Cover courtesy of Celadon Books

The dust jacket of Erin French’s memoir displays the author, her head slightly bowed, clutching an exuberant tangle of red and yellow flowers that threaten to eclipse her. Set against a black backdrop, the image is arresting — and befits the drama within.

“Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story; Remaking a Life from Scratch” is the turbulent, raw and triumphant memoir of acclaimed chef-owner Erin French, whose Lost Kitchen was named one of Time Magazine’s World’s Greatest Places. That’s one of many over-the-top honors that French has racked up for her 40-seat farm-to-table restaurant in the tiny outback of Freedom, Maine (pop. 719).

French’s story is as old as time — about history repeating itself and second chances. It’s about a smart, plucky young woman who grew up on a farm, cut her teeth at her dad’s diner, and against all odds, became a legendary restaurateur. It’s also a chronicle of abuse, addiction and survival.

Meet Erin French, 40, the anti-chef who only ever wanted to cook. With no formal training, and even less interest in foams and frippery, French always believed in the power of simple well-prepared food.

“The ability to touch a complete stranger with a plate of food, to feed them and awaken their senses while filling them up with joy – it’s an intimacy that you can’t help craving,” she says. “It’s an intimacy that can only be made with food.” Then, later: “Food didn’t just have the ability to taste good, it could be beautiful, too.”

French’s professional path began with a curveball when she found herself pregnant, at 21, during her sophomore year in college. Moving home to raise her infant son, she demonstrated an entrepreneurial bent. She would bake cookies, pies and cakes to order, and deliver them, as well. She printed up menus and hung them in her dad’s diner; her mother, who taught special ed, posted them in the teachers’ lounge at school. FLOUR CHILD was her company name, an early glimpse at the marketing instinct that would serve her well over the years.

After gigs at a catering company and a kitchen supply store, French’s fantasy of owning and running a restaurant was gaining traction. But so was the roller coaster that her recent marriage and personal life had become.

At 30, French had her eye on a property in Belfast that was up for sale. Drawn to a vacant bank building that she could restore, French envisioned the space as a bistro. Scrappy and strapped for cash, she wooed the husband-and-wife owners with a lunch invitation and a bold idea: If they would consider leasing the upstairs apartment, she would use it as a workshop for her cooking. And so The Lost Kitchen was born.

Erin French of the Lost Kitchen in Freedom, photographed in 2017. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

French launched a secret supper club in the living room of that apartment, asking invitees for donations to cover expenses. At first, her guests were largely family and friends. But as word of mouth spread, French’s Saturday dinners, with her personally curated menus, became celebrated events. She had developed a following – some 500 strangers had attended these soirees – and a business model was taking shape.

Among the foods she prepared: rope-grown mussels, seared Maine scallops and lamb lollipops; local arugula tossed with fennel and sweet fall fruits; savory sorbet with citrus and Pernod. As satisfied diners filled the room, the self-taught chef was honing her skills.

Yet food was only part of the puzzle. From the start, French sought to fashion a home-like setting where she could host and entertain. She built an aesthetic by fusing countless personal touches – think Martha Stewart. While the food was primary, so, too, were the wooden tables (hand-built by French and her husband); table runners and napkins (sewn by French); mismatched tableware, plates and bowls (found at vintage shops); and flower arrangements (picked fresh from the garden). Each night was a work of performance art, every detail “just so.” (In the matter of flowers, readers will note French’s near-obsession with all things floral. Not only are flowers her go-to solution to many a food and dining issue; edible petals are a hallmark of her plates.)

In time, French and her husband bought the old bank building, and the restaurant moved downstairs. While the business flourished, however, French and her marriage were falling apart – and, with it, the restaurant went under.

“My life had come undone, and there was no way to hide it anymore. There were marks on Tom’s face to prove it,” she says. “My marriage had been sick for years and I had been tirelessly trying to keep up with it…. I took more pills and drank more booze to fill the void…. (My doctor) prescribed more and more pills to lift me up, calm me down, and knock me out.”

French’s world caved in; her survival not always certain. If a divorce was inevitable, so, too, was rehab. French portrays her disintegration in unsparing detail. It’s harrowing and soul-crushing – everyone suffered in the end.

In retrospect, French came to realize that, in marrying Tom, she had married her father. Indeed they were nearly the same age. Of course there were differences – Tom was controlling and jealous; her dad a bully and nay-sayer. But both men were drunks – the author’s own term. French had spent much of her life seeking her father’s approval, to no avail. That he was both her mentor (in the kitchen) and her nemesis (in life) would remain a double-edged sword.

“You may never read this,” French says to her dad in the book’s acknowledgments (her second book; her first was a cookbook), “but without you I’m not sure who I would be…. I found my life’s passion standing at the stove, and it’s all because of you.”

French not only weathered the insult of both men; she had much more to prove. She would reinvent herself yet again, for the sake of her young son. Bolstered by the success of her supper club, she bought an old Airstream and converted it into a roving kitchen for pop-up dinners. Then, finally, in 2014, she found an old mill building, in the town of Freedom, and The Lost Kitchen was reborn.

“The mystery of this place and its success still sometimes bewilders me,” French says. “I found purpose and light through my darkest days by doing something that I love so very much. I make mom food because I’m a mom, and as a girl I learned from my father that good food could be a vessel, a way to say ‘I love you’ without words.”

A footnote about the volatile track of this narrative: Throughout the book, French’s saving grace is her modest, long-suffering mother, Deanna. She is the antithesis of the men in this book, standing by French unconditionally at every turn. Without her, French’s story would likely have taken an even darker course.

Readers of “Finding Freedom” will marvel at the steel and tenacity that have made The Lost Kitchen an improbable culinary landmark, and its owner a rock star. So, too, some will find the book overlong and repetitious, blunting a powerhouse story. Still, Erin French is a force to be reckoned with, her memoir a compelling odyssey.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News. She is the author of “Someday This Will Fit,” a collection of linked essays.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: