Erin French: Lost in Transition

At home in Freedom, chef Erin French of the Lost Kitchen is rebuilding a restaurant — and a life.

By Suzanne Rico
Photos by Séan Alonzo Harris
From our April 2015 issue

In a humid summer night in central Maine, inside a defunct 1834 gristmill, Erin French is working in an open kitchen, moving purposefully between an elegant Lacanche range and a white double farmhouse sink. The dining room’s seven tables are full, and candlelight softens the faces of the guests, just barely illuminating the rough wooden walls and the beamed ceiling, still ornamented with the mill’s original pulley system. French is putting the finishing touches of flash-fried fresh rosemary on an appetizer of cherrystone clams in a garlic-studded broth. Her shoulder-length blond hair is pulled back in a ponytail. She seems oblivious to the dining room beyond her countertop, unsmiling and focused on the plate in front of her, as if far more hinges on her perfect execution than only the success of this meal.

A 34-year-old self-taught chef who has cooked professionally for just four years, French is hoping that her new restaurant, the Lost Kitchen, will be her comeback venture following a humiliating downfall. In the span of a few months in 2013, she went from being an acclaimed restaurateur, invited to host a dinner at the renowned James Beard House, to losing her first restaurant, along with her home, marriage, and custody of her only child. It was a dramatic fall from grace — complete with drugs, booze, lost love, the works — and it gave the gossip mill in her then-home of Belfast a story to grind for months. For French, it was a tumultuous time of self-loathing — and self-discovery.

Until a couple of years ago, the Mill at Freedom Falls was a boarded-up wreck. French grew up in Freedom and remembers the place from her childhood: “a dilapidated old place with all the bad boys hanging around . . . my mom used to tell me to stay away.” In 2012, a retired investment banker from Camden began an 18-month passion project — a complete renovation during which the mill’s moss-slicked stone foundation was rebalanced and fortified. Around the time the project was being completed, French was doing some internal rebalancing of her own. When a local farmer told her that the mill’s new owners needed a ground-floor tenant, she saw an opportunity to dust off her psychic grime and move forward by doing what she loves: using fresh, locally grown ingredients to create meals infused with her country-girl personality.

“I’ve come full circle,” French says one morning, seated in the empty restaurant, gauzy light streaming through the paned windows. “You know? ‘Freedom’ found and all that.”

Though it only opened last July, the Lost Kitchen is already booking reservations weeks in advance, its reputation attracting diners who might otherwise have little reason to drop in on Freedom, population 719. From the handwritten guest checks (no computer screens here) to the austere metal coat rack and plain pine hangers in the entry hall, every detail at the restaurant embodies the simplicity that French says she now craves. The restaurant’s only other full-time employee, helping to serve, seat, and clear tables, is French’s 59-year-old mother, Deanna Richardson.

When French was a kid, her parents owned a diner just outside Freedom called Ridgetop Restaurant. She started learning to cook there when she was in kindergarten, around the same time she was learning to ice-skate on the pond next to the dilapidated old mill. On weekends and after school, French flipped burgers and stuffed lobster rolls, picking nasturtium flowers from her mother’s garden for garnish. At home, she played restaurant instead of house. Whether her mother was serving hot dogs or spaghetti for supper, Erin would often decorate the table with candles and colored lights, placing a handmade menu next to each plate to create a dining experience, never wanting a meal to be consumed without contemplation and care.

The Lost Kitchen occupies the ground floor of the restored Mill at Freedom Falls.
The Lost Kitchen occupies the ground floor of the restored Mill at Freedom Falls.

It wasn’t until in 2010, when French turned 30, that she started taking seriously the prospect of a career in cooking. By then, she was a college dropout getting by on waitressing, bartending, and catering gigs. She’d been married since 2006 to a Belfast boatbuilder, Todd French, and the two were living in Belfast, raising her eight-year-old son from a previous relationship. With her 20s behind her, French suddenly felt a pressure to make her mark, and the place she felt most comfortable doing it was in the kitchen. Without any formal training, however, she knew she’d be lucky to find work as a line cook.

So instead, French launched a series of informal dinners that she called Secret Suppers, served on Saturday nights in a rented apartment on the top floor of Belfast’s Gothic Building, a landmark 19th-century former bank. Each week, two dozen diners paid up to $40 (a suggested donation) for a seat at French’s table, where she served traditional Maine favorites with a twist, like miniature lobster rolls with baby arugula, aioli, and pickled purple carrot slaw. The first Secret Suppers were attended by friends and acquaintances, but within Belfast’s burgeoning foodie community, word quickly spread that something special was cooking at the Gothic. Within a couple of months, French’s Secret Suppers email list — and waiting list — had grown long.

