Erin French in the open work area of The Lost Kitchen in Freedom. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

FREEDOM — Erin French’s plate is packed full these days, piled high with new cookbook, television and film projects, retail ventures and, of course, the coming dining season at The Lost Kitchen restaurant.

Yet even in late March, as French prepared to take delivery starting April 1 of tens of thousands of postcards requesting reservations at her phenomenally in-demand restaurant, she cast her keen eye around The Lost Kitchen dining room during a photo shoot and became absorbed in small details.

She spied unbleached water in a large plant vase, then changed it out with another immediately. She sized up a small bowl of onions on the kitchen island and decided it needed a few heads of garlic, too. She wondered aloud about her aesthetic decision to hang bare elderberry branches from the ceiling, above The Lost Kitchen’s 14-foot harvest table.

“It’s the little things that make the difference, like always having fresh flowers on the table, even in the dead of winter,” she explained.

French’s thoughtful, granular attention to The Lost Kitchen – in fact, to everything she does – seems key to her success. And while her food has garnered plenty of praise and James Beard Award nominations, her talents and interests extend well beyond the kitchen.

“I’m not just a cook. There are other things I love just as much, like home decorating and gardening,” French said. “I’m really more of a hostess.”

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Longtime Freedom resident Wilson Hess said that French’s passion for her multifaceted role at The Lost Kitchen and her charming hospitality is the restaurant’s secret sauce. “She’s a gracious personality and a wonderful storyteller,” said Hess, who has dined at The Lost Kitchen. “Everyone in the room feels like they’re at home when they’re there.”

And that’s exactly the goal, French said. It doesn’t hurt that she regularly surprises and delights guests with little off-menu lagniappes like serving warm fresh-baked cookies and shot glasses of milk after the meal. “I want people to keep wondering what’s next, and to feel spoiled,” she said.

Concern for her community

Dinner at The Lost Kitchen is a unique experience, by all accounts. The restaurant offers just one seating a night, serving 40-plus customers a $195 prix-fixe menu of 10 to 12 courses. The evening can take up to five hours. “And nobody is in a rush to leave at the end, which says something,” French said.

The Lost Kitchen is housed in a renovated 19th-century grist mill on Freedom Falls. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“There’s a feeling that happens in this place,” she continued, taking in the room’s salvaged-wood tables, spindle-back chairs and hanging pulleys dating back to the 19th-century building’s days as a grist mill. “I treat it like every evening, I’m having my best friend over, and I want it to be special. I want guests to feel like they belong.”

She also wants guests to have a place to stay after dinner in remote Freedom, so since last year The Lost Kitchen has offered lodging in three small cabins across the Mill Pond footbridge from the restaurant. Each cabin sleeps two people, and is equipped with a Queen bed and small wood-burning stove and tasteful appointments for a “glamping” experience, according to French’s husband and director of media relations, Michael Dutton.

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The cabins are available to restaurant patrons first, but if not booked, can be reserved by anyone else through The Lost Kitchen website.

French said she developed her knack for catering to people while she was a young girl working in her father’s diner in town. As a native of this village of 720 people, French is as deeply concerned with her community as she is her customers. So she’s leveraged the demand for Lost Kitchen reservations in ways that help serve local needs.

Last year, for instance, The Lost Kitchen asked reservation applicants for donations to fight food insecurity in Waldo County, where Freedom is located. French partnered with Waldo County Bounty to raise $325,000 in nine days for the effort.

This year, The Lost Kitchen is again asking potential restaurant customers for a donation along with their postcard request, this time to a PFAS Emergency Relief Fund that will provide money to area farms contaminated by long-lasting per- and poly-fluoroalkyl compounds. The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and Maine Farmland Trust are leading this fundraising effort, and The Lost Kitchen is working in partnership with them to help raise the cause’s profile.

“This (PFAS contamination of farmland) is a huge mess, and Maine is at the forefront of speaking out about it,” said French, disgusted by the fates local farms are suffering, including operations like Misty Brook Farm in Albion and New Beat Farm in Knox that have provided food to The Lost Kitchen. “All that time, they thought they were doing something for their community, providing good food, only to find they’ve been doing it on toxic wasteland.”

French and The Lost Kitchen are becoming a local philanthropic force. As her mounting successes caused her cup to runneth over, French has been more than happy to share the spoils with her hometown.

