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How the Lost Kitchen, one of the nation’s hardest-to-book restaurants, survived a lost year

Erin French and Michael Dutton in one of the Lost Kitchen’s new private dining cabins in Freedom, Maine. (Tristan Spinski for The Washington Post)
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FREEDOM, Maine — It’s midway through the six-course dinner at one of the nation’s hardest-to-book restaurants, the Lost Kitchen. On this chilly night in October 2019, Erin French comes out of the open kitchen into the rustic dining room and, in keeping with the restaurant’s convivial atmosphere, greets her guests with a toast.

“No one grows celery around here,” the chef and owner tells the 48 diners seated inside the old mill building in this tiny town. “It uses too much water. My friend grew it because she didn’t know better, and we are lucky enough to have harvested it this morning so I could make you a celery and leek soup with smoked ricotta, sweet crab and brown butter.” The dining room moans in anticipation. “I’m so happy you are all here for the final dinner of the 2019 season,” she says, with a sudden choke in her voice. Her eyes turn moist, and she dabs at them. “Oh no, I think I’m getting really emotional, and I don’t even know why.”

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French couldn’t have known that this would be the last indoor dinner at the Lost Kitchen for a year and a half and counting. Certainly no one knew that just a few months later, a pandemic would shut down the restaurant and much of the world. But French says she had a premonition of sorts. “There was just something that felt final, like it really was the last dinner,” she recalls.

To keep the Lost Kitchen going in the covid era, French — along with her husband, Michael Dutton, and the team of women that run the restaurant — scrambled to replace lost revenue, like so many others have been forced to do.

In 2020, they created a farmers market, an online store featuring Maine goods and an outdoor dining space for small lunches and dinners, and they began building tiny cabins in the woods for private dinners and overnights. As if that weren’t enough to keep her occupied, French’s memoir, “Finding Freedom” (Celadon Books, $28) will be published April 6, on the heels of a six-episode television series, “The Lost Kitchen,” released in late January and available on Discovery Plus.

“There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t feel over-the-top thankful,” French said in a recent Zoom interview. Wearing a checkered flannel shirt, her hair up in a casual ponytail, she sat next to Dutton, also in flannel, surrounded by towers of boxes ready to be shipped to customers from their online store. In a lengthy conversation, French recounted the stamina and effort it took to keep the business alive.

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“I never imagined all these things that we would be forced to do that would create something beautiful,” French says. “When covid hit, everything was changing so rapidly, and we had to keep figuring out how to keep the staff and clients safe. Maybe it’s the Mainer in me: The way my grandparents taught me, there is just no giving up. You have a hard time. You just have to keep finding ways to reinvent yourself. Get scrappy. Go deep. I’ve done it before.”

Indeed she has. The restaurant’s huge success — it takes reservation requests only by notecard, and receives more than 20,000 a year — didn’t come easy.

As she describes in her memoir, French originally started the Lost Kitchen in Belfast, Maine, with her first husband. After a contentious divorce, she lost the restaurant and eventually reinvented herself by cooking out of an Airstream, driving around mid-coast Maine doing pop-up dinners in local barns, fruit orchards and farms. When she heard the crumbling old mill building in Freedom was going to be renovated, she decided to take a chance, against all the odds.

“Starting over from the beginning and building a restaurant from the ground up — in the middle of nowhere, no less — was a daunting task to consider,” she writes. “I was a woman in a male-dominated industry with no culinary degree and a tattered past. … I took donated pots and pans and old stand mixers that people didn’t want.”

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“Finding Freedom” tells the harrowing tale of that “tattered past”: her troubled first marriage; the bitter custody battle for her son, Jaim; and her struggles with depression and addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs. When asked why she feels compelled to tell this dark story now, in the middle of a pandemic, she pauses.

“I hadn’t really processed all of this and put some things to bed,” she says. “Even if I was just writing this memoir for myself, putting it all down on paper to be done with it, I thought maybe I could feel a little lighter. When I was in the darkest depths, I had a hard time finding the light, and there were moments when I could have ended it all. I recognized that there are people out there who are fighting the same demons … addiction, being a single mom, trying to find good work, tough marriages. All of these people struggling who may not be able to see the light on the other side. I guess I wrote the book for them, to maybe help at least one person to keep on going.”

Initially, the television show was meant to focus on one May-through-October season in the life of the Lost Kitchen and zoom in on French’s relationship with mid-coast Maine farmers and fishermen.

She says she and Dutton, a media executive, “never wanted to do a TV show just to be on TV.” But when Dutton was approached by Joanna and Chip Gaines’s new Magnolia Network, they saw an opportunity. “There is such a mystique about the Lost Kitchen,” Dutton says. “We wanted to lift the veil and share this special place with all the people that can’t get in.”

The production crew was there for that October 2019 dinner, just months before the pandemic rewrote the show’s narrative, says Dutton, executive producer of the series. “Some people have said, ‘Hey, maybe you guys got lucky with this emotional story. Maybe covid gave you a far more dramatic, challenging story to tell.’ ”

Donning a mask and maintaining social distance, French visits a local farm for peaches, climbs onto a fishing boat with Dave Cheney of Johns River Oyster to learn about local shellfish, and then harvests last-of-the-season heirloom apples from a friend’s orchard for an all-apple dinner.

But we also witness French struggling to find a safe way to welcome guests back to the restaurant. Outdoor lunches, which began in July, are abruptly canceled when a tearful French explains that someone on staff came into contact with a person who received a positive coronavirus test. (It turned out to be a false positive, and lunch quickly resumed.) Their first outdoor dinner wasn’t served until mid-August, halfway through the restaurant’s normal summer season. The cabins were still being built in 2020 and had yet to bring in any income. In all, revenue was down 86 percent.

“We almost lost the entire year, and yet we still weren’t willing to stop trying to figure something out,” says French. Thanks to a combination of a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan and a state grant, they were able to keep their entire 13-person staff on the payroll.

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Throughout the memoir and the television series, French strives to get everything just so, even during the struggles to keep the restaurant afloat. She repeatedly uses the word “perfect” to describe the flavors she’s seeking, the “feeling” she wants to give diners, the look of the cabins they are designing in the woods. Asked if she thinks she’s a perfectionist, French laughs. “I’m the kind of person who is always perfectly imperfect,” she replies. “It’s a feeling I’m after in everything I do. I have a very clear vision, and when I look at something or taste something, I just know when it’s there, when it’s just right.”

Despite her success running one of the country’s most sought-after restaurants, French is embarrassed when people call her “chef,” since she never received formal culinary training. “It feels like a title I never earned,” she says. “It’s like calling me ‘doctor’ when I didn’t go to medical school.” And in a reference to the teen physician on the 1990s TV show, she adds, “I feel like I’m playing Doogie Howser.”

French learned to love food and cooking at home and at the small diner her father owned in Freedom. In “Finding Freedom,” she writes, “From the very first day I ever set foot in the place, that little diner on the ridge had burrowed its way into my heart. It made me start to see the world differently. … It was a way to care for people — something that struck at the core of who I was and what drove me.”

When she was young, French washed dishes and cleaned up, and eventually ran the line, churning out plates of fried eggs, home fries, bacon, fried scallops and onion rings. Sometimes she would gather edible flowers from the family garden and add them to the plates, trying to create food that not only tasted good but was also beautiful.

“I wasn’t a chef; I was a good, simple cook,” she writes. “I could sear up a good piece of fish with potatoes like my grandfather; I could make an old-fashioned butter cake with rhubarb and a thick custard sauce that reminded me of my grandmother. My knife skills were subpar at best, and I had no idea what … mise-en-place or garde-manger was.”

And yet after several years running the Lost Kitchen, as word spread and French’s reputation for creating extraordinary meals grew, there was no denying her talent.

These days, the boxes containing the 20,000 notecard dinner requests from last year gather dust in a corner of the dining room. As more Americans get vaccinated and the virus numbers keep decreasing, if things go well, the Lost Kitchen will draw names from the boxes and continue to host outdoor dinners starting this spring. But at this point, French has no plans to open the dining room for the 2021 season.

“All I know is that we have to keep thinking outside the box,” she says. “When you fail, and believe me we have failed quite a bit, we just keep rethinking things. Could this work? Could that work?”

In the end, French says being a restaurateur during the pandemic is a lot like sailing: “We constantly have to adjust to the wind, adjust to challenges that are coming our way. And always be awake and alert. I’ve worked too hard to give this up and let this place fail.”

She was a struggling single mom cooking suppers our of her trailer all across Maine. Now, Erin French runs one of the country’s most sought-after restaurants. (Video: The Washington Post)

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