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What’s the secret? To find out, ask the sisterhood staffing Erin French’s restaurant.

On Halloween in 1997, when Erin French was 16, she went to the supermarket and shopped for a four-course birthday dinner for her mother’s 42nd birthday. Deanna MacNeil had worked all day, teaching special education to elementary school kids in the Belfast area. “I came home to find carved pumpkins strung up with lights in them,” MacNeil remembers. Martha Stewart’s roast chicken 101 was in the oven. There was a squash soup cooking. The table was set. “The dining room was all decorated,” MacNeil says. “We sat down and had this…” She pauses, looking for the right description. “Beautiful meal.”

Her daughter had conceived and executed the entire production herself, in a way that was mysterious even to MacNeil. These days, at 38, self-taught cook Erin French has become Today show famous. Her bestselling cookbook was in its second printing within a month of release. Now she’s working on a memoir, all while running the Lost Kitchen, arguably the hottest restaurant in Maine. French’s stage is bigger, but the self-taught chef is still pulling off the sort of magic act that floored her mother over 20 years ago. The recipes in her cookbook, while beautiful and delicious, are not exactly revolutionary, yet people who eat at the Lost Kitchen tend to stagger out in a gobsmacked swoon. Clearly, there is some alchemy at work here.

The Lost Kitchen’s all-woman team. Top row, from left: server Ashley Savage, chef/owner Erin French (in plaid), prep assistant Nancy Buckley. Middle row, from left: server Lauren Crighton, office manager Meg Teravainen (on stool), server Alex Powell, prep cooks Helen Tirone and Katharine Mason. Front row from left, line cook Krista Yungman, wine shop manager (and French’s mother) Deanna MacNeil and server Maia Campoamor. Not pictured: Carey Dube, Victoria Marshall. Photo by Liz Caron

“People try to solve the mystery of the Lost Kitchen,” says Meg Teravainen, whose job includes handling reservations. She’s been at the restaurant four years, but says she’s still in awe of it. In 2015, when she came to Freedom to work at the restaurant, she was terrified. “I wanted to rise to the bar that everyone sets, but especially the captain leading the cavalry here.”

The captain’s cavalry is an all-women team, except for the dishwasher. French didn’t set out to assemble such a sisterhood; it evolved organically. But spending a day with them backstage at Lost Kitchen seemed like the best way to solve the mystery of Erin French’s magic touch.

Just after 9 a.m. on a crisp morning, the Lost Kitchen’s airy dining room is quiet and the only person in here is a woman with short gray hair and glasses, sitting at a sunlit table in the far corner, a white apron over her jeans. The restaurant rambles over several levels in a recently refurbished mill; in this main room, big windows look out over the stream. To outsiders, Freedom must seem like a blip on a rural road, half an hour inland from Belfast, a relative metropolis with its population of 6,752, but for French, this is home, the place where she grew up.

The woman in the corner, Nancy Buckley, is dipping squares of white muslin in rosewater and tying them with twine and lavender. “These are passed out with the sherbet course,” she explains. “After the small plates, before the soup. For hand-washing. They’re a nice refresher.”

The captain of the cavalry is nowhere in sight, but signs of her are everywhere: The dining room is filled with dining tables French built herself. Small dishes of glistening cured olives are arrayed on rows of marble boards that fill the bar top, glossy ebony and deep green jewels set into herbs and oil. A large metal bowl on the counter next to the stove holds dozens of egg yolks. A gigantic pot of potatoes simmers on a burner. On the counter is a stockpot containing a whole chicken, fresh herbs, and vegetables, steeping in an intensely savory-smelling broth.

Buckley sold gooseberries and blueberries to French a few years ago, which she raised on her self-sustaining homestead. When her neighbor, Helen Tirone, who works in the prep kitchen, said the restaurant needed some extra help, Buckley stepped into prepping and doing linens. “I’ve been here this whole past year plus half the year before.” She grinned. “So an overflow of berries led me to the Lost Kitchen.”

