How chef Erin French found herself at The Lost Kitchen

By the time Erin French welcomes guests – 50 of them, twice a week – to her Lost Kitchen restaurant, they’ve been sipping and sampling for two hours already – and they haven’t even gotten to what’s on the menu yet.

“I just wanted to pause a moment and welcome you all,” French told her guests. “I hope you taste our joy tonight because that is what we’re runnin’ on, and some good ingredients, and a lot of love!”

And something else: baked into every meal she serves is the story of how, at the Lost Kitchen, she found freedom, and now fame, in Freedom, Maine (population: about 700).

French said, “You make me feel like this is the center of the universe.”

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The cookbook author, bestselling memoirist and TV chef welcomes guests to The Lost Kitchen restaurant, one of the hardest-to get reservations in the world. CBS News

So, it seems, it is. The Lost Kitchen is one of the hardest-to-get reservations in the world. French has a cookbook out, with another one in the works; and movie rights to her bestselling memoir, “Finding Freedom,” were sold in a major bidding war. Season 3 of her Magnolia TV series begins this month.

Her success is all the more stunning because of how hard it was to come by.

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Chef Erin French at The Lost Kitchen. CBS News

Here’s what she told correspondent Martha Teichner: “My dad was a pretty hard guy to be around.”

Her father, Jeff Richardson, owned a diner just outside Freedom. Erin started working there at age 12. “To have moments when I would make something on the line, and he’d give that quiet look of, ‘You did it right,’ that’s where I learned to figure out this challenging relationship with my dad, was to cook together.”

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Young Erin at work at her father’s diner.  Erin French

Her mother, Deanna, was a schoolteacher. “She would never speak out; she wasn’t allowed to,” French said.

All Erin wanted to do was get away from the diner, out of Freedom, and she did. But after 2½ years of college in Boston, at 21, she discovered she was pregnant; dropped out; and went back to Freedom to have her baby, a boy she named Jaim – and to work at the diner.

“Even coming back home and diving back into food, I still wasn’t picking up on the cues that maybe I love this,” she said.

Finally, it sunk in. At the age of 30, French opened a restaurant, the first Lost Kitchen. It was a hit, but her life was a wreck, especially her marriage. “My anxiety was growing. I was working these crazy hours, and I was in this miserable marriage. I started taking prescription medication, and that’s when the spiral started to happen.”

What came next? Addiction, a drawn-out, nasty divorce. French lost her restaurant. For a time, she even lost custody of her son.   

So, she had to drag herself out of the depths. Her lifeboat was a land yacht – a wreck of an Airstream. “I spent a lot of, like, just recovery time just bringing myself back to life living here,” she told Teichner. “It was an absolute mess.”

She took a sledgehammer to the interior: “I just had this one moment of, just let it all go, and just needed a good scream and a good cry, and a fresh beginning.”

It became the Lost Kitchen on wheels. Now, it’s parked a few yards from the 19th century mill where the restaurant has been for the last eight years, a tourist attraction even for people who can’t get reservations (and that’s practically everybody).

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The Lost Kitchen, now serving inside an old mill in Freedom, Maine.  CBS News

To get a reservation at the Los Kitchen, you have to send in a postcard; they are drawn at random to determine who gets in. This year, the restaurant received more than 50,000 postcards.

The restaurant is open from the end of May to October. Dinner costs $195. Sounds like a lot, but it’s for a good 12 courses.

French cooks local. Her secret ingredient: lots of butter

RECIPE: Little Neck Clams from The Lost Kitchen

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Little Neck Clams.  CBS News

The Lost Kitchen is staffed mainly by women, all French’s friends, who don’t need to talk as they work to music – a soundtrack for the happy ending to this story about second chances.

French said, “There was a moment that I realized that I had to go through all of that to get exactly right here, and that is that kind of beautiful and terrifying thing about life.”

Nine years ago, French met media executive Michael Dutton. They got married in 2018.

French’s mother, now divorced from her dad, does whatever needs doing at the Lost Kitchen. And when dinner begins French presides over the Lost Kitchen, like a woman who has finally found herself.

She raised a glass to her guests at the restaurant: “Here’s to the memories we make in this room. I hope they last a good long time. Here’s to three more hours of eating!”

     
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Story produced by Jon Carras. Editor: Carol Ross.