One of America's most coveted dining experiences is a 40-seat restaurant in a converted grist-mill in the rural village of Freedom, Maine.
Chef Erin French, who is self-taught, opened the Lost Kitchen in her hometown of Freedom without much of a plan. She loved the space, and at first thought she would make English muffins and offer brunch, not convinced that the village of just over 700 people could become a dinner destination.
"When I first decided that I wanted to do this, everyone thought I was completely crazy," French says. "Why would anyone come all this way to have dinner?"
Well, come they have — in droves. French's food, with its focus on local, fresh, unpretentious cooking, has created a legion of fans. Each year, the restaurant opens reservations on April 1. But this year, things got out of control.
"The phones rang to a point where our security system went down and we had over 10,000 phone calls stream in in the matter of a few hours, French says. "The entire restaurant was booked."
Booked for the whole year. Calls came in from as far away as New Zealand, along with offers to open another restaurant in Las Vegas. But French first learned to cook in her dad's diner and is committed to keeping things simple.
"The food at Lost Kitchen is not Earth-shattering or ground-breaking in any way, and it's not fancy — we don't sous vide anything, we don't make foams or fancy purees, it's just simple food," she says. "I don't want anyone to feel intimidated when they look at this and I never want to plate a dish that you have to look at it and say, 'What is it?' "
Each day at 10 a.m. the first shipments for that night's dinner start to come in, including fresh eggs and a variety of produce.
A lot of that produce comes from Villageside Farm, which is just a short walk from the restaurant. Polly Shyka runs the farm with her husband, Prentice Grassi. She says the success of the Lost Kitchen "brings food to everyone's mind" and shows them that "seeking out local produce can be for everyone."
As word of mouth has spread about the Lost Kitchen, finding a seat at the table has been increasingly difficult. But French has resisted expanding the hours, or opening up a new venue. Her goal remains creating a restaurant experience that feels like dinner among friends.
"It's about a three-and-a-half to four-hour dinner, which sounds long but when you think about it — it's kind of the perfect timing for the perfect dinner party," French says. "If you go to a friend's house and it's like, 'where did the time go?' that's the best night ever.' "
"I grew up in Freedom and if you had asked me when I was a kid, or even if you had asked me five years ago, if this would be possible I would have said no," French says. "I feel like growing up here, you're kind of silently raised that to be successful you have to leave — that you can't make a living here, that you can't make anything here. And you know, maybe it's not so true."