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From plate to page: Erin French tells her story in ‘Finding Freedom’

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“Life’s a journey, not a destination.” It’s a sentiment that we’ve all heard a million times before, this idea that where we wind up is less important than how we got there. And it’s a true one, albeit a bit of a cliché at this point.

Sometimes, though, we have no idea what someone’s journey actually entails until that person shares their story.

Erin French is known for her celebrated restaurant The Lost Kitchen, based in a renovated grist mill in the tiny Maine town of Freedom. She has received accolades from all over the culinary universe, with big names and big outlets all clamoring to shower her with praise for the amazing dining experience that she has built in her tiny corner of the world.

What you might not now is just how much she went through to get here.

“Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story; Remaking a Life from Scratch” (Celadon Books, $28) is the story of French’s journey in her own words. It is a story of one woman’s voyage of self-discovery and the many dizzying highs and shattering lows that came along the way. It’s a work of reflection and at-times brutal honesty, dotted with revelations and confessions. There are tears aplenty, but also more than a few laughs as well; it’s a portrait of a sometimes fractured and always full life.

Through it all, the indomitable spirit of Erin French shines through. Even in those moments where she seems to be at her lowest, when her world is crumbling around her, that fortitude is obvious. This is a woman who took every shot that life could throw at her and simply refused to stay down. That resilience is on full display throughout this book, and it is only that resilience that allowed her to become the person that she is today.

Erin French grew up on a farm in Freedom, wandering those acres and beginning what would become a lifelong love affair with the bounty of nature. It wasn’t always an easy life – she struggled to gain the approval of her distant father even as her mother quietly offered a degree of support. When her father bought the town’s diner, things briefly improved before the restaurant began to consume him, as these sorts of businesses have been known to do.

In many ways, French came of age in the kitchen of that diner, learning how to cook as she helped drive the family business. She had loftier ambitions – college in Boston, maybe med school – that she worked diligently to achieve. And before long, she stood at the precipice of reaching the goals she had long ago set for herself.

But as often happens, life had other plans.

She got pregnant and dropped out of college. Just like that, dreams of becoming a doctor are gone. She has a son to provide for, a child who becomes the light of her life. To do that, she turns toward the work with which she’s been familiar for years – the kitchen.

What follows is a staggering series of ups and downs. French finds stretches of success, but those stretches are undone by circumstances. We’re given a window into her struggles – the depression, the relationship turmoil, the addiction, the abuse – as she seeks out the spot where she’s meant to be. Crumbling marriage, business misfires, substance abuse struggles, legal battles … she’s faced with it all. And even as she is confronted with obstacle after obstacle, she simply continues; no matter how Sisyphean it all might seem, Erin French never stops pushing.

“Finding Freedom” is a marvelous read, an emotionally charged story that is equal parts heartbreaking and uplifting. It is ultimately a tale of success, yes, but one could argue that the foreknowledge of that success only increases the impactfulness of the frankly stunning struggles French endured to arrive at this place.

I believe that there is a storytelling acumen inherent to small-town Mainers; we’re raised amidst the constant spinning of yarns, so it’s only natural that some of that narrative proclivity rubs off on us. While French styles herself as a bit of an introvert, there’s no denying that she can tell a tale – particularly when it is about the things she holds most dear. For much of her life, she has been telling those tales through cooking, with each meal a story of its own. The fact that she’s almost as good at putting these stories on the page as she is the plate is both impressive and ultimately unsurprising.

Anyone who has eaten at her restaurant knows the gentle passion that radiates from her when she addresses her diners. I’ve been lucky enough to experience The Lost Kitchen twice and feel that passion firsthand. That wonderful warmth is rendered all the more powerful by the many obstacles she has faced on her journey.

And that warmth comes through on the page.

Did I cry while reading “Finding Freedom”? Absolutely, and not just during the “sad” moments. Sure, there are tragic events that elicit tears, but the surprise for me was how moved I was by some of the snapshots of joy. When she talks about the connection she feels with those she feeds, of food as representative of something both greater and granular … the tingle of emotion is undeniable. Happy tears are something of a rarity, but French’s passion brings them forth.

Sharing something as honest as “Finding Freedom” has to be difficult, laying oneself bare and putting a warts-and-all account of a difficult journey. But in pushing through that difficulty, Erin French found her passion, her voice, her soul.

She found her freedom.

Last modified on Wednesday, 14 April 2021 09:43

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