Erin French had her first restaurant job at just 14 years old, helping her dad out behind the counter of her family’s diner. By 2013, without any formal training, French was being invited to host dinners at the James Beard House. As she’d later detail in a memoir, she then entered rehab for alcohol and prescription drugs and lost everything — her house, her marriage, custody of her child. As she rebuilt her life, she opened an establishment in 2014 in her hometown of Freedom, Maine, called the Lost Kitchen. The 50-seat restaurant in a renovated mill serves simple dishes from locally sourced ingredients. Word-of-mouth recommendations and good press raised the Lost Kitchen’s profile enough that when it started accepting reservations in 2017, the restaurant was inundated with 10,000 phone calls in just 24 hours. The restaurant now has a lottery system and only takes reservation requests via postcard.
Today, French is a four-time James Beard Award semifinalist and the subject of a Magnolia Network series, The Lost Kitchen. She also has a new cookbook, Big Heart Little Stove, out on October 31, that guides readers through recipes that go beyond simple instructions to include the small touches that make a meal feel special. French lives in an old farmhouse with her husband, her “very old dog,” and her 21-year-old son, “who should probably be thinking about getting his own place.” Here’s how she gets it done.
On her morning and weekly routine:
The alarm goes off around 6:30 a.m., but I’m in bed for an hour. I’m waiting for coffee to kick in, looking at the New York Times, seeing what’s going on in the world, doing the spelling bee. Then I get up, let the chickens out, let the dog out. I built out these edible flower gardens, and I found that if I go and harvest flowers for the restaurant in the morning before I go to work, I come in in a better space.
I get to the restaurant by about 8 a.m. Since COVID, we only do dinners on Fridays and Saturdays. The week starts revving up and it gets busier and busier. Once you’re hitting Thursday, your heart is pounding, getting ready for Friday. It’s two 17-hour days in a row of work. Then there’s the Sunday crash, where it’s sleeping in as late as your body will let you.
On remembering to feed herself:
Breakfast is hard for me. I dream of getting up and being like, “I have enough in me to make a smoothie.” It’s really just coffee to get going, and then snacking throughout the day. One thing I learned about being in the restaurant industry is that your own relationship with food is very different from what you’re presenting to people. I’ve been cooking all day long, and I discovered that my stomach was not giving me cues that I was hungry. Sometimes, a day or two later, I’d think, Why do I feel like an animal? It’s that I hadn’t really sat down and had a meal in 36 hours.
On service days, I’ll come home around 12:30 a.m., 1 a.m., take a shower and microwave something and eat it in bed. That is not a thing I’m extremely proud of, but I make sure that it’s organic. We keep our chest freezers stocked in the summertime. The boys in the house are not allowed to touch “mom’s emergency after-work dinners.” An organic Annie’s cheesy kale bake is a go-to, or the cheddar and broccoli. In the summertime I’ll get the Mexican bake and I might even chop up a little tomato to throw on top of it. Sometimes my husband will be an absolute doll and he’ll run out and pick up some Indian food so there’s something to microwave at the end of the night.
On not feeling like a chef:
I was ashamed for a while that I didn’t have culinary training, and I didn’t think that I was good enough to do this. Then I found myself in a position of, I’m just going to run at it and see where and see where it takes me. It was a gift. Instead of listening to someone else tell me what they thought food should be, or how they thought it should taste, I had to dig deep into my own intuition and have that self-discovery. I continue to be mystified by people wanting to come here so badly. Because I think about food in a simple way, it was easy to feel like an impostor. Well, I have terrible knife skills, and I don’t know a lot of techniques in cooking. I’m putting together ingredients, and I’m not overly manipulating them. Does that make me not a chef? Even though I do it professionally, I don’t feel like a chef. I’d rather be called a hostess, which sounds like it’s dumbing it down a bit. But I’m proud of the way that I make this room feel and the food that we put together.
Self-doubt is an important part of balance, too. If you weren’t doubting yourself, then you weren’t checking in with yourself, or asking how you could improve. It’s like sailing. The environment is going to change. Things are going to come at you. You learn to tack and jibe and embrace the wind.
On her TripAdvisor critics:
In the early days, I read Tripadvisor every night. That was one of the worst things that I could have done to myself, but it taught me to thicken up my skin. I had to take what this person was saying and glean the things that were important — Did I not cook that steak correctly? How could I improve upon it? — and then find the other parts of it to shake off and say, That’s not worth listening to, but what can I learn from it? That empowered me. But I have now made a rule: I have not read Yelp or Tripadvisor in over five years.
On succeeding without growing her business:
The night when the phone really started to ring off the hook here, I thought, Oh my God, we’ve made it. But at one point, I was crying. I was crying with joy because I was so excited about it. And I was crying with fear because I was like, How are we going to maintain this and move forward? People still say, “What’s your problem? You have all these people who want to come there — why are you not opening more restaurants?” This restaurant, the size that it is, is my dream. To grow that will lose the magic of what it is. It’s been about not making snap decisions, and listening to my gut and saying, Is this the way I want to live my life? I already had everything that I wanted and needed. Moving forward, it was all just gravy.
On dividing labor at home:
My husband is constantly vacuuming — probably about ten times a day, and that’s not a joke — and staying on top of dishes. He’s so great at that. My son is getting better. Today, he’s going to pick up chicken food because he noticed last night that we’re really low. He also takes the dog out. I’ll throw in a load of laundry in the morning. I’m the cook. On days off, I’m the one who’s going around and fluffing pillows and making bouquets to put through the house before the busy time of the week starts so that the house doesn’t look completely wrecked. On Sundays, we pick up the broken pieces if we missed anything.
On appreciating family:
There are moments from my son’s childhood that I missed because I was so consumed with work. If you’re a leader in your space, everyone is looking up to you. I’m driving the ship — and if I am not there, then it’s not moving. I had a hard time prioritizing family. I would love to get those ten years of my kid’s life back. We’re in a good place now, but that’s why I’m letting him still live at home. We’ve really made a commitment to Sunday, that’s 100 percent family day. We don’t even make any plans with friends. We might go out on our boat and have a picnic, anchored off of an island for the day. We always make sure there’s a meal involved.
On the people who help her get it done:
The women who work at the restaurant all wear different hats. They’re not just coming in and doing one job. Here’s Becky, who’s helping in the kitchen and making rhubarb compote with me, and now she’s heading over to my house to clean my shower because I can’t get to it. You have that kind of friendship, people saying, “I know you’re working this long week — any way that I can help out?” My mom will make a meal if she can see that I haven’t eaten a lot. My husband — he’s an administrative assistant and manager and partner — is rooting me on when I’m thinking, Am I an impostor? He’s always lifting me out of the gutter.