Inside a historic gristmill on the edge of a pond in Freedom, Erin French is practicing a rare form of magic – transforming fresh, local ingredients into dishes of exceptional simplicity and astounding flavor. Call it alchemy, or call it inspiration, her cooking is quietly creative (she’s largely self-taught), profoundly satisfying and resolutely unfussy.
“The food we serve here at The Lost Kitchen reflects me and reflects this part of Maine,” she says during a rare moment away from her restaurant. “It’s the traditional, comforting American food that my mother and grandmother made – the best foods of my life – but elevated and taken to a new place.”
Getting to this place wasn’t particularly easy. Born and raised in Freedom, French, now 34, left “to find myself … but after several years I still hadn’t figured out what to do.” She returned to Maine and started a supper club in an apartment in Belfast, cooking Saturday night meals for up to 24 customers on a four-burner 1987 GE electric stove. The dinners proved so successful that she opened a bricks-and-mortar restaurant downstairs called The Lost Kitchen, and quickly garnered local and national accolades. And then her life fell apart. “A very bad divorce cost me everything I’d built and sent me back to square one,” she explains.
What do you do when you’re down and out? You go home. That’s what she did in 2013.
Intent on cooking and staying in touch with loyal customers, she gutted a 1965 Airstream and turned it into a mobile kitchen for a new, roving supper club. French was scouting locations when a friend told her to check out the revitalized mill building in town. “I lived 2 miles away with my parents and remembered it as dilapidated, but when I walked inside I thought, ‘My God, this is it. This is what’s next. I’m going to open The Lost Kitchen again in the middle of nowhere – in Freedom of all places.’ ”
Today, the restaurant fills the ground floor of The Mill at Freedom Falls, an impeccably restored 1834 building that was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places. Walk inside and take in the scents – the butter sizzling on French’s stove (seven burners this time), the peppery lupine that fills an enormous glass vase on a community table in the center of the room, and herbs – thyme and rosemary, mint and tarragon – piled near flats of nasturtiums on the counter in front of the open kitchen.
The menu isn’t expansive (there were eight appetizers and four entrees on the night we visited); it’s accessible and seasonal. “We change the menu constantly, pretty much every day,” French explains. “It really has to do with whatever is coming on. I hate making a grocery list and trying to find things. I’d much rather see what’s coming in from our local farmers and suppliers, and then try to make sense of what to do.”
Take the mussels, delivered to the table in a blazing hot cast-iron skillet. They’re delicate and mild, flavored this evening with a single branch of thyme, a halved lime squeezed over the pan and a generous knob of butter that blends with the shellfish liquor to create a rich sauce for dunking. (The broth was so delicious that I heard one customer ask a waitress, “Can you bring me a spoon – or a straw?”) French says she doesn’t have many rules, other than keeping her cooking simple. Well, simple rarely tasted this good.
I turned to a friend who was savoring her own appetizer, thin slices of wild Atlantic salmon crudo ($8), and speared a sliver. Brightened with a spritz of lemon juice and moistened with a drizzle of olive oil, the fish tasted clean and pure, felt smooth on my tongue and looked ravishing mounded onto a length of slate. (French collects roof slates from a friend’s field and uses them as serving pieces.) Each morsel of salmon appeared with a few shallots macerated in rice wine vinegar, and basil shoots so young they smelled almost like licorice.
Our outstanding waitress – a farmer who raises chickens – said we had to try the spinach salad ($11) because of the poached egg, and I was glad we did. An ode to French’s mother, who often served spinach salad as a midweek dinner, this version dressed young spinach from Century Farm in Morrill in an oily bacon vinaigrette and was studded with crunchy skillet croutons. And that egg! Soft and supple with a dark orange yolk, it oozed into the spinach, creating a dressing as thick and creamy as hollandaise. I felt like Oliver in the musical: “Please, sir, I want some more?”
Wowed by our appetizers (less was much, much more than I’d imagined), I sliced into my entrée, Village Farm roasted chicken ($26) from the farm next door. This dish was yet another paean to simplicity. The skin was crackling and golden brown, the dark and white pieces equally juicy and flavorful. (That’s no mean feat; French says that brining with juniper berries and bay leaf renders the birds both plump and savory.) Contrasting the meat’s tender texture was a crispy slaw made with radishes and baby hakurei turnips topped with a dollop of tart yogurt.
The clarity of flavors at The Lost Kitchen never wavers. A generous portion of Maine halibut ($32) tasted nearly buttery and benefited from a hint of saltiness provided by a few fried capers scattered over the plate. I ate every forkful, rolling the capers onto the halibut and savoring the oceanic taste.
Just as good was another friend’s succulent lamb chop ($42) from North Star in Windham served with a Moroccan carrot salad prepared with orange flower water and cilantro. Both the lamb and the salad reduced my friend’s husband to silence. “We’ve been to Morocco,” he said after finding his voice. “This is better than Morocco.”
I looked around the restaurant watching French working joyfully – not frantically – in the kitchen, and the waitresses as they retrieved butter from the antique Frigidaire in the corner or checked on diners at the seven other tables. The atmosphere at The Lost Kitchen mirrors the food. It’s deceptively simple but delightfully soothing. French says “I want people coming for dinner to feel like they’re coming into my house, not a hotel lobby.” The Lost Kitchen feels like a home.
I have a confession to make: I was so impressed by dinner (and so full) that I considered skipping dessert. If I had, I’d have missed the blueberry & mint sorbet ($6) – a refreshing scoop with a flavor so intense it had me swearing off ice cream. Until I tried the maple walnut ice cream sundae ($8), made with French’s home-made maple syrup (she tapped 50 of her own trees), which was so thick and sugary it had me swearing off cake. Until I tried the parsnip cake ($8), starring spring-dug parsnips (sweeter because they winter under the soil) and covered with a mascarpone frosting. If you make the journey to Freedom, go with friends. These desserts – in fact, all of this food – is ideal for sharing.
There’s magic at work inside the old mill in Freedom. The food is fresh, the setting is stunning, and the cooking is marvelously self-assured. Erin French’s homecoming is cause for celebration.
James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.