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Anne Azzi Davenport
Anne Azzi Davenport
A new book, "Finding Freedom in the Lost Kitchen," details the trials and triumphs of the Maine restaurant that has been attracting attention internationally from foodies — and from culinary taste-makers like James Beard. As Jeffrey Brown reports, “finding freedom'' takes on multiple meanings for an innovative restaurateur on the rise. It’s part of NewsHour’s arts and culture series, CANVAS.
A new book details the trials and triumphs of a restaurant that has been attracting attention internationally from foodies, and from James Beard and other culinary taste-makers.
As Jeffrey Brown reports, "Finding Freedom" takes on multiple meanings for an innovative restaurateur on the rise.
It is part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Erin French, "Finding Freedom": The lilacs came on strong this year.
The lilacs bloomed early in Maine this spring, so lilac ice cream.
It looks creamy.
Yes. Thank you.
Make it, taste it, preserve it for the coming season.
You like it?
I like it a lot.
This is The Lost Kitchen, a 48-seat restaurant in a restored 1834 grist mill in the tiny town of Freedom, Maine, population around 700, in an area well away from the more upscale coastal villages, where you might expect a high-end dining experience.
And owner Erin French is still amazed by it all.
This was not the original plan. I never imagined this would become one of the hardest restaurants to get into in the country. I thought this would be a quiet little cafe in the middle of nowhere, with really good coffee, some homemade English muffins, and free Wi-Fi.
It is in the middle of nowhere, but rather than a little cafe, The Lost Kitchen is a big-time culinary phenomenon, including as subject of a Magnolia Network series on Discovery+, here giving a sense of the scene pre-COVID, French presiding in the small open kitchen, where diners can watch her and her team work, some of it gleaned from her past.
The sliders are an ode to my diner days, and they're made with local pork from a fancy Mangalitsa pig, homemade mayonnaise and local cheese, and last-of-the-season peaches from Krista's (ph) farm.
All local ingredients, part of a six-course dinner.
We have made fresh celery and leek soup with smoked ricotta and fresh Maine crab meat that we tossed in brown butter.
It looks and, of course, tastes great. But in her new memoir, "Finding Freedom," Erin French tells how hard it was to get here. Note the subtitle. She calls herself a cook, not a chef. Why?
It feels fraudulent.
Your idea of a chef is what?
Is a man in a white coat who is in power and makes perfectly frothed and foamed dishes, and is organized and can make a perfect omelet and has knife skills. And those are things that I have none of. But there are other things that I can do well. And it's simple food.
That began in childhood, when she worked in the local diner, then owned by her father, a difficult man, in her account, who drank and was psychologically abusive.
She was determined to escape him and the confines of this small town.
I didn't believe that I could do anything here that mattered or that was important or meaningful. And I just looked at it and thought, how could — this can't be it. There's got to be more out there. There has to be.
There was, but not what she hoped for. She dropped out of college when she became pregnant with her son, Jaim.
She later suffered through a toxic first marriage and depression that led to alcohol and prescription drug addiction. She started an early version of her restaurant in the seaside town of Belfast, Maine, only to lose it in a contentious divorce.
Do you recognize that person you were?
I remember her.
Yes. She's changed a lot. A lot more confidence now.
And how bad was it?
I mean, to the point where sometimes I'm feeling beyond thankful to even be sitting here alive still.
Reinvention came through food, first driving around an old airstream to do pop-up dinners in barns, orchards and farms, then in the restored old mill back in the town she'd first so wanted to leave.
This is a proudly women-run business, a small group of friends, with everyone doing more than one job. French's mother, Deanna, divorced from French's father, learned the wine business from the bottom up, and runs the wine cellar and shop.
The secret to her success, French believes, make the restaurant feel like home, keep the food simple and fresh, cook by intuition.
What inspires me and what makes me a good cook are the ingredients.
So, I don't want to go searching for ingredients and forcing them if I can't find the right fresh thing. So, I need it that morning. This is what's coming. This is what you have got to work with. And that's my challenge. Like, here's your toolbox.
She works with neighbors, like Villageside Farm, and gets fresh fish from the Maine coast. Fresh eggs come from the henhouse at her home.
This is a seasonal restaurant, open normally from May through October. and as with restaurants everywhere, the pandemic shut it down, forcing the latest reinvention.
We started out with the farmer's market. It turned into a maker's market.
French and her staff created a new online retail business, including selling crafts made by Maine women.
So, yes, we wouldn't have this without COVID. And now this is giving us steady income.
They also raised money to fight food insecurity here in Waldo County. To do that, they turned to their signature reservation system. Some 20,000 people around the U.S. and 25 other countries apply each year by postcard, some quite fanciful, to have their names drawn for a coveted table.
French asked them, people well-off enough to pay $190 per person, plus tip, tax and wine, to include a few dollars for the aid fund. She's raised more than $330,000 to date.
I need to give to my community. I need — I didn't grow up this way.
What I was wondering, as I was reading, you're serving people that are probably pretty well-off now. Does that feel strange to you?
Yes. And I continue to struggle with that growth of, where is that fine line? Where does it get to be too much? Where does it get to be too precious? And I have been very firm to keep my feet on the ground, to say, this is special for a reason.
If you start changing it, if you start growing it, if you start doing things like that, the magic will be lost in a heartbeat. And that's what I'm trying to hold on to.
And, for now, trying to have a 2021 season.
Last summer, with husband and business partner Michael Dutton, French built three small cabins in the woods for isolated dining. Soon, she will open for outdoor meals and, playing it safe for now, hopes to open The Lost Kitchen indoors by summer's end.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Freedom, Maine.
Now I'm hungry. And what an interesting book to look for.
Watch the Full Episode
In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
Anne Azzi Davenport is the Senior Coordinating Producer of CANVAS at PBS NewsHour.
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