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The Lost Kitchen: A Glimpse Inside Maine’s Most Wildly In-Demand Restaurant

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The Lost Kitchen: A Glimpse Inside Maine’s Most Wildly In-Demand Restaurant

April 1, 2019

This is the country’s most talked-about restaurant, but you’ll need to get a little lost—and mail a love letter—to find it.

The Lost Kitchen is an unlikely success story. First, there’s the matter of where it is: in the rural town of Freedom, Maine, 17 miles from the coast, surrounded by farmland and backcountry roads, near towns like Unity and Liberty. You can count the buildings in Freedom on one hand: There’s a general store, a gas station, a post office, and the Lost Kitchen itself, in an 1834 mill building, perched over a stream.

Then there’s the matter of the restaurant’s story. It’s helmed by a self-taught chef, Erin French, a Freedom native who spent her teenage years working at the local diner. She started the Lost Kitchen as a series of under-the-radar dinners in her small apartment, then saved to open a real restaurant, one floor below. The Lost Kitchen took off, until one day French arrived to find padlocks on the doors, her grandmother’s china and every pot and pan locked inside: the Lost Kitchen, lost in a contentious divorce. French rebuilt, renovating an Airstream and serving pop-up dinners across Maine before she got word that the falling-down mill in Freedom had been saved and was in need of a tenant. She moved in and fitted everything herself, sourcing vintage appliances from old farmhouses, building the dining tables by hand, and scouring antiques stores for tableware.

In its current iteration, the Lost Kitchen has eight tables and one seating a night, and French and her team of women servers and cooks do it all: one server grows the flowers, another raises the chickens. French cooks the multi-course meals on the spot, in the open kitchen, with no menu in mind, drawing only from what’s available that day, recipes learned from her mother and grandmother, and the simple flavors of Maine. The ink on the menus is barely dry when guests arrive: They’re printed just before the seating each night—until then, what will be served is in flux.

It’s an unlikely success story, but a wild success it is: In the four years it’s been open, French has written a cookbook,The Lost Kitchen: Recipes and a Good Life Found in Freedom, Maine. It used to be that on April 1 the phone lines would open for the summer’s reservations, but after the phone lines crashed, French turned to a more old-fashioned system last year: Prospective diners sent in a handwritten postcard, postmarked between the dates of April 1 and April 10, to be considered for a coveted seat at the table. French received almost 20,000 postcards: They fill buckets in the small office beside the dining room.

Starting today, The Lost Kitchen is accepting postcards for the 2019 season; see all of the details here. Unless you’re one of the lucky few, though, you may never get inside the Lost Kitchen. Consider this a glimpse.

Photography by Greta Rybus for Remodelista.

The Mill at Freedom Falls, where the Lost Kitchen is located, is perched above a wide creek. The 34 building was formerly a gristmill, then a turning mill, but had been abandoned for decades and was in danger of falling into the creek before local conservationists and Cold Mountain Builders worked to restore it, shoring up the granite foundation and replacing the timbers.
Above: The Mill at Freedom Falls, where the Lost Kitchen is located, is perched above a wide creek. The 1834 building was formerly a gristmill, then a turning mill, but had been abandoned for decades and was in danger of falling into the creek before local conservationists and Cold Mountain Builders worked to restore it, shoring up the granite foundation and replacing the timbers.
To get to the Lost Kitchen, diners cross a narrow footbridge above the falls.
Above: To get to the Lost Kitchen, diners cross a narrow footbridge above the falls.
Inside, remnants of the old mill remain: pulley systems and an old millstone, inlaid in the floor. French fitted the dining room simply, and all herself, with hand-built tables and painted spindle-back chairs. She also had a vent and air duct installed to facilitate the working kitchen.
Above: Inside, remnants of the old mill remain: pulley systems and an old millstone, inlaid in the floor. French fitted the dining room simply, and all herself, with hand-built tables and painted spindle-back chairs. She also had a vent and air duct installed to facilitate the working kitchen.
French built the tables with help from a local carpenter, using salvaged wood and metal hairpin legs. The chairs are from Hayes Unfinished Furniture in Brewer, Maine, painted in Benjamin Moore&#8
Above: French built the tables with help from a local carpenter, using salvaged wood and metal hairpin legs. The chairs are from Hayes Unfinished Furniture in Brewer, Maine, painted in Benjamin Moore’s Iron Mountain.
French sources the tableware from antiques stores around Maine; downstairs, in the pantry, there are stacks of blue-and-white china and jadeite bowls. French&#8
Above: French sources the tableware from antiques stores around Maine; downstairs, in the pantry, there are stacks of blue-and-white china and jadeite bowls. French’s mother, who works at the Lost Kitchen, sewed the restaurant’s original cloth napkins.
Guests are greeted by a handmade cooling cloth, a respite from the heat. (Stay tuned for how to make them in a future post.)
Above: Guests are greeted by a handmade cooling cloth, a respite from the heat. (Stay tuned for how to make them in a future post.)
One of the servers, Ashley, provides the flowers each day from her own farm.
Above: One of the servers, Ashley, provides the flowers each day from her own farm.
A mix of ceramics in the open kitchen. French installed the counters and sourced the Lacanche range (out of frame) at a discount.
Above: A mix of ceramics in the open kitchen. French installed the counters and sourced the Lacanche range (out of frame) at a discount.
Above L: Small white lamps (they’re from West Elm) sit atop pieces of slate on the radiators. Above R: Hooks from Sugar Tools in Camden fit the old mill interiors and provide a place for diners to hang jackets and hats.
On one wall, a vintage hutch holds the restaurant&#8
Above: On one wall, a vintage hutch holds the restaurant’s glassware.
With stacks of glassware and mix-and-match china, there&#8
Above: With stacks of glassware and mix-and-match china, there’s the sense of dining in French’s own home, not a formal restaurant.
Even the fridge—a 50&#8
Above: Even the fridge—a 1950’s Frigidaire that French found on Uncle Henry’s (Maine’s version of Craigslist)—is out in the open.
A vintage cart holds mix-and-match teacups that French has collected over the years.
Above: A vintage cart holds mix-and-match teacups that French has collected over the years.
Lobsters cool in the farmhouse sink, which French found at a house set to be demolished in Massachusetts.
Above: Lobsters cool in the farmhouse sink, which French found at a house set to be demolished in Massachusetts.
The open kitchen is equal parts utility and charm.
Above: The open kitchen is equal parts utility and charm.
Three of nearly ,000 postcards—from every state and
Above: Three of nearly 20,000 postcards—from every state and 21 countries—that came into the tiny Freedom, Maine, post office this April. Some postcards have paintings of the old mill, or hand-drawn maps of how to find The Lost Kitchen. French pulls out the cards sent in by the night’s diners and hands them back after the meal—small souvenirs of the experience.
Maine fog on the mill windows.
Above: Maine fog on the mill windows.
French takes a moment between cooking to arrange the flowers for the evening. At dusk, French herself goes around to each table to light candles.
Above: French takes a moment between cooking to arrange the flowers for the evening. At dusk, French herself goes around to each table to light candles.

Landed a spot at the Lost Kitchen, and need a place to stay the night? Might we suggest the guest bedrooms at High Ridge Farm, a 20-minute drive.

Take a look more hidden gems in Maine, as part of The Maine Line issue:

N.B.: This post is an update; the original story ran on August 17, 2018.

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