I would guess that fewer than 5% of the book reviews I’ve done over the years have been non-fiction, and I can only think of one that had anything to do with cooking, so reading a memoir about a chef (even though she calls herself a cook, not a chef) would seem way outside my area of interest. And yet, this memoir is probably going to be one of my CBR13 favorites. It is an incredible story of resilience in the face of adversity. Erin French has won a Beard Award and been featured in the NYT (and elsewhere) for her excellent out-of-the-way restaurant -The Lost Kitchen- in Maine, but the story of how she got there involves emotional abuse, loss, hard work, and a deeply rooted devotion to service.
Erin French was born in 1980 in Freedom, Maine, a small rural town, where her father owned and operated a diner. She learned from a very young age about cooking and the restaurant business from her father and her paternal grandparents. She and her younger sister, in some respects, had an idyllic childhood with a barn and kittens, fields and woods to roam, and a mother who was kind and supportive. Their father, however, was an alcoholic and emotionally distant man who made his disappointment with having daughters instead of sons evident. Praise was pretty much non-existent, but if Erin made a mistake at the diner, he was quick to berate her. Erin’s dreams of becoming a doctor were dashed when she became pregnant at the age of 20 and had to move back with her parents. Her father’s disgust and anger were palpable, and Erin’s constant desire to win his approval, to be independent and to be a good mother to her son led her to find jobs that played to her considerable strengths as a cook. Her descriptions of the various jobs she had and the skills she acquired at them show how she really was educating herself to become a successful restauranteur herself. Her love for food and for feeding others, creating bonding environments and beautiful memories for those whom she fed, is evident on every page. Her descriptions of ingredients and dishes as well of the dining spaces she eventually created are are just brilliant. In addition to all of her cooking skills, Erin French has some mad carpentry skills and is a wonderful writer.
But on her way to creating one of the most successful restaurants in the US — one that requires sending in a postcard on a certain date in order to be entered in the lottery to get a reservation!!— Erin endured terrible pain. She entered a marriage with a man very much like her father (alcoholic and emotionally abusive), became addicted to prescription drugs while trying to deal with her crippling anxiety and depression, and lost both her business and her child when she entered rehab. Her descriptions of rehab, the divorce, and trying to regain custody of her son are deeply sad and painful to read. Her strength in somehow getting through all of this is a testament to her own resilience and desire to realize her dreams, as well as to the small but loving community of people in Freedom who believed in her and helped her through the darkest times in her life. This team includes first and foremost her mother, who, inspired by her daughter, later found the courage to divorce Erin’s dad.
The Lost Kitchen sounds like an amazing place. By all accounts, the food and dining experience are outstanding, but more than that, Erin French has created a family. She spends a good number of pages describing all of the woman who work at The Lost Kitchen, and the one man who is the dish washer. These are not just employees who clock in to serve, cook, etc. This is a community of women who share a bond with one another. Erin’s mother is part of this family, as is her younger sister, with whom Erin has not been terribly close.
I love that this woman, despite every setback, found the strength to push forward. It cannot have been easy, and reliving it again in order to write this book must have been equally traumatizing at times. Finding Freedom is truly an inspirational story and I highly recommend it whether you are a foodie or not.