The Working Waterfront

The woman behind the ‘hidden’ food

Erin French’s memoir describes tough times, nurturing food  

Tina Cohen
Posted 2021-07-07
Last Modified 2021-07-07

Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story Remaking a Life From Scratch

By Erin French

You’ve probably heard of Erin French. She started off in Belfast hosting “secret suppers” in her apartment, and then moved into the space downstairs which she turned into a restaurant. With the loss of that in a bitter divorce, she took to the road, cooking in an Airsteam trailer she converted to a chef’s kitchen, preparing meals held in people’s barns, greenhouses, gardens, and orchards.

French has started from scratch again and again. But, being a creative force, she’s made the best out of life events. And that could be her motto with food as well.

The Lost Kitchen is now found in a refurbished mill in Freedom, the town she grew up in. The dining experience includes local produce, vintage dishware, hand-sewn linens and hand-built tables, atmospheric lighting, field-fresh flowers, and a crew of women sharing the work with team spirit.

Her family owned a diner and she, starting as a youngster, was expected by her father to work there regularly.

You can observe French and others in the open kitchen, preparing the eight-ten course meals they proudly serve. “Memorable meals R us” seems an apt slogan.

Last year, the pandemic shuttered it. Not fully—some lunches were served outdoors, and French became the purveyor of farm produce, the middleman connecting her local growers to customers.

She also showcased Maine-made crafts on her website to promote that market. This year, she has announced it is back to normal. “Normal” being a return to tradition, where if you’re lucky to have your mailed postcard drawn, you score a reservation.

An intimate dining room, dinners only, four nights a week and closed in the winter means these seats are precious. People from everywhere send in their cards, fingers crossed.

French’s first book was The Lost Kitchen: Recipes and a Good Life Found in Freedom, Maine (2017). With that, we were introduced to her way with seasonal food, affirming the nurture and sensuality a meal could hold. Her second book is a memoir, and like a classic fairy tale, French’s origin story has a curse that’s also a blessing.

Her family owned a diner and she, starting as a youngster, was expected by her father to work there regularly, eventually serving as a line cook. Among his shortcomings as a parent was that he was a demanding boss. She left home as soon as she could, for Boston and college, but her dream of becoming a doctor was dashed when pregnancy changed her priorities. She returned home and had the baby. Her mother’s support got her through that, and continued—through French’s marriage, divorce, addiction to prescribed anxiety medication and subsequent recovery, and raising her son. And, she cooked.

Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story Remaking a Life From Scratch provides heartfelt details of that experience. It’s emotionally weighty, but the goal isn’t to portray herself as a victim. Rather, her memoir speaks to the healing power of loving relationships, the value of honest self-assessments, and the possibility of surviving personal challenges that rock one’s world.

And it isn’t a book about celebrity chefdom. French is self-taught, not anyone’s acolyte. James Beard is the only “name” invoked in her book and that is because she was invited to cook a meal traditionally held in his honor. Martha Stewart featured her in an issue of Stewart’s magazine but French doesn’t tell us that; what might have been touted by another up-and-coming cook as proof of success goes unmentioned.

Even with a Magnolia Network series about her last winter, French doesn’t seem on her way yet to cultivating Kardashian status.

This spring, French posted online that given “dining out is a great privilege,” would patrons, when they request reservations, also make a contribution of any amount to a Waldo County food bank addressing food insecurity? Donations would be no guarantee for securing a reservation. On May 27, French announced that $325,000 had been raised so far. Some might wonder if it’s just guilt-assuaging, or—despite the disclaimer—people do so hoping for an advantage.

But to me, Erin French seems to be about this: food infused with care is nurturing. Whether with a donation or from a menu, feeding people can be “a great privilege.”

Tina Cohen is a seasonal resident of Vinalhaven.