French appears, gliding up the stairs with a tray of almonds, her blonde hair tied neatly in a short ponytail, wearing a gray T-shirt and white apron. She slides the tray into the oven and vanishes back downstairs. The kitchen itself is small and efficient—those potatoes simmer on one of just four burners. Rather than a gleaming industrial kitchen, it’s more like a big sister to the tiny kitchen in the Airstream where French cooked pop-up dinners as her first marriage was breaking up.

The restaurant is an old mill that was recently refurbished. In the wine store/cellar downstairs, you can see signs of the days when it was an active mill. Photo by Liz Caron

Buckley continues. “When I came, it was midsummer, someone had a total meltdown, just burned out, and Helen was prepping alone. She said to Erin, ‘Just call Nancy, she lives right down the street, you know her.’ My interview was five minutes, then Erin said, ‘When can you start?’ I said ‘Right now,’ and here I still am.” She laughs. “I had no qualifications. I’m an artist and a sign-maker.”

By 11 a.m., downstairs in the compact, brightly lit prep room, two women stand at their stations chopping their way through raw leeks and fennel. Katharine Mason is in her mid-20s, wearing bright, patterned tights and a stretchy miniskirt under her apron. Helen Tirone, willowy and tall, white-gray hair in a ponytail, is in a long-sleeved white shirt and jeans. The boom box is playing the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down.” There are two sinks nearby, a dishwasher and gleaming stainless steel work counter. The scrawl on the chalkboard indicates French has been busy: Fennel. Leeks and Brussels. Napa/lettuce. Candy cookies. Mayo. Crab. Custard. At this point, seven hours before service, these are just ingredients and ideas, the full menu still a secret.

The produce is all local, much of it grown by women and most of it organic-certified by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. French orders what she wants, but they drop off surprises, too, when something is particularly good. Some farmers deliver as they’re arriving for their shifts at the restaurant, including servers Victoria Marshall and Krista Yungman.

Tirone first sold tomatoes to Erin when the Lost Kitchen was in Belfast. It started as a supper club in her apartment, then moved into a storefront. Infamously, French’s ex-husband cast her out of that original restaurant, locking her out of it in 2013. “Then it moved to my backyard, and now I work here,” Tirone says. She is cutting black radishes, which, she points out, have a sparkle to them, like minerals. Mason begins shaping cookie dough with dried cherries, lemon zest, almond candy, and almonds. The dishwasher rumbles. The boiled potatoes sit on the counter.

Buckley, passing through the prep room with a stack of linens, overhears the conversation about about the Lost Kitchen’s allure and chimes in. “It’s the people. It really is. It’s crazy.” At the foot of the stairs she looks back again. “People come into the orbit of the Lost Kitchen.”

Tirone moved to Maine from Philadelphia at two and a half. Her dad was part of a family that summered on Mount Desert Island, then in 1972 he moved to Maine to be a boat-builder. Mason left Maine to go to college—Syracuse, then the University of Colorado at Boulder—where she studied creative writing and geography, and then she came right back home. She’s still serious about poetry; she’s headed to the Haystack School for the weekend to take a poetry workshop.

Mason moves on to slicing turnips that look like elongated radishes. She’s a fourth generation Mainer who grew up on the 87-acre family farm in Morrill, where her parents still live. “I didn’t like it here, growing up. Then I studied in Milan in an exchange program my senior year of high school and came home with a newfound appreciation for the place. Living in a city was not what I wanted.” After graduating in 2009, she came back and stayed.

She and her husband recently built an off-the-grid house on what had been her great-grandparents’ land, next to her parents’ house. As she slices, she talks about her plans to revitalize the old farm to make it self-sustaining, to truly live off the land there. “Working here was a dream of mine for a couple of years,” she adds. She’d been working at a high end restaurant the summer before. “It was so stressful—there was no way I wanted to be in that kitchen, waitressing, with no formal experience—it was the wrong environment.” While she was working at a Belfast boutique called Coyote Moon, the owner occasionally brought the all-woman staff to dinner at the Lost Kitchen. Mason was inspired to send French her resume, and “a bunch of postcards.” Her timing was off though. French had just instituted a new reservation system for 2018, a mail-in lottery system each spring. The tiny post office in Freedom was inundated with 20,000 postcards from people who wanted to eat at the Lost Kitchen (this spring, postcards came from 49 states). ”I had sent in my postcard at the same time as the 20,000 people looking for reservations.” But Mason persisted, got an interview, and French hired her last May.

