At 5:50 p.m. most Saturdays, a small group of people begin to line up outside one of the few empty storefronts in downtown Belfast. Never more than 24 people in total, all of whom look up and down the street, waiting for a sign. They aren’t sure exactly what’s going to happen next; only that whatever it is, it’s probably going to be delicious. Somewhere in one of those spaces in Belfast is The Lost Kitchen, and the crowd gathered is waiting to “get lost” in whatever culinary delights the secret supper club has planned.
At 5:55 p.m. sharp, a door opens on this particular Saturday, and self-taught chef Erin — she asks her last name not be used, to add to the mysterious recipe — invites them inside the building, up a flight of stairs, and into a small, elegantly appointed dining room, set for exactly 24. Erin spends the week leading up to the meal findinglocal ingredients and creating a menu for those 24 people, who were lucky enough to hear about The Lost Kitchen from friends, local gossip, Twitter or Facebook.
A friendly server checks each person off a list — if you’re not on the list, you don’t get to come in. Place your $40 per-meal donation in an envelope, drop it in a glass jar and prepare to “get lost.”
There could be five or six courses. It could start with a soft-boiled quail egg, savory and delicate. There could be flash-fried Maine shrimp, or rope-grown mussels steamed in butter, white wine and garlic scapes. The Italian speciality bagna cauda — like a decadent fondue — has made an appearance. So have sliders made with water buffalo meat from Stagecoach Farm in Appleton, topped with local Cheddar cheese and served on a house-made poppy seed bun. And fresh-caught cod topped with pesto and fried shallots, served with black-eyed peas and baby broccoli. For dessert? Perhaps a semifreddo, a cold Italian custard, or maybe strawberry shortcake made with the first berries of the season and fresh cream from Elderflower Farm in Lincolnville.
“I’m a minimalist,” said Erin. “I try to let the food speak for itself. There’s no need to reinvent anything. The ingredients are the most important thing to me. It’s simple and it’s good. It’s just a reflection of my New England roots.”
The Lost Kitchen is an experiment and a learning experience for Erin, 30, who grew up in farm country in Waldo County, with parents who ran a restaurant. After high school, Erin lived in Boston and Los Angeles, but found city life unappealing. She came back to the fields, forests and rocky shores of midcoast Maine. She began cooking — first as a pastry chef for Trillium Caterers in Belfast, then in the kitchen at Francine Bistro in Camden.
Food has been an integral part of her life since childhood, but it wasn’t until last year that she finally realized it was her true calling.
“Turning 30 was a big deal for me. I had the big, ‘What am I going to do with my life?’ crisis,” said Erin. “Food was the answer. It just took me a long time to admit it. I grew up frying fish and flipping burgers, and I always said I never wanted to work with food. But I did.”
She began researching culinary schools, but with a husband and small child, taking off to Paris to study at Le Cordon Bleu and going into tens of thousands of dollars of school loan debt seemed rather far-fetched. As any Mainer worth their salt would do, she decided to do it herself. The Lost Kitchen, her secret supper club, is her culinary school.
“We had the first one in December of last year, and I remember begging friends to come over for supper and chip in for the ingredients,” she said. “Those first few dinners were really interesting. But then word of mouth started around town, and now it’s gone beyond what I ever imagined. All of a sudden it exploded. It’s less of a secret now.”
A mention in the Boston Globe back in May brought diners from all over New England, searching for The Lost Kitchen. Underground, or “guerilla” supper clubs exist in cities all over North America and Europe, with thriving scenes in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, among many others. Clubs in more rural areas such as coastal Maine are less common, but still exist. They largely operate on the same model: interested parties get on a mailing list of some sort, make reservations as soon as a dinner is announced and await further instructions on location and menu. Part of the fun is that you don’t always know exactly what you’re getting into — you put your taste buds in the hands of the chef.
Dinners now book up quickly, though they are only announced via email a few weeks in advance — and diners receive the full menu no more than 48 hours in advance of the meal. With the spring and summer growing season in full effect, Erin is afforded more local options for her menu — over the winter, she had to get creative with her courses. Fortunately, her knowledge of area farms and purveyors is large, and the cheeses, meats and seafood she puts on the table are the best she can find.
“I really like knowing that everything we serve is from local people,” she said. “It makes it that much more special, and I like supporting local purveyors. At first I had a few people that I personally had sought out, but now people come to us.”
The Lost Kitchen’s surge in popularity means that Erin soon will move ahead with the next step in her burgeoning culinary career: a real restaurant that isn’t a secret. She and her husband are hoping to have their new, yet-to-be-named business open in Belfast in the next few months. She still wants to do Lost Kitchen events, however.
“I’d like to have it be a roving dinner kind of thing. Try some different places. Maybe try to do one outside,” she said. “It’s a special thing. There’s a reason there are real restaurants, of course, but the supper club thing is kind of a treat. And it’s been my cooking school. I don’t make any money, but each donation is like my scholarship. And I hope people have enjoyed it.”