Nearly every challenge that has been thrown Erin French’s way over the course of her life has ended up being an opportunity for her — even if those curveballs were, when they were happening, incredibly emotionally and even physically painful.
That journey from small town kid in Waldo County to owner and chef of The Lost Kitchen, her nationally renowned restaurant in the town of Freedom, just a few miles down the road from where she grew up, is told in colorful, intimate detail in her new book, “Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story,” out Tuesday via Celadon Books.
“I hope this book is something that will lift up people growing up in rural Maine,” said French, now 40. “It can feel like an uphill battle to do things that you feel proud of, when you’re living in a small town. But I am here to prove the point that anything is possible, even if you think it’s hopeless and you’re helpless.”
Food lovers know her for The Lost Kitchen, where she and her all-female staff create simple but precise and beautiful dishes from hyper-local ingredients, housed in a 19th-century repurposed gristmill, and where they only accept reservations via mailed-in postcards.
They also might know that before the Freedom location opened in 2014, French ran a private supper club held in several locations in Belfast in 2010 and 2011, which eventually turned into a short-lived restaurant, also called The Lost Kitchen, which operated in downtown Belfast between 2011 and 2013.
But those people who travel to rural Waldo County for a coveted meal at the 40-seat restaurant probably don’t know that before she was a James Beard-nominated chef, she was a single mom struggling with clinical depression and an addiction to prescription pills, out of work and broke after divorcing an abusive ex-husband.
Though French hadn’t necessarily tried to hide the painful details of her life from anyone, by 2019, she began to feel the urge to put her story on paper. The resulting book is a memoir about food, love, resilience and small-town living. Though it is French’s life that is the center of the story, her scene partner is more often than not the towns she’s lived in and loved in Maine: Belfast, Knox, Freedom, Blue Hill and so on.
Writing the book ended up being a therapeutic effort for her, French said.
“I wanted to purge this story, in a sense,” she said. “I’ve been trying to forget, instead of forgive. And I wanted to share it, too, because I think these are things that many people can connect with, whether it’s heartbreak, addiction, loss, fear. There were times in my life when I couldn’t see the light at the end. But I would not be here if it wasn’t for all of those moments.”
As she was finishing the book in 2020, two other life-changing things happened: she started work on a TV docuseries for the upcoming Magnolia Network and for the Discovery+ streaming service, and a global pandemic closed her restaurant and millions of others all over the world.
The TV series, “The Lost Kitchen,” now available to watch in its entirety on Discovery+, ended up taking a different turn from what it was originally slated to be. Instead, it showed how French and her staff coped with a year when indoor dining was not possible, and the ways in which they adapted to the pandemic.
To that end, French and company began offering an online farmers market, where patrons can order food and pick it up at the restaurant. When the weather warmed, they also offered outdoor lunches on the weekends, and began constructing on-site cabins to accommodate future guests who want to spend the night after enjoying their meal.
“We just had to take it day by day. Probably the biggest lesson I learned from all of this is to let go, and be OK with whatever happens,” French said. “We have reinvented ourselves a dozen times. I sometimes feel like I’m on my ninth life as a cat.”
For now, French said she doesn’t plan to make any announcements as to when the restaurant will reopen for regular dining until she and her staff feel completely comfortable doing so.
“I am not putting any pressure on returning to indoor dining,” she said. “We’ll be back when the moment feels right. Between now and then, we’re just going to focus on what we can do outdoors. In a sense, it takes me back to my beginnings, with the supper clubs.”
“Finding Freedom” is available now, wherever books are sold. A virtual book launch event is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday which will feature a discussion between French and Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa, as well as food writer Lidey Heuck. Tickets for the launch event are $28, and include a signed copy of the book. They are available via the website for Print: A Bookstore in Portland.