“I wasn’t surprised that it caught on,” says Nancy Harmon Jenkins, a Camden-based food writer who attended some of the Secret Suppers. “Her food was glamorous, but not over the top.” French’s presentation, Harmon Jenkins says, was extraordinary. “Every time I posted something [about the suppers] on Facebook, there would be people asking, ‘Where is it? How can I get in?’”

The success of the Secret Suppers gave French an abrupt underground foodie cachet — no culinary education needed. And to this day, she makes no bones about her up-by-the-bootstraps pedigree.

“It makes me uncomfortable when people call me a chef,” she says. “I’m like, nope! I’m just a girl who cooks.”

In May of 2011, the girl who cooks and her husband took out a mortgage and bought the Gothic Building. Six months later, she opened a restaurant on the ground floor called the Lost Kitchen. It was more or less an instant hot ticket, garnering attention from the likes of The New York Times and Elle Décor. French threw herself into the work, creating five new menus a week, cooking on the line in the evenings, handling the demands of intensely local sourcing, keeping up a rather grandiloquent blog — and, of course, parenting her son.

“I felt like I got permission to follow my dreams,” she says.

The Lost Kitchen had been open for more than a year when the James Beard Foundation invited French to Manhattan, to host a dinner at its prestigious Beard House series. It was a huge vote of confidence. But as French’s culinary star rose, so did her stress level. She was putting in 18-hour workdays. Before long, the glass of wine she liked to nurse while cooking turned into two or three, then a whole bottle. She started taking, then abusing, prescription drugs for anxiety and depression. As her downward spiral gained speed, her already tumultuous marriage — a seven-year union that included fights so virulent, the police were sometimes called — exploded like a poorly built house in a hurricane.

“The restaurant tipped our stress point beyond what it could handle,” French says today. She keeps her tone neutral and chooses her words carefully when discussing her marriage, as if picking a path through a still-dangerous territory. “And it was bitter. You know how you get those nasty divorces? Well, this was in the 1 percent of the nasty ones.”

But as French’s culinary star rose, so did her stress level. She was putting in 18-hour workdays. Before long, the glass of wine she liked to nurse while cooking turned into two or three, then a whole bottle.

In April of 2013 — a year-and-a-half after launching the Lost Kitchen, and just weeks before what was to be her triumphant Beard House dinner — the court battle resulting from her divorce left French locked out of both her restaurant and her apartment. Of the restaurant, the only thing French still owned was the name.

“One flip of a lock, and I lost everything,” she remembers. “Every whisk. Every skillet.”

Worse still, a magistrate awarded temporary custody of French’s 10-year-old son to his father.

“I considered suicide, big time. Between losing my job, my apartment, and my son, there didn’t seem to be much reason to go on.”

French’s mom saw the warning signs. A lifelong educator who has worked with troubled children, Richardson begged her daughter to get help.

“I stayed with her for weeks to make sure she was eating and safe and sleeping,” she remembers. “We worked out a rating scale from 1 to 10, a 10 meaning that she felt good. She would say a number — ‘I’m a 2 today, Mom’ — and I would know she was feeling bad.”

Bill collectors started calling. French’s depression was devastating. She agreed to enter treatment at a women’s rehabilitation center in Chicago. Then, at the airport, French suddenly balked: If she left now, would she have anything to come back to?

“I don’t often use the f-word, but that night I did,” says Richardson. Even now, at the memory, the emotion sets her mouth into a tight, protective line. “I said, ‘You are getting on that f-ing airplane!’ She was so distraught.”

French boarded the plane, landed in Chicago, and checked into rehab.

She stayed two weeks in treatment before her insurance company refused to cover any further bills. Still detoxing, French flew to Arizona to stay with friends for two more weeks, attending outpatient programs and enduring the last tremors of withdrawal. She returned to Freedom on Mother’s Day — shaky and skinny, but clean and sober. Not a week later, she traveled to New York to host her sold-out dinner at the Beard House.

“I think of it as ‘The School of Me,’” French says of rehab. “I walked in there and met so many women who were in for so many reasons. This one was depressed, this one was an addict — but we were all basically just these women in pain.”

Seated in the empty Lost Kitchen dining room, French looks across the room at her son, engrossed in a book at one of the nearby dinner tables. She now shares custody with her ex.

“It was amazing to sit in there,” she says, lowering her voice, “and just to spill out this shit-ton of pain. It’s amazing the healing you can accomplish.”

These days, French dedicates Sundays to rest, family, and good food — even talking about work is forbidden.
These days, French dedicates Sundays to rest, family, and good food — even talking about work is forbidden.

