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Lost Kitchen Restaurant Made Chef's Small Hometown A Dining Destination

Nov 17, 2017
Originally published on November 17, 2017 6:48 pm

One of America's most coveted dining experiences is a 40-seat restaurant in a converted grist-mill in the rural village of Freedom, Maine.

Chef Erin French, who is self-taught, opened the Lost Kitchen in her hometown of Freedom without much of a plan. She loved the space, and at first thought she would make English muffins and offer brunch, not convinced that the village of just over 700 people could become a dinner destination.

"When I first decided that I wanted to do this, everyone thought I was completely crazy," French says. "Why would anyone come all this way to have dinner?"

Well, come they have — in droves. French's food, with its focus on local, fresh, unpretentious cooking, has created a legion of fans. Each year, the restaurant opens reservations on April 1. But this year, things got out of control.

"The phones rang to a point where our security system went down and we had over 10,000 phone calls stream in in the matter of a few hours, French says. "The entire restaurant was booked."

Booked for the whole year. Calls came in from as far away as New Zealand, along with offers to open another restaurant in Las Vegas. But French first learned to cook in her dad's diner and is committed to keeping things simple.

"The food at Lost Kitchen is not Earth-shattering or ground-breaking in any way, and it's not fancy — we don't sous vide anything, we don't make foams or fancy purees, it's just simple food," she says. "I don't want anyone to feel intimidated when they look at this and I never want to plate a dish that you have to look at it and say, 'What is it?' "

Each day at 10 a.m. the first shipments for that night's dinner start to come in, including fresh eggs and a variety of produce.

A lot of that produce comes from Villageside Farm, which is just a short walk from the restaurant. Polly Shyka runs the farm with her husband, Prentice Grassi. She says the success of the Lost Kitchen "brings food to everyone's mind" and shows them that "seeking out local produce can be for everyone."

As word of mouth has spread about the Lost Kitchen, finding a seat at the table has been increasingly difficult. But French has resisted expanding the hours, or opening up a new venue. Her goal remains creating a restaurant experience that feels like dinner among friends.

"It's about a three-and-a-half to four-hour dinner, which sounds long but when you think about it — it's kind of the perfect timing for the perfect dinner party," French says. "If you go to a friend's house and it's like, 'where did the time go?' that's the best night ever.' "

"I grew up in Freedom and if you had asked me when I was a kid, or even if you had asked me five years ago, if this would be possible I would have said no," French says. "I feel like growing up here, you're kind of silently raised that to be successful you have to leave — that you can't make a living here, that you can't make anything here. And you know, maybe it's not so true."

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ELISE HU, HOST:

We're about to listen in on what's become one of the most coveted dining experiences in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHIME)

ERIN FRENCH: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Hi.

HU: That's chef Erin French welcoming 40 lucky guests to her restaurant, as she does four nights a week.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

French, who is self-taught, is head chef and owner of the Lost Kitchen in her hometown of Freedom. That's a rural village of just over 700 people in central Maine.

FRENCH: When I first decided that I wanted to do this everyone thought I was completely crazy. Why would anyone come all this way to have dinner?

HU: Well, come they have in droves. French's food, with its focus on local, fresh, unpretentious cooking, has created a legion of fans. Each year, French opens reservations on April 1.

FRENCH: But then this year things got out of control. The phones rang to a point where our security system went down. And we had over 10,000 phone calls stream in in the matter of a few hours. And the entire restaurant was booked.

MCEVERS: Booked for a whole year. Calls came from New Zealand along with offers to open a restaurant in Las Vegas. But French, who first learned to cook at her dad's diner, is committed to keeping things simple.

HU: Today her staff are all her friends, none of whom are classically trained, and her mom, who also runs the wine shop in the basement. Our producer, Matt Ozug, went to see a day unfold at the Lost Kitchen and sent us this audio postcard.

FRENCH: Around 10 a.m. is when the first shipments of fresh produce start to come through the door.

GREG KING: Pea shoots and rosemary, new potatoes.

FRENCH: Fresh eggs. Everything starts to just roll in.

KING: Cucumbers and some green beans.

FRENCH: The food at Lost Kitchen is not earth-shattering or groundbreaking in any way. And it's not fancy. We don't sous vide anything. We don't make foams or fancy purees. It's just simple food. One of the farms I get a lot of my produce from is Villageside Farm, which is just next door to the restaurant. It's literally a walk through the woods and you are in the field with the chickens.

POLLY SHYKA: My name is Polly Shyka, and I'm a farmer here at Villageside Farm. It definitely brings a lot of people to a very rural, agrarian part of the country or part of the world. And whenever a food business does well like the Lost Kitchen is, it brings food to everyone's mind. And so seeking out local produce can be for everyone.

FRENCH: Shellfish is now at T5. Do you have all the changes?

It's a sweet corn soup - crab, cilantro, creme fraiche and jalapeno. There's nothing I can't stand more than people who have to, like, fluff a menu and make it sound fancy. It's like, I don't want anyone to feel intimidated when they look at this. And I never want to plate a dish that you have to look at it and say, what is it?

My mom is typically tapping her foot for the menu around 4:30 because she has to print it. So 4:30's kind of when I can feel the heat of Mom coming upon me.

DEANNA RICHARDSON: My name is Deanna Richardson. I'm Erin's mother. It still amazes me that we are out here really in the middle of nowhere. And I remember - I was still teaching then, and a colleague of mine said, like, she'll never make it. People won't drive that far to come and eat. And now I run into them, I'm like, guess you were wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I gently push into the front hinge, which is the smaller end of the oyster, and then at the very end we put on Erin's mignonette. And then she adds the little seasonal flavors, like right now wild blueberries.

FRENCH: Guests begin to arrive around 5:30. It's about a three and a half to four-hour dinner, which sounds long, but if you think about it it's kind of the perfect timing for a perfect dinner party. If you go to a friend's house and you're having dinner and you're like, oh, my God, where did the time go and we had such a great time, like, that's the best night ever. So three and a half to four hours for dinner.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And what a wonderful combination.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Delicious.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Yeah, I will be Instagramming for sure.

BOBBY LERMAN: There's unexpected stuff that you get hit with. Like those oysters, a little bit of sweet onion, trout roe on them - unbelievable. There's thought that goes into this. And that's what matters in really anything you do 'cause people notice that.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHIME)

FRENCH: I'm Erin French, and this is my dream come true. And just we are just beside ourselves, so thanks for being here tonight.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Thank you.

FRENCH: So we're going to start with a nice corn soup. When I drive up the hill to go get gas, you see this sign at the farm stand that says sweet corn in big...

I grew up in Freedom. And if you had asked me when I was a kid or even if you had asked me five years ago if this would be possible I would have said no. I feel like growing up here you were kind of silently raised that to be successful you have to leave, that you can't make a living here, that you can't make anything here. And, you know, maybe it's not so true.

HU: Chef Erin French there of the restaurant the Lost Kitchen. Reservations are full, but she does have a cookbook, "The Lost Kitchen: Recipes And A Good Life Found In Freedom, Maine." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.