10,000 phone calls for a 40-seat restau­rant

The Lost Kitchen isn’t just about food, it’s mys­tery, ex­cite­ment and ad­ven­ture

The Hamilton Spectator - - LIVING - BETH J. HARPAZ

Erin French runs a 40-seat restau­rant called The Lost Kitchen in an old mill in a tiny town in cen­tral Maine.

She be­gan ac­cept­ing reser­va­tions for the sea­son at mid­night April 1, ex­pect­ing a few dozen calls overnight. In­stead, she got 10,000 in 24 hours.

Calls came in so fast that it over­whelmed her three phone lines, which hold just 40 mes­sages. Alarms went off when emer­gency lines to the fire de­part­ment were blocked. “This is big­ger than us,” French posted on Facebook some­time af­ter mid­night. “Thou­sands of calls pour­ing in.”

Word of mouth, a few mag­a­zine men­tions and a Tastemade video that got 2 mil­lion views (and won a James Beard me­dia award) have helped turned French into a culi­nary star. It’s quite a tri­umph for a woman who grew up in Free­dom, Maine, pop­u­la­tion 700, work­ing in her dad’s diner.

“The fear was no one was go­ing to show up,” French said. “Now the fear is there are too many peo­ple.”

She’s also got a cook­book coming out May 9 from Clark­son Pot­ter called “The Lost Kitchen,” of­fer­ing recipes for ev­ery­thing from mus­sels to moose stew — as well as the story of her un­usual jour­ney.

French started in 2010 with a $40a-meal sup­per club in her apart­ment. At first, “I had to beg friends to come over,” she said.

But word spread and by the fifth din­ner, all her guests were strangers. She opened a restau­rant with her hus­band in Belfast, Maine, but that business closed in a messy di­vorce.

She started over us­ing a 1965 Airstream to give pop-up din­ners. In 2014, she opened The Lost Kitchen in an aban­doned 19th-cen­tury mill that had been re­stored by a busi­ness­man who wanted to help the lo­cal econ­omy. French’s restau­rant, us­ing in­gre­di­ents grown by lo­cal farm­ers, was the per­fect tenant.

French, 36, has been fea­tured by Martha Stewart, Food & Wine and L.L. Bean, which co-pro­duced the Tastemade video and made her a brand am­bas­sador. Still, she wasn’t pre­pared for the avalanche of calls, from lo­cals to folks from Texas, Alaska and Ire­land. The calls were re­turned one by one un­til 1,500 reser­va­tions were filled for her May through New Year’s Eve seat­ings.

Din­ner at The Lost Kitchen, while pricey for Maine, wouldn’t raise eye­brows in New York or Bos­ton: $100 per per­son plus tax and tip for six to eight cour­ses. The menu de­pends on what the farm­ers, fish­er­men and fields have to of­fer. A menu from last sum­mer in­cluded to­mato soup, melon salad, cheese, sea bass, corn, cherry to­ma­toes, baby fin­ger­lings, arugula, po­lenta cake, grilled peaches and black­ber­ries.

But The Lost Kitchen isn’t just about food.

“It’s the mys­tery, the ex­cite­ment,” French said. “There’s some­thing a lit­tle scary. You don’t know where you’re go­ing. You don’t know what you’re go­ing to have for din­ner. You’re go­ing on an ad­ven­ture.”

Lisa Eber­hart came from Vir­ginia to eat there.

“You would never find this place,” Eber­hart said. “There’s no lights on that road in the dark. It’s in the mid­dle of nowhere. There’s no sign. You can’t even see it. You’re go­ing through the woods over a foot­bridge. I said to my hus­band, ‘This is the cra­zi­est thing.’ But it was worth ev­ery bit of it. This to me was a once in a life­time ex­pe­ri­ence. It was mag­i­cal.”

Free­dom does not per­mit restau­rants to serve al­co­hol, but BYOB wine is per­mit­ted, so French’s mother runs a wine shop on-site.

With a staff of a half-dozen, French cooks and serves, and at some point each night, stands up to ex­plain “how that menu came to­gether.” Then she gives thanks and toasts with her guests, “just as you would if you were at a friend’s house.”

