“I’m Erin French. After spending years trying to get away from my small hometown of Freedom, Maine, I not only came back to live, I opened a restaurant.”
That’s the long and short of The Lost Kitchen, a reality TV series about Erin French’s culinary journey, available on Discovery+ as a production of Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia Network. A woman I was dating described this six-episode series as “peak white woman television.” And it is. But it’s also revelatory to watch a show created with almost no input from men, either in front of or behind the camera.
The Lost Kitchen is a relentlessly pleasant program. The pilot episode is filled with wine glasses clinking in the titular dining room (built inside a beautifully rehabbed old grist mill), heartfelt anecdotes, profound conclusions, and whimsy. God, there’s so much whimsy. The camerawork captures countless cozy Northeastern situations: a small wooden ladder leading up to an apple tree, hay bales scattered across farmland, leaves turning colors. And as if that weren’t quaint enough, The Lost Kitchen is a restaurant that books its reservations through postcards. Thousands of sincere handwritten postcards stream through the town’s post office, which had been struggling badly before this quirky reservation system was put into place. That’s right, they saved the local post office. And here’s the knockout blow: Erin’s own mother works at the restaurant as the sommelier, or Mom-mmelier, as she calls herself. The Lost Kitchen is filled with love, support, trust, and other various healthy behaviors. In short, it’s the complete fucking opposite of every restaurant I’ve ever worked in.
The pilot episode of The Lost Kitchen follows Erin as she helms this eccentric, all-female crew (whom she calls her “restaurant family”) through the last dinner of the season. I have never had a chef refer to me as family, and the idea of that happening seemed so foreign to me that I had to pause and rewind the show with subtitles on. One time, way back when, I had a chef call me “half of a man.” I was 18 at the time, so he was technically right. Also he was 40, an entire man, and a huge asshole. Anyway.
The Lost Kitchen’s elegant 50-seat dining room, being a refurbished mill, features plenty of exposed brick and beams. It’s open four days a week, six to eight months out of the year, and for all its popularity, the restaurant notably doesn’t even boast a team of professionally trained chefs.
“Who needs training when you’ve got heart, passion, and a Maine girl’s work ethic?” Erin says of herself and her staff. Many of them, including her sous chef, Christa, never cooked before working at The Lost Kitchen. Ashley, the longest tenured employee, grows the floral arrangements for the restaurant and also the peaches, tomatoes, herbs, spring garlic, etc. None of them with any formal culinary education, and this restaurant is one of the most exclusive reservations in America. How the hell did that happen?
As near as I can tell, there isn’t some singular, viral moment that caused The Lost Kitchen to take off. Instead, Erin built this thing through years of hard work and sacrifice. She started working when she was 12, eventually running the line at her father’s diner by herself at 15. Years later she operated a supper club out of her own home, and then a full restaurant, but personal circumstances forced the closure of the restaurant and a moment of pause for Erin to regroup, leading to the eventual founding of The Lost Kitchen in 2014. In short, her path to success is no different than the classic hustle and grind exhibited by hopeful culinary grads.
Erin’s right, by the way, about training. Plenty of chefs succeed, and to a high degree, without culinary school. Many reject the institution entirely. And even without a team of professionals, this operation is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. In the pilot episode, we get a glimpse of the aforementioned reservation system. The Lost Kitchen receives 20,000 postcards a year, each one unique. Cards with poems, recipes, stories, and drawings all get shoved into a lottery machine to be drawn at random, and even though that essentially renders all the cards’ artistry meaningless, Erin and her staff are touched by the submissions all the same. People connect to her restaurant on an emotional level, and isn’t that the goal?
Throughout the series, Erin seems to downplay her achievements—a rarity among chefs both on and off TV. She spends a lot of time getting out in front of the fact that she’s not professionally trained. Here are a few quotes from the pilot:
“I don’t have mad knife skills, but guess what? My grandmother didn’t either, so. She made pretty good food.”
“I’m not a fancy cook, and I’m not a chef. I don’t wear no white coat. I didn’t go to school.”
“I cannot make you the best dish in the world. What I’m trying to do is make you feel the best feeling in the world, and there’s food involved.”
To the viewer, it reads like she’s protecting herself from the criticism she fully expects to be lobbed in her direction. Nigella Lawson touches on this tendency in her essay “Home Cooking Can Be A Feminist Act”: “What we are doing is comparing ourselves to chefs, and feeling ourselves lesser for it,” she writes. The idea that a chef is somehow a master of their craft and a home cook is a rudimentary shadow of those masters is no doubt rooted in sexism. Because, for all their skill, don’t most male chefs in the public eye seem like neurotic drama kings? The tantrums, the self-importance, the glorification of drugs and alcohol. No such ego exists in The Lost Kitchen. It is home cooking embraced as a profession. It is, in a word, genuine.
Besides, Erin is selling herself short as a chef—the food looks good. Celery and leek soup with smoked ricotta and fresh Maine crab meat tossed in brown butter. Sliders (an ode to her diner days) made from local pork from a Mangalica pig. Halibut and creamy corn grits with turnips, cabbage, pear, and olives. Squash cake with vanilla bean custard, golden raspberries, and a whipped cream with salted caramