We’ve been inspired by chef Erin French’s story for quite some time now -- so much so that she was featured in our July issue last year. After losing everything in a messy divorce, including her supper club-turned-restaurant The Lost Kitchen, French decided to return to her hometown of Freedom, Maine for a fresh start. She began hosting pop-up dinners all over the state, which she ran out of an Airstream trailer that she tricked out herself, until she found the perfect venue to put down roots: a former grist mill in Freedom. The Lost Kitchen was reborn as an intimate 40-seat restaurant, where French presides over a daily changing menu that showcases the best of Maine, supported by an all-female team (including her mom and sister!).
A self-taught chef, French has gone from meticulously poring over cookbooks for inspiration and new techniques to writing one of her own. “The Lost Kitchen” delves deeper into French’s tale of loss and redemption, and at the same time, serves as a true celebration of Maine. We caught up with her recently to chat about how it all came together.
This is one of the most unique cookbook covers we’ve seen in a while. How did it come to be?
The arguments that happened over this cover! What I love about it is that it tells the poetry of The Lost Kitchen. You can see the place, you know there’s food involved, and it’s soothing to look at. The book jacket is vellum, so as a cook, it’s also practical -- you can wipe it down. The cover feels mysterious and communicates the sense of adventure that The Lost Kitchen does -- it’s a special place that you have to find. I know it’s not typical for a cookbook cover; it’s not some big bright dish. But if you need that, just take off the vellum!
Are there any cookbooks that you find yourself coming back to again and again?
The funny thing is that the first cookbook I ever got, and I still have it to this day, was "Martha Stewart’s Hors D’Oeuvres Handbook." My mom gave it to me when I was super young, and I remember being so inspired by each of those dainty little bites and just how perfectly they were put together. Hasn't Martha Stewart been a crazy inspiration in all of our lives??! Another big one for me is Skye Gyngell. She’s a chef in England with a really simple, ingredient-driven style; I cooked from her books a lot when I was doing my supper club.
(GET: The Petit Croque Monsieur Recipe from "Martha Stewart’s Hors D’Oeuvres Handbook")
Why did you decide to organize the book by season?
The beauty of Maine is that it has these four really distinct seasons. We call it the land of big extremes sometimes because you have these harsh winters and warm summers and these springs that seem to take forever. And with each season comes distinct produce. So to write a book that represented Maine, it only made sense to do it by season.
What’s your favorite thing about Maine in the summer?
Strawberry picking. My mom and I get to the field super early in the morning, when it's not too hot and it's quiet enough to listen to other people's conversations. It's this little meditation moment before I go into the crazy kitchen with the fresh-picked strawberries. I also love when the elderflowers pop at the end of June/beginning of July. And sitting down by the water, going for dips in the cold ocean, and eating shellfish. I know it sounds totally cliche for someone from Maine to say that, but it’s really all you want to do here in the summer. I had to put lobster somewhere in “The Lost Kitchen,” but at the same time, it’s not a book about lobsters and blueberries. It’s about cheering on Maine and showing that we’re so much more than that. There are so many magical ingredients here, and I tried to use as many as possible in the book so that the reader could get a taste of what the flavors of this place are.
(GET: Erin's Spiked Elderflower Lemonade Recipe)
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
As far as the story goes, I hope it proves that you can build something from nothing, even if it seems like you don't have the means. If your heart is there and you work hard, you can do it. And when it comes to cooking, if you learn to trust your instincts and you use really good ingredients, you can make a good meal. Recipes are just ideas that you can make your own. When you’re in your kitchen, you do you. That’s how I got here, taking things that I was comfortable with and branching out. Trust the seasons, trust that ingredients are in season at the same time because they work together, and remember that you don’t need to drown things in sauces.
(COOK: Erin's Farmhouse Dinner Party Menu)