A month after coming back, French borrowed $5,000 from friends and family to buy a 1965 Airstream trailer and parked it by the pond near her parents’ farmhouse. She took a sledgehammer to its interior (extremely satisfying, she says), installed an upgraded kitchen, and, come summer, revived her old email list to let people know she was cooking again. French started offering private pop-up dinners much like the Secret Suppers, parking the Airstream in idyllic, handpicked spots around the midcoast: freshly mowed fields, apple orchards, an old barn sitting off a dirt road. The Airstream became a mobile haven that allowed French to bring “fork to field,” as she wrote in a blog post. Her blog went on to detail the list of things she accomplished that summer. Among them:

Used a skill saw for the first time.

Got a wicked suntan. Years overdue.

Dried zillions of calendula blossoms. Still wondering what to do with them.

Adopted a dog. Still question who rescued whom.

By fall, French had signed a lease for the mill space. Her goal was to transform the loft-like ground floor into a simple, homey-yet-elegant restaurant. To do it, she used a small settlement from her divorce, investments from friends, and cheeky determination. When she found a range she couldn’t afford, she cold-called the French company Lacanche and described the restaurant she envisioned. They said they loved what she was doing and negotiated a price she could afford. French reached out to the local women farmers who’d stocked her larder at the Belfast restaurant and asked them to play a role in the reboot.

From the dining room, she points into the kitchen at a lithe, tattooed woman with a suntanned face. “She raises and kills the ducks,” French says, “and her daughter is washing dishes while she’s home from school.”

Every detail at the Lost Kitchen embodies the simplicity that French says she now craves.

When they’re not in the field with their crops, these women help French cook and serve the meals she creates each week. They are central to the restaurant’s success in more ways than one: French’s culinary philosophy is to let their bounty determine the direction of the menu.

“I don’t think about what I’m going to do for the week and then go out and buy the food,” she says. “I see what comes in, and then I create the meals around that.”

In cooking, as in life, French has learned how to start from zero, and then assemble things using only what’s at hand. She starts with clean, earthy flavors and follows her intuition to put them together in inventive ways. She’s up front about her shortcomings and how keeping things simple helps to compensate.

“I don’t know how to make sauces,” French admits, “so I just don’t sauce things. This is place-driven food. Here we are, right now, and this is what’s for dinner.”

A recent dinner at the Lost Kitchen started out with skillet-roasted clams with rosemary, lavender, and lime, followed by golden beet soup with a dollop of goat cheese and roasted walnuts. Then came line-caught, sushi-grade bluefin tuna niçoise, served with red potatoes hardly bigger than pearls. The farmer who grew them happened to be the waitress, so she offered some background on the soil and weather conditions in which they thrive.

“Erin loves them,” said the farmer-waitress, before retreating to the kitchen. “So we save all of them for her.”

The restaurant’s tranquil atmosphere evokes a time when high technology meant water rushing through the big wooden waterwheel outside — the stream’s steady whisper is part of the restaurant’s soundtrack. When French wants flowers for her tables, she walks through a field behind the restaurant and retrieves them from a neighbor’s greenhouse. During the day, the farmers come and go, delivering shining Bermuda onions or chickens freshly plucked, sometimes pausing to suggest a new dessert item or remark how fast the corn is ripening. Whether the Lost Kitchen’s idyllic insularity will be an asset or a drawback remains to be seen.

“All the way out in Freedom?” wonders food writer Harmon Jenkins. “In the summer, sure. But in November? We’ll see if she can sustain that.”

“It makes me uncomfortable when people call me a chef,” French says. “I’m like, nope! I’m just a girl who cooks.”

As for French, she’s the first to admit that she’s still learning to sustain herself. Much like Freedom’s restored mill, she is sturdier now, but still vulnerable. To keep her stress level in check, she opens the restaurant just four days a week and dedicates Sundays to rest and relaxation — even talking about work is off limits. For someone who identifies as “just a girl who cooks,” she is increasingly savvy about marketing: French has a manager in LA, a potential TV project in development, and a cookbook on the way from a Random House culinary imprint, inspired by the town she grew up in and the state she loves. After living for more than a year in the Airstream behind her parents’ house, she’s recently moved into a place of her own — though French says she’ll always keep the trailer as a reminder of how fast life can veer into a ditch.

Walking out across the narrow bridge that spans the stream behind the Lost Kitchen, French turns around to look at the resilient old building that’s provided her this second chance.

“I’ve been imbalanced for most of my adult life,” she says. “I never let the restaurant suffer, but I let myself suffer. I let my marriage suffer. So I’m really working on balance. Because I never want to mess this up.”

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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