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This winter, French donated $20,000 to the Freedom Community Historical Society’s roughly $300,000 renovation of Keen Hall into a town cultural center. “We were thrilled with her decision, which was a complete surprise. But Erin has a great interest in helping the town,” said Myrick Cross, the society’s vice president for restoration. “What she’s doing is a tremendous help toward restoring the life of the village.”

“She has visions of reviving this little village that we have,” said Cross, who is also the president of the Freedom Community Historical Society. He said growing up, French attended school with his daughters. “She’s succeeded beyond her wildest dreams in terms of the cache that The Lost Kitchen now has. I couldn’t be more pleased by the success she’s arrived at, and the integrity with which she approaches her business.”

Exterior of The Lost Kitchen in Freedom. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Online retail offshoot

French has been adamant about not expanding her restaurant to accommodate more customers, or to open sister restaurants in other locations. She knows the magic of the whole Lost Kitchen experience would be lost if she spreads the secret sauce too thinly.

Still, she is branching out, at least in ways she can control. The unexpected success of The Lost Kitchen’s online store, for instance, prompted French to open a new brick-and-mortar retail shop next next door to the restaurant this coming May.

The online store launched on The Lost Kitchen website before the 2020 holiday season. The store featured a small, choice selection of Maine-made kitchen and dining room gear, home goods, women’s clothing and more.

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“We had to close the shop in less than 24 hours because it had all sold out. There was nothing left. We were shocked,” French said. After restocking for a March 2021 “cabin fever” sale, the online store sold out again in 24 hours.

French said the Maine makers included in her store’s personally curated offerings could not keep up with the demand, so she expanded the store’s inventory to include some makers from away. The shop’s goods are housed in a makeshift warehouse down the street from the restaurant.

“What we offer in the store are things that reflect me, and my taste and my lifestyle. It’s kind of a simple aesthetic. There’s nothing risky about my style, but it doesn’t go out of style,” French said.

More books, TV … and maybe a movie?

French is now busy defining her style further with a second cookbook, following up her 2017 effort, “The Lost Kitchen: Recipes and a Good Life Found in Freedom, Maine.” No publication date is set just yet, French said.

“This new cookbook, it’s not just about the food,” she said, noting that she’s sharing her insights on hosting and hospitality as well. “It’s about taking what we do here and doing it in your own home.”

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It will be French’s third book, following up her New York Times best-selling 2021 memoir, “Finding Freedom.” French detailed her earlier struggles with addiction, abuse and divorce while trying to make The Lost Kitchen work in its original Belfast location. She said writing about these darker times was cathartic, and that after it was published, “some personal relationships got better, and some got worse. But I’m travelling lighter now.”

Erin French in The Lost Kitchen in Freedom. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Last fall, French sold the book rights of her memoir to film production company Made Up Stories for an undisclosed sum. A movie based on French’s book is now in development, and French met recently with the project’s screenwriter.

“They want to move fast,” French said, careful to temper excitement by noting that innumerable factors beyond her control could delay or even scuttle the project.

But the studio sounds as excited about the project as French. “At Made Up Stories, there’s nothing we love more than tales of women who triumph against all odds,” Bruna Papandrea, CEO and founder of Made Up Stories, said in a prepared statement.

“When I first read Erin’s magnificent memoir, I was so inspired by the tenacity she showed at every step along her journey, refusing to let the challenges of her past define her future. I’m honored that Erin has entrusted me with her story, and it’s been such a joy to collaborate with her and (husband) Michael on the movie adaptation,” Papandrea continued.

The new season of The Lost Kitchen television show on the Magnolia Network is more of a sure thing, and French said the show’s third season is currently in production. The second season is airing now.

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Like Papandrea, Magnolia Network Global President Allison Page gushed when asked what made French and her story so special, calling French a “singular talent.”

“Her passion and commitment to her work were clear from the moment we were introduced to her, and there was no question that her story was one we wanted to help share with the world,” Page continued. “Quite simply, Erin connects people through food, and she does it in the magical setting she and her team created at The Lost Kitchen.”

French said she’s also been looking to hire help for The Lost Kitchen, and she’s hoping the cooks who apply have an idea what they’re getting into.

“This is not a traditional restaurant,” she says, unapologetically. “It doesn’t run like a normal restaurant. It’s like you’re helping me out at my house, and we’re having a dinner party every night.”

The restaurant’s continued success and all the side projects that have blossomed out of it mean higher expectations all around for French. “The more eyes that are on us, the more pressure there is. But it’s good,” she said. “It keeps us from getting too comfortable. You’ve got to keep pushing.”

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