Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story Remaking a Life from Scratch

When a need to nurture becomes a superpower
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By Adrienne Martini

While rural Maine has its own unique hardships when it comes to its local foodways, Erin French’s memoir Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story Remaking a Life from Scratch shows that our region is more similar than not when compared to our cousins up north. Both our growing seasons are short but our farmers and producers know how to get the most out of the time between snows.

In Maine and the Finger Lakes, a motivated cook who opens a small restaurant that leans into all of a region’s bounty can have a huge impact on the nation’s culinary scene. French’s place The Lost Kitchen in tiny Freedom, Maine, has won accolades from around the globe. In 2019, booking a table required sending a postcard on April 1 and hoping yours would be picked from the thousands that arrived. French’s food is that well known, and eaters are that keen to experience what she has created. This success is a surprise because the location of Freedom isn’t really on the way to anywhere else. The closest town is Belfast—but it’s about as close as Interlaken is to Seneca Falls and the relative sizes are about the same.

Finding Freedom, however, isn’t about the restaurant itself. Instead, it’s French’s story about the rocky path she took to build the staff and sisterhood who make The Lost Kitchen the wonder it is. But that’s jumping to the happy ending.

French started her cooking career at her dad’s diner, where she mastered the Fryolator, over-easy eggs and soft-serve ice cream. As a teenager, French found herself drawn to the notion of feeding people and making them happy. That desire to nurture drives her through two decades of personal tumult, including early single motherhood, a terrible marriage and a prescription drug addiction. Rebuilding her life is just as difficult as you might think but the process brings her clarity. Without all of the chaos—some of which she chose—she wouldn’t know the power her need to nurture gives her.

“I always knew that food held this kind of power—that something as simple as a piece of flaky halibut served with a silky purée of parsnips, lightly dressed leaves of arugula, a squeeze of lemon, and a spicy nasturtium blossom could evoke a memory and make an emotional impact. And now I wielded that power,” she says.

While Finding Freedom is very much about French’s specific growth as a cook, it’s also about the universal truth about celebrating the physical place you find yourself in, no matter how inconsequential it might seem to those outside. That theme, of course, applies here as well as there and everywhere.

Adrienne Martini writes about running, eating and local politics at martinimade.com.

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