Erin French mixes up a salad. The ingredients for her menus tend to come from farms very close by, including a few run by staff members. Because of that, the menu changes daily. Photo by Liz Caron

Tirone landed her job after her neighbors, farmers who had also worked at the Lost Kitchen, decided to move to North Carolina, creating an opening. “One day they brought me and my daughter Stella in. I had no restaurant background. I only knew cooking for a family.”

“Everyone here brings something different to the table,” said Mason. “We’re all women, so it’s a sincere atmosphere. Everyone supports everyone in a different way.”

French enters the prep room, carrying a large stainless steel bowl. “When I started this place, there was some doubt that I could pull it off,” she says. She was a single mother, and a college dropout, with a marriage behind her (French recently remarried, to Michael Dutton). “The people who supported me were my girlfriends, the local women who knew me and believed in me. It just happened organically and naturally.”

“We’re all just making it up,” says Tirone, beginning to pound almond brittle made by French, breaking it into fine pieces to sprinkle over custard, tonight’s dessert.

The walk-in is full of fresh food—wheels of cheese, buckets of colorful edible flowers, wooden crates full of produce, handmade butter. “There’s no middle ground,” says Buckley, “no ‘well, this’ll do.’ If it’s not fresh, it’s not going into anything but the compost. Everything gets recycled, too. A gal picks up the used fry oil for her vehicle. Village Farm composts our stuff. Helen’s pigs, too—the compost is pretty much up for grabs.”

At 12:30, Buckley is back at her table upstairs, ironing napkins and aprons for service. The sunny, quiet room gleams. On the stove, chopped leeks sweat in a large skillet. French stands in front of another large skillet sautéing Brussels sprout greens.

“I call this press My Bitch,” Buckley says with a laugh. When she first came to the Lost Kitchen, she didn’t know how to iron, she learned by doing, although ironing is in her blood. (Her grandfather was a dry cleaner with the only glove-cleaning machine in town.) “I told Erin, ‘I’m your girl, I’ll do whatever you need.’ After ironing, I go downstairs and help with whatever is left on the list, the end-of-the-day jobs—dishes, chopping, readying the cookies to be baked, scrubbing oysters.”

She presses another napkin, then another, the rhythm soothing and pleasant.

“We’re all women, so it’s a sincere atmosphere. Everyone supports everyone in a different way.”

“Everyone who ends up here belongs here,” Buckley says after a while. “Everyone’s so different, but there’s no one you dread seeing, who has too much drama in her life. Everybody accepts each other for who they are. We truly are sisters. It’s a spirit of family.”

The Lost Kitchen serves dinner four nights a week all summer. On this October day, they’re down to three nights a week as the end of the season approaches. “In the winters, people get creative. Katharine is a jeweler, Helen is our poet laureate, Ashley makes soap—people pick up side jobs. Helen gardens, Lauren is a jeweler—lots of dabbling.”

By 1 p.m., Meg Teravainen is in her front office at her desk, in the middle of her workday. She takes a delivery from the UPS guy (“That’s Rand, he’s a fixture here, we all love him”). Then she deals with a couple of “Lookie-loos” peering in the window—kindly but firmly managing both to satisfy their evident curiosity and to shepherd them away. The phone rings: a diner calling about her reservation. Teravainen is warm and accommodating, gathering and dispensing information with economical ease. It will be chilly, so bring layers. She recommends pre-paying (the per person prix fixe is $125, pre-tip, without wine) since there is only one credit card machine and this way, “you can blissfully leave at your leisure.” She reminds them that their reservation is for 6, but that the wine cellar opens at 5:30 p.m.

