Acclaimed restaurant lost, then found in Waldo County

Posted July 15, 2014, at 2:13 p.m.

Erin French’s new restaurant in the Waldo County town of Freedom has the same name as her old one: The Lost Kitchen. From the sounds of it, though, French is far from lost. In fact, she said she feels like she has finally found what she has been looking for.

“I feel reborn. I am reborn,” French, 33, said. “I feel like I’m finally home.”

The Lost Kitchen 2.0 has different location but the same inventive approach to farm to table food. It opened in the Mill at Freedom Falls complex over the Fourth of July weekend, in an idyllic rural setting tucked a few hundred feet away from Route 137. French, a native of Waldo County, grew up just down the road in the town of Knox.

A little over a year ago, French’s original restaurant, located on Main Street in downtown Belfast, abruptly closed its doors. Its quick exit from the midcoast culinary scene left fans scratching their heads: Why would a place that booked up every weekend, received acclaim from the New York Times and the Boston Globe, and secured French a chance to cook at the James Beard House in New York just disappear, after barely a year being open?

“I found myself in a messy, messy, awful divorce and losing everything that I’d worked for all those years,” French said. “I didn’t know what to do. It was devastating, but I knew I didn’t want to just shrivel up and turn to dust. I had to keep moving. So I bought an Airstream trailer.”

French retrofitted that 1965 Airstream into a mobile kitchen and went back to her roots. With her new trailer, she began offering pop-up dinners on farms and at houses and in other unconventional locations. One of those dinners was at the Mill at Freedom Farms. This was French’s second time hosting restaurant pop-ups. In 2010 and 2011, she hosted wildly popular supper clubs in Belfast, which she used as a tool to teach herself how to run a high-end restaurant — French is an entirely self-taught chef. The suppers stopped once the permanent restaurant opened.

“Polly Shyka, the owner [of the Mill], had actually approached me while the old restaurant was open about opening a second restaurant in Freedom, which at the time just seemed insane,” French said. “This time around, though, I was in a different place entirely. She asked me, ‘So, are you interested in that restaurant now?’ I walked into the space, and my jaw dropped. I said, ‘This is it. This is where I’ll be now.’”

The Mill has been transformed from its formerly dilapidated state. It was abandoned in 1967, after being used as a gristmill and woodturning mill for 130 years. In 2012, the entire building was renovated, replacing the roof, removing junk, adding heating, plumbing and electricity, and constructing a massive steel footbridge that stretches from the parking area across the waterfall to the building. The Lost Kitchen is one of several tenants in the complex. The building is shared with the Maine Federation for Farmers’ Markets and The Mill School, a learning community for home-schooled students.

The interior of The Lost Kitchen consists of a dining room and open kitchen, full of natural light, which feels at once elegant and casual — rural chic, if you will. Wildflowers dot the tables. Water is served in mason jars. Food is served on vintage silverware and mismatched china.

And what about the food? Has it changed from the creative, non-traditional locavore fare French offered at the old place? Not really, except French is a more confident, skilled chef this time around. And she has even more access to local food, now that she is located in Waldo County’s agricultural heartland. The fried squash blossoms — one of her signature dishes — came from fewer than 15 miles away. So did the garlic scapes in the mussel and clam dish, the nasturtiums and radishes she uses as garnishes, as well as the dill and cucumber in her cold buttermilk soup. The pork came from Waldo County. The halibut came from Penobscot Bay.

“We’re literally surrounded by farms. MOFGA is down the road. Farmers can come in after working all day and have a burger and a beer at the bar,” French said. “Everyone that works for us also farms. We are forming these wonderful relationships that give everyone a better understanding of food. I understand more about how it’s grown, and they understand what their food can do.”

Among the unique things about owning a restaurant such as The Lost Kitchen in a tiny town like Freedom are the somewhat archaic town ordinances on the books. Like, for example, the fact that the town outlaws selling alcohol on premises, a law that has been on the books since the prohibition era and never changed, since the town has never had a restaurant that serves alcohol.

“We found out about that about three weeks before we opened,” French said. “So we opened a beer and wine store in the basement, called Foundation Wine Cellar, because you can sell alcohol for retail. So you go downstairs, you pick out your beverage, and you bring it upstairs in a paper bag and pour it for yourself.”

French has let obstacles like that roll off her shoulders for the most part — weird alcohol rules, last minute changes, ongoing personal struggles. She’s home now, making beautiful food down the road from her childhood home — not lost anymore.

“I like the fact that your wine is in a brown bag and you’re having this fancy food with it. It think it makes it a richer experience. It’s different,” French said. “And that’s Maine. That’s who we are. Never forget where you’re from.”

The Lost Kitchen is open for regular menu dining starting at 5 p.m., Wednesday through Friday. A weekly prix fixe five-course dinner is set for 6 p.m. each Saturday, with prices changing weekly, but ranging from $60 to $68, tax and gratuity not included. The menu changes weekly, sometimes daily. For more information, “like” The Lost Kitchen on Facebook. A documentary about the Mill at Freedom Falls can be watched online on Vimeo; the password to watch is “mill.”