Maine. It’s so far up there, it’s like the Florida of the northeast. What is it a part of? Is it part of New England? Canada? Its own sovereign nation? Besides for moose, boots and lobster, it’s hard to think of what exactly defines this state. Then we spoke with Freedom, Maine’s Erin French, the chef of The Lost Kitchen, the most impossible restaurant to get a reservation to eat at perhaps in the whole country.
French, who grew up working in her family’s diner, first operated The Lost Kitchen as a supper club out of her apartment, then as a restaurant downstairs, then out of an Airstream.
Her hometown of Freedom may have been settled in 1794, but Erin opening The Lost Kitchen in 2014 in a 19th-century gristmill really put Freedom on the map. Then the accolades started coming in, from all the usual suspects, including her being a semifinalist for a James Beard Award. Subsequently she came out with her first cookbook, The Lost Kitchen: Recipes and a Good Life Found in Freedom, Maine.
The Lost Kitchen is only open from May to New Year’s Eve, and only four nights a week, and serves only 40 people a night. French always comes out from the kitchen to talk to the diners about the meal, made with ingredients mostly from her own garden or at least her home state. On a recent night of service, French served guests a Maine lamb chop with whipped feta and lemon butter new potatoes, olives and fava flowers, garlic scape pesto, baby kale & arugula — and that was just the main course.
In 2017, the restaurant received over 10,000 reservation requests…in 24 hours! The voicemail was full in 30 minutes – and her staff responded to every single call. This year, French turned to the USPS, asking folks who wished to dine at The Lost Kitchen to mail their information in on an index card. Another 10,000 requests from 47 states, for about 5,000 lucky people.
French, 37, grew up in Freedom, a town of a smidge over 700 residents. It took time for her to understand what a gift it was to live there, not really becoming apparent until she went away for a while.
“I remember my mother telling me you have to go experience the city because then you’ll really know what you’re passionate about and how you want to live your life.”
French moved to Boston and then went out to California. “Being outside of LA sent me back here faster than anything. I was like ‘oh my god, I just want to go home.'”
After experiencing a bit of life outside of Maine, it made French realize how lucky she was to grow up in this little country town and appreciate the simpler things. “These are things people nowadays aren’t really craving. So, I’m definitely learning how fortunate I am to, you know, call this place home.”
On her hometown of Freedom
Come to Freedom for a day trip. You can’t visit the restaurant, but you’re welcome to tour the outside and go for a hike around the mill. It’s a short hike with a couple of bridges, but it’s cute. We have the hills to sea trail that goes all around Freedom. There’s also Freedom Pond, which is awesome for kayaking or canoeing; there’s a little island you can canoe out to. We’ve had picnics out there.
What she loves about Maine
I love that we have distinct seasons, everything is a little more delayed up here, which makes you appreciate it that much more. And I love the stark contrast between each of those seasons.
The other one is the landscape. Everything from being out here in farm country and driving 20 minutes to the ocean or driving 20 minutes in the other direction and being on a lake or heading to the mountains. You can do anything here, from swimming, skiing, fishing. Twenty minutes from here you can hop on a ferry and head to an island – Islesboro, North Haven, Vinalhaven – and feel like you’re in another world.
The most touristy things about Maine
Obviously, lobster and blueberries and probably the biggest tourist spot is Bar Harbor. It’s become kind of touristy to the point where you don’t even recognize it, like this could be anywhere – it doesn’t feel like Maine – but everyone’s got to make a living up there. I still go up there any Sunday I can and ride the carriage trails in Acadia National Park.
What you must do when visiting
I have to say Acadia National Park even though it is super touristy, but there’s a reason people go there. Acadia is magical, it’s awesome and it’s amazing and it’s beautiful and great for families. Whether it’s hiking or riding the carriage trails, it’s incredible. Or even just taking the park loop and going for a drive, it’s so spectacular. And if you could pick an island, go to Monhegan Island. Go for a day trip and go hiking and eat chowder until you want to explode. The boat ride is beautiful and the island feels like you could be in Sweden. They have all these artists there and these little fairy huts throughout the trails that you can explore and find these beautiful little handmade pieces by artists. I mean gosh, there’s so many things.
If you want to do a city thing, Portland has an amazing food scene. It just continues to amaze me how many amazing restaurants there that are thriving. They’re doing so well in this little city, it’s just bustling. It’s on the water and it’s beautiful.
What she liked doing as a kid
I loved going camping at Mount Katahdin especially around Columbus Day. It’s beautiful and all of the leaves are on fire; and you go up to Daicey Pond, rent a cabin and go hiking, that’s a whole other world up there. Or Moosehead Lake which is great for watersports and camping. There are so many awesome state parks that are fabulous. Deer Isle in Stonington, awesome day trip to explore and get a really good cup of coffee at 44 North. Just driving up the causeway up in the peninsula is really magical. I always feel my blood pressure go down when I cross that bridge.
What the heck is Maine cuisine
Right now, what you would see as Maine cuisine would be farm-to-table. I can’t come up with a better word for it, it’s so overused as a term. It’s really incredible, the farmers and the producers and purveyors and cheesemakers, everyone’s out here. We’ve got this beautiful space, we’ve got the ocean and seafood and the proteins and the vegetables. It’s so easy to be a good cook here because we have such access to awesome ingredients. I mean the farm really is here, we’re not like making it up. We weren’t trying to be cool. We invented it, okay?
How she eats a lobster roll
I prefer butter over mayo any day. I make my own, I’m spoiled like that. I’m also the girl who would rather go for the lobster than the lobster roll.
Everyone goes to Red’s Eats and there’s a reason: It is really good, just classic. They cut up a whole tail and serve it on a bun with just a side of butter that you just throw the whole thing on top of. You really can’t beat it. But, you know there’s got to be other ones out there. The lobster roll is a constant search.
Where to eat because you can’t get a reservation at her place
Go to these places because we love them: Suzuki’s, Long Grain, Drifter’s Wife, Chase’s Daily, Tinder Hearth, Primo, Eventide, Aragosta, Central Provisions, Fore Street. They’re restaurants that we’ve been to.
Stay the night at Nebo Lodge in North Haven. It’s beautiful and romantic and dinner at the inn is really nice. Up in Moosehead Lake, there’s Blair Hill Inn, which is beautiful, awesome views. Earth at Hidden Pond in southern Maine is also a total romantic spot. Monhegan, again, I can’t recommend that one enough. Go stay at The Island Inn out there, it’s just truly magical.
I have strawberry picking just a mile from my house. The height of the season is around July 4th. A lot of people will come early in the morning on the 4th, pick the strawberries, go home and make strawberry shortcake. It’s a tradition.
On fellow Mainer Stephen King
I’ve think everyone’s driven by his house. It’s easy to tell because it’s the one with the creepy-looking gate with the bat on it. I’ve never gone knocking on his door. It’s funny though, living in Maine. The one time I saw him, he was standing in front of me at the movie theater getting popcorn. I was like, okay, only in Maine…