This is part of the routine. Diners park in the main parking lot across the pond and take the footbridge across the water, rounding the corner for their first stop, the wine cellar. The Lost Kitchen can’t serve wine due to local liquor laws, so the team opened their own wine shop, where diners can shop for wine (or beer or cider) to drink with their meal. The first thing diners see is the menu with suggested wine pairings. Then they go up to the dining room, where their server will seat them. Dinner lasts for three hours, with just one seating a night. And a lot of food.

“Come hungry,” Teravainen says as she signs off.

The dining area seats just under 50 people, including guests who share a larger table. Even when the table is set for a staff meal, as it is here, it is a creative endeavor. Photo by Liz Caron

Her typical workday starts at 8:30 or 9. She comes in, makes coffee, checks the messages and logs them, She handles reservations, cancellations and questions. She fills orders for Erin’s cookbook, The Lost Kitchen: Recipes and a Good Life Found in Freedom, Maine. She helps out wherever she’s needed, pressing napkins, stocking the wine cellar.

Teravainen was a New Yorker for years, working in restaurants in every position except being on the line: floor manager, hosting, bartending. A girlfriend moved up to Maine and urged her to come, too. She promised to hook her up with the Lost Kitchen, which she’d heard was in need of a reservationist. That was four years ago. “Nothing compares to this experience. You form such strong bonds here. The women here are tight-knit, with high levels of respect. It feels like a family, personal as well as professional. The energy here is really fun.”

Back in the prep room, the swing of work is in high gear, everyone focused, no one missing a beat. It feels like a beehive, organized, buzzing. Mason is cutting Napa cabbage into rounds and Tirone is washing dishes. The sweated leeks and sautéed Brussels sprouts greens have been pushed through a strainer with the fresh chicken stock for the soup, which is a foamy, intense green.

Upstairs at the counter, French is going through the cards for that night’s service, all 47 of the expected guests. Tonight, they’re mostly Mainers from Belfast, Albion and Portland. But some are coming from as far away as Salt Lake City and Washington State.

By 2 p.m., four hours before service, Tirone is shaping the crab cakes and arranging them in rows on a tray and Mason is washing dishes. At the stove upstairs, French sautés hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, foraged by a “local guy.” Heads of garlic roast in the oven. As Buckley leaves for the day, carrying flattened boxes and egg cartons, Teravainen calls out, “Bye-bye baby, see you tomorrow!”

Deanna MacNeil is in the wine store, dusting bottles with a feather duster. She has been with the Lost Kitchen since the beginning, when it was still in its Belfast incarnation. She was the hostess to start. Now she chooses and orders the wines, overseeing this store, all stone and mortar walls, with a low, beamed ceiling. It’s like a cave, but a cozy one.

There are glimpses of her daughter in the elegant planes of MacNeil’s face, her clear eyes. The grounded calm also seems hereditary. She and her now ex-husband owned and ran the first restaurant French ever worked in, the Ridge Top Diner. It still sits on the bare, windswept highlands on a ridge above Freedom. The Lost Kitchen is nestled in the river valley down below.

MacNeil’s ex-husband used to put in 16 hour days at the diner. She was teaching then, but helped out whenever she could. Their daughter ran the grill. The rest of the staff were all high school girls; the Ridge Top had a reputation for being staffed by pretty girls, most of them teenagers.

Erin French at the stove. Never trained as a chef, she serves as chef, procurer, pastry chef and team leader for Lost Kitchen. Photo by Liz Caron

“That’s why the older men would go there,” MacNeil says. “It was a completely different culture from here. My husband was gruff. He yelled. He was impatient with the young girls—and there was plenty of sexual harassment. A guy came and sat at the counter and said crude things to the 16-year-old girls. I found it offensive and told my husband so. He said, ‘Oh, get over it.’ He’d throw spatulas when he was mad.”

She pauses, looked down. “It’s making me anxious to talk about it,” she added.

Her daughter’s restaurant is a complete contrast. The workers listen to each other without judgment. They offer each other advice. The spatulas stay in the hand. “The camaraderie is like nothing I’ve ever seen,” MacNeil said. “People are shocked by how pleasant it is. Someone filled in for me when I was sick and told me, ‘I would come here for no pay just to hang out with these women.’ There is a lot of joy even though people have their own hardships.”

The servers, Victoria Marshall and Ashley Savage, arrive for their shift just as Mason and Tirone prepare to leave for the day, and the line cooks, Carey Dube and Krista Yungman, take over the prep room. Yungman, who grows the edible flowers for the restaurant, begins prepping the night’s entrée garnishes: mustards, baby kale and mizuna, a kind of mustard. Dube shucks the Johns River oysters onto chilled platters lined with moss. “Carey and I work every single night we’re open, so we’re basically on autopilot by now,” Yungman says.

Upstairs, Marshall and Savage mop the floors and shine the wine glasses with clean cloths. The atmosphere in the mill has shifted from the dreamy, peaceful calm of the morning into a higher gear, a nervous excitement running through everything, like backstage at a theater when the actors arrive in their dressing rooms.

Supporting French, the star of the show, are these two teams, the servers upstairs, the line cooks downstairs, all dressed in black leggings or dresses with beige linen aprons. The mood is focused, but also fun and light, everyone bantering, connected, talking about their lives, joking. Teravainen wanders in for a meeting with the servers to go over the night’s guests, from their dietary preferences to the groupings.

In the midst of it all, French works quietly at the stove, serene as a Buddhist monk, stirring a big pot with a whisk while two skillets go full tilt, the soup pot covered. She checks her computer, her phone, looking at notes, recipes, completely intent on everything she’s doing.

As Teravainen leaves for the day, the music cranks up and the mood shifts again. It feels like being in a cool loft before a party with a bunch of chill, efficient, expert friends who are setting up, hanging out, kibitzing and laughing, and everyone knowing exactly what she’s doing.

At 5:30, diners began lining up outside the wine cellar to read the night’s menu, posted on a stand. Inside, MacNeil greets them and suggests pairings. People carry their bottles upstairs, wrapped beautifully (albeit briefly) in brown paper and twine. They take their seats at the long table in the middle of the dining room or one of the smaller tables by the windows on two sides.

In late spring, the all-woman team (except for the dishwasher!) poses on the bridge that leads to the restaurant. Guests walk across it every evening when the seasonal restaurant is open, sometimes until New Year’s Eve. Photo by Liz Caron

Then the show begins. The starter boards go around, loaded with bread and an array of palate-wakeners. Every detail feels right, cohesive, from the mismatched vintage dishes to the bright, unfussy flowers to the warmly intimate lighting. The evening flows, unhurried, generous, an intricate, unerring dance. French brings plates to diners as unobtrusively as if she were one of the servers; people seem to have no idea the chef herself is waiting on them.

When French gives her nightly welcoming speech to everyone, after the starters and oysters, her face is alight, her voice ebullient, as she thanks the diners who have come so far to be here. Her lack of ego and sincere gratitude seem unusual in the restaurant world, which is so often dominated by needy megalomaniac chefs, power plays and psychodrama. French comes across as someone who’s doing the thing she loves and was born to do and yet who can’t believe her luck.

But of course it isn’t luck. Through very hard work and a clear vision of what she wanted to achieve, Erin French has enabled a radical new kind of business model, in which women run the entire show, learning as they go, coming into the restaurant’s orbit seemingly by serendipity, or the gravitational pull of French herself. It’s an interconnected synthesis of elements: the warm camaraderie of the women who work here; their collective attention to every homey, beautiful detail; the sublimely fresh and varied local food; the welcoming, bucolic setting; and, of course, French’s intuitive, Zenlike approach to cooking, giving every ingredient its chance to shine. The Lost Kitchen is a peaceable queendom. Its success isn’t mysterious at all.

Kate Christensen is a PEN/Faulkner award winning novelist, whose most recent book is The Last Cruise. In addition to seven novels, she has also has written two food-centric memoirs, including How to Cook a Moose. Her first visit to Lost Kitchen was in 2015 when she wrote about it for Food & Wine magazine.