A Conversation With Chef Erin French, Star of The Lost Kitchen
There’s a scene in the first episode of The Lost Kitchen, a new series on Magnolia Network, in which the chef Erin French tears up, thinking about how she’s about to serve the last dinner of the season at her Maine restaurant. It’s October 2019, and Covid-19 isn’t a topic of conversation yet—but it’s as if French somehow has an inkling that everything is about to change.
“There are moments in my life where I’ve had these weird premonitions,” says French, whose memoir, Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story; Remaking a Life From Scratch, was released in April. “I had it with my first restaurant, too. After our very last dinner service, I sat down on the stairs and cried. I didn’t know what was happening, or what was going to happen, but there was a sense of finality.”
Finding Freedom and The Lost Kitchen both chronicle French’s rise to culinary acclaim. She grew up in the tiny town of Freedom, Maine, honing her cooking skills at her father’s diner.
Desperate to leave Freedom, she attended college at Northeastern University with plans to become a doctor, only to find herself unexpectedly pregnant at age 21. She returned to Maine and began working in food again, hosting secret suppers in her Belfast apartment, where she quickly grew a devoted fan base and eventually opened the first iteration of The Lost Kitchen. A passionate supporter of local farmers and producers, French’s simple-yet-elevated New American food soon earned her national acclaim—including an invitation to cook at the James Beard House.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. French had gotten married, to an abusive, alcoholic boat builder who was old enough to be her father, and as her star burned brighter, the already volatile marriage crumbled. The deterioration of the relationship, combined with the stress of running her restaurant, led to a deep depression, and she became addicted to the pills her doctor prescribed to help manage it.
The last night of the service she describes was a breaking point, ending with a violent fight between French and her husband. On the verge of suicide, she ended up in rehab. He fired the entire Lost Kitchen staff, closed the restaurant and changed the locks on the doors, taking custody of French’s son in the process. French thought she’d lost everything.
After rehab, she wound up back at her parents’ house again, determined to rebuild her life. Channeling her supper club roots, she bought a rundown Airstream trailer, gutted it and installed a working kitchen, and began hosting pop-up dinners at farms and orchards around the state, serving food that came from the surrounding fields and barns.
A year later, the opportunity to open another restaurant, this time in a restored gristmill in Freedom, presented itself. Seven years later, that restaurant became one of the hottest tickets in the country—so popular it only takes reservations via postcard lottery. Then Covid-19 hit, and French was forced to pivot yet again. The Lost Kitchen chronicles her attempt to salvage a lost year, an epilogue to the challenges she describes in Finding Freedom.
“We were really in danger of losing the restaurant,” says French. “But everyone who was in my world who loved me pitched in to help in any way possible.”
With the help of her all-female staff, many of whom worked at the original Lost Kitchen, and her new husband, media executive Michael Dutton, French hosted drive-through farmers' markets to help growers who depended on restaurant revenue recoup some of their costs. She also launched an online gift market, featuring a selection of Maine-made goods by local women, and built a series of private dining cabins that will be able sustain the restaurant through the winter, instead of just its typical May-October season.
The show and the book have given French and her business—and her remarkable story—even more exposure.
“It had been years of people coming after us and wanting to film something, but we were cautious about making the right decision,” she says. “Finally, we found a production partner that we felt confident with.” The show airs on Chip and Joanna Gaines’ new Magnolia Network, part of Discovery+, and French says the partnership was a perfect match: “They’re focused on telling people’s stories.”
Similarly, she says of her book, “I would have never thought of being a writer, but I had this story burning inside of me in a way that was very clear and undeniable.”
“I approached writing like food,” she says. “I’d visualize the feelings [I was writing about] and then let them take me over, and they would come out and I’d put them down on paper. Writing the book had its good and bad parts—I relived a lot of moments that I had buried deep and hadn’t dealt with in a responsible way. But I feel so much stronger from writing about moments that were my weakest and darkest. I’ve lived them twice. That makes it easier.”
And, she says, she hopes that telling her story can make others feel better about their own struggles. “Everyone may look at me and see this bright, shiny thing I’ve built,” she says. “When you grow up in America, there’s all this pressure to be perfect. But that sets us up for failure. We’re not supposed to live this even-keeled, soft life. The strongest I’ve ever been is during hard times.”
She says she hears from readers who are trying to find a purpose, battling addiction, trying to connect with their children or just feeling low.
“It’s been wonderful to see how people are connecting with this book,” says French. “Being imperfect is OK! You can do crazy successful things and still go through battles. There were moments when I couldn’t see the light. But you can make positive changes. I’m just an ordinary girl. I want other people to feel the same hope.”
So how does French take care of her own mental health these days?
“It’s hard,” she says. “I’m very prone to burnout. I’m the kind of person who needs to be busy all the time. I crashed and burned once before, so I figured out where that fine line is and made rules for myself that I could obey. I don’t work on Sunday at all. I only go to the restaurant if I’m going to steal food.” She laughs. “I also close the restaurant every year on my son’s birthday. I know those moments are too precious. But balance is a lifelong journey and a struggle.”
As for young women looking to emulate her success, French says her best advice is to build confidence. “It’s about really digging into your gut and getting to know yourself, and it does not come overnight,” she says. “Along my path, there were so many people telling me I was wrong and how I should be doing things. Finally, I found the courage to speak up against the naysayers. It’s definitely a process—and not an easy one.”
French is working on another cookbook, a follow-up to 2018’s The Lost Kitchen: Recipes and a Good Life in Freedom, Maine. Her online gift market has been so successful that she’s rented a property across the street from The Lost Kitchen to act as a shipping hub. And the movie rights to Finding Freedom recently sold in an 18-bidder auction.
Still, despite all her success, French is determined to hold onto the magic of her tiny 40-seat restaurant in rural Maine.
“We’re determined to get back to that beautiful room,” she says. “Right now, our focus is on getting through Covid and making that happen. But I want to keep it small. I want to feel proud about it, to have it be this authentic thing. I’m trusting my gut.”