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It was supposed to be a 'quiet little cafe' in Maine. It turned into a culinary phenomenon


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: 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.

Jeffrey Brown: The lilacs bloomed early in Maine this spring, so lilac ice cream.

Erin French: It looks creamy.

Woman: Yes. Thank you.

Jeffrey Brown: Make it, taste it, preserve it for the coming season.

Woman: You like it?

Erin French: I like it a lot.

Jeffrey Brown: 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.

Erin French: 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.

Jeffrey Brown: 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.

Erin French: 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.

Jeffrey Brown: All local ingredients, part of a six-course dinner.

Erin French: We have made fresh celery and leek soup with smoked ricotta and fresh Maine crab meat that we tossed in brown butter.

Jeffrey Brown: 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?

Erin French: It feels fraudulent.

Jeffrey Brown: Your idea of a chef is what?

Erin French: 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.

Jeffrey Brown: 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.

Erin French: 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.

Jeffrey Brown: 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?

Erin French: I remember her.

Jeffrey Brown: Her?

Erin French: Yes. She's changed a lot. A lot more confidence now.

Jeffrey Brown: And how bad was it?

Erin French: I mean, to the point where sometimes I'm feeling beyond thankful to even be sitting here alive still.

Jeffrey Brown: 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.

Erin French: 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.

Jeffrey Brown: 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.

Erin French: We started out with the farmer's market. It turned into a maker's market.

Jeffrey Brown: French and her staff created a new online retail business, including selling crafts made by Maine women.

Erin French: So, yes, we wouldn't have this without COVID. And now this is giving us steady income.

Jeffrey Brown: 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.

Erin French: I need to give to my community. I need -- I didn't grow up this way.

Jeffrey Brown: 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?

Erin French: 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.

Jeffrey Brown: 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.

Judy Woodruff: Now I'm hungry. And what an interesting book to look for.

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