Thomas Delle Donne, as­sis­tant dean at John­son & Wales’ Col­lege of Culi­nary Arts in Rhode Is­land, says The Lost Kitchen is part of a sub­cul­ture.

“These din­ner clubs and pop-up restau­rants and un­der­ground con­cepts play right into that celebrity sta­tus that chefs have,” he said. “Hav­ing some­thing private and in the know is like go­ing to see a band play at an un­der­ground club where you have to know the drum­mer to get in.”

French’s story is par­tic­u­larly in­spir­ing.

“She lived in an Airstream, she came from the bot­tom and like a flower, burst back into this thing. It gives peo­ple hope,” he said.

Suc­cess has brought in­vi­ta­tions to ex­pand.

“You can have air­port kiosks! You could be like Shake Shack with some­thing on ev­ery cor­ner!” French said. “I had ‘Top Chef ’ call me and say, ‘You’d be the strong fe­male in the sea­son.’ And I said no. I’m be­ing my au­then­tic self. I lit­er­ally started with noth­ing. I begged and bor­rowed. It’s been a slow pay­back. But right now I’m sur­viv­ing pretty well.”

Chow­der of Sweet Clams

From “The Lost Kitchen” by Erin French MAKES 4 TO 6 SERV­INGS 5 pounds clams, ei­ther steam­ers or lit­tle­necks 1 pound baby pota­toes Salt and pep­per 3 ta­ble­spoons olive oil, plus more for serv­ing 6 shal­lots, thinly sliced 3 cups heavy cream 2 cups whole milk 6 tbsp (3/4 stick) un­salted but­ter Juice of 1 lemon 2 tbsp chopped fresh pars­ley 2 tbsp fresh dill

Give the clams a good rinse un­der cold run­ning wa­ter, dis­card­ing any with cracked shells, and put them in a large pot with a lid.

Add 2½ cups wa­ter to the pot, cover, and cook over high heat un­til the clams steam open, about five min­utes. Drain and let cool to room tem­per­a­ture. Use an oys­ter or clam knife to shuck the clams, dis­card­ing any that didn’t open. Reserve the clam meat.

Wipe out the pot and add the pota­toes. Pour in just enough cold wa­ter to cover and sea­son with salt. Bring the wa­ter to a boil, then re­duce the heat so the wa­ter sim­mers, and cook the pota­toes un­til fork­ten­der, 10 to 12 min­utes. Drain the pota­toes and let cool to room tem­per­a­ture be­fore cut­ting into bite­sized pieces.

Re­turn the pot to medium heat and add the olive oil and shal­lots. Cook, stir­ring fre­quently, un­til deeply caramelized, about 20 min­utes. Add the pota­toes, cream, milk, and but­ter and bring to a gen­tle sim­mer. Add the clams and lemon juice and sea­son with salt and pep­per to taste. Cook for an­other minute, just to heat the clams through.

Re­move the pot from the heat, sprin­kle in the pars­ley and dill, driz­zle with olive oil and serve.

Per serv­ing: 676 calo­ries (487 from fat); 54 grams fat (31 g sat­u­rated; 1 g trans fats); 211 mil­ligrams choles­terol; 835 mg sodium; 26 g car­bo­hy­drate; 2 g fi­bre; 8 g sugar; 22 g pro­tein.

NI­COLE FRANZEN, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The mill in the tiny town of Free­dom, Maine, that houses The Lost Kitchen, left, and chef Erin French, grilling ham­burg­ers be­side her Airstream trailer.

BETH J. HARPAZ, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Erin French got thou­sands of phone calls this year on April 1 when she opened reser­va­tions for the sea­son for her 40-seat restau­rant.

NI­COLE FRANZEN, PEN­GUIN RAN­DOM HOUSE

NI­COLE FRANZEN, CLARK­SON POT­TER/PEN­GUIN RAN­DOM HOUSE VIA AP

BETH J. HARPAZ, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Bread, olives and other pre-din­ner nib­bles, served at Lost Kitchen meal last Oc­to­ber.

PEN­GUIN RAN­DOM HOUSE

The cover of “The Lost Kitchen.”

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