the room smells warm, resinous. At the center is a long stove, on top of which soup simmers in vast gray Dutch ovens and local mushrooms release their aroma from cast-iron skillets. “My whole point is I want people to feel like it’s my home,” she says. “It’s my great joy, seeing people happy and well fed.” Dinner is about $100 per person, plus tax and tip, and might include four courses. But French throws extra surprises into every meal: light, crisp crab fritters; a palate cleanser of rhubarb and sweet tea sorbet in tiny Jadeite dishes shaped like hens; oysters. “There are always oysters,” she says.
There are pulleys from the old mill overhead and a millstone set in the floor, wood tables and gray Windsor chairs, vases of lupines, shelves filled with cookbooks. On the counter are wood boards for each table, which over the course of an afternoon fill gradually with tidbits: enameled cups of olives, oozing wedges of cheese, pink and purple radishes, assorted flowers. At the Lost Kitchen, there are flowers everywhere: strewn over the food, arranged around the room. French’s partner, who lives in New York (“Match.com!”), sends her an arrangement to buoy her through the evening. The aesthetic is lush and lovely. It feels deeply feminine.
That is not incidental. The restaurant is staffed almost entirely by women, with one exception: TJ the dishwasher, who lives across the street and doesn’t talk much. (“He’s the drummer to our band,” someone announces gleefully.) When French started the Lost Kitchen, she brought in a few friends to work alongside her. The menu is dictated by Maine’s seasonal ingredients, and women farmers would come by with food and flowers they had grown. (“Not men, I think they were intimidated,” says French.) Gradually, those farmers started working here, too: In the front of the house, you might find Ashley Savage, who grows all of the restaurant’s flowers, or Victoria Marshall, who owns nearby Dorolenna Farm with her husband, Andrew, supplying everything from tomatoes to chickens. All through prep and service, the mood is calm — no yelling, no slamming doors. French needs to be in a good space when she cooks. “I get to work with my best friends every night,” she says. “There’s no trouble. We love each other. It’s the only reason I’m able to make things shine.”
French’s sister, Alicia Richardson, handles the phones and reservations. And her mother, Deanna Richardson, is an integral part of the operation, arranging table settings with exactitude (“The pattern needs to be facing up!”), making sure menus are ready and printed, running the downstairs wine shop. In Freedom, nobody ever bothered to strike Prohibition-era laws from the books, so the Lost Kitchen can’t serve alcohol. Customers head to the store, purchase wine or beer, then bring it up to the table themselves in wicker baskets.
“It just feels like such a wonderful, special experience. A memory. You can eat there once and you’ll never forget it,” says Martha Lerman, who with her husband, Bill, runs Camp Caribou in Winslow (they live in Wayland, Mass., the rest of the year). “Everything you bite into is just the best version of that you’ve ever eaten. I’ve eaten a fair amount of places. I’d take the Lost Kitchen over any of them.”
That’s if you can get in. Despite the increasing acclaim, the volume of calls this year came as a surprise to French. “Two weeks before, I’d been saying, ‘If no one calls, it’s over. That’s all it takes.’ ” The staff is coming up with a new plan for 2018: Maybe they’ll assign reservations by lottery. Maybe they’ll have everyone write in and send $1, then donate $10,000 to a food-related cause. The local post office is in jeopardy, French says. Maybe they could use the money to save that!
When a cloud passes over the world of generosity and joy she has constructed, it shakes her. “A lot of people have a lot of opinions on how we should be doing things,” she says. “I want to say: ‘Oh yeah? What do you do for work?’ ” For all the praise, she frets about the rare negative comment posted online. “It’s so personal and intimate, satisfying people,” she says. “It really sucks when you don’t. And you get a nasty TripAdvisor review.” As the Lost Kitchen’s reputation grows, so does the pressure. “There are huge expectations. What happened to the simple days?” she says.
“If I stop having fun, I’m going to change my name and move to France.”
But first, there is dinner to serve: green-garlic and Swiss chard soup with mushrooms and pea tendrils; lovingly fluffed salads, embedded with blossoms; seared Maine bluefin tuna with polenta, tiny turnips, and greens; homey lemon-buttermilk cake.
The tables are set, the glassware is polished, the music plays, a soundtrack of obscure bands French likes. Customers file across the bridge, heading downstairs to buy wine. The evening takes on the tenor of a festive dinner party. “Nice to meet you!” “Nice to meet you, too!” No one is dressed up. The wooden room has good acoustics for laughter. One woman shakes up a round of pink margaritas in a Nalgene water bottle.
French brings out lit tapers in white candlesticks to each table. She tells her guests the story of their dinner: what they are eating, where it comes from. Then she offers a toast. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” she says. “This is my favorite place in the world.”