Finding The Lost Kitchen in Rural Maine
BY NINA BOYS
In April 2017, chef and restaurant owner Erin French became a media magnet after her phone lines crashed. She received a reported 10,000 calls in 24 hours from diners hoping to snag a seat at her seasonal 45-seat restaurant, The Lost Kitchen.
The town of Freedom, Maine – population just over 700 – may seem like an unlikely place to find one of the hottest restaurants in the world. But it happens to be French’s hometown – and dining here offers a unique culinary experience, as I was fortunate to discover last year.
Finding your way to The Lost Kitchen, 90 miles north of Portland, sets the stage for the experience. The journey to this internationally known restaurant set in a historic grist mill takes pilgrims along winding country roads and past rolling hills lined with ramshackle farmhouses dating back generations.
Upon arrival, you cross a babbling creek by footbridge, select wines from the restaurant’s underground cellar, and settle into a cozy wooden dining room adorned with wheels and pulleys from the mill’s working past. The vibe feels like a refreshingly laid-back dinner party, and diners immediately understand why this place is so special before food is even served.
French grew up working in her family’s Freedom diner but had no plans to become a chef. She left Maine for college, but when a series of life events brought her back, she turned to cooking to support herself – eventually opening a supper club, and then The Lost Kitchen restaurant – out of her apartment in coastal Belfast. When the restaurant closed unexpectedly, she renovated a 1965 Airstream and hosted pop-up dinners around the state until the opportunity presented itself to re-open The Lost Kitchen in Freedom’s renovated mill in 2014. She decided the time was right to return home.
French typically greets guests with artfully presented boards of local cheese, artisanal butter, and crisp vegetables harvested that morning by members of her almost entirely female staff – as many of them are farmers themselves. Her prix fixe menus change daily and celebrate Maine’s distinct seasons; my multi-course dinner in August included glistening Damariscotta oysters on a mossy bed of river stones, a buttermilk-whipped peach soup crowned with fresh Gulf of Maine crab, and succulent butter-poached sea scallops garnished with summer flowers.
Along with cooking and serving meals, French is also a consummate host known for raising toasts to homecomings and to breaking bread with friends old and new. Following my nearly four-hour meal, French graciously thanked everyone for coming and then playfully whispered, “Shhh, don’t tell people how amazing Maine is, we can’t let word get out.”
Of course, the word is already out. After her 2017 experience, French pioneered a mail-in lottery system to approach the overwhelming demand for reservations with her hands-on, unhurried way of Maine living. Last year, instead of picking up a phone, potential guests were asked to write a notecard to the restaurant. French and staff then collected the envelopes over a ten-day period, selected cards at random, and informed lucky senders that they had ‘won’ coveted seats at the table. Nearly 20,000 letters poured in, including from as far away as Hong Kong and Malaysia, with some 5,000 fortunate diners chosen to make the trek to Freedom in 2018.
Hoping to score a seat this year? French plans to post reservation request instructions for the 2019 season on The Lost Kitchen website on March 10. The official reservation process will then commence on April 1. Good luck!
All photos courtesy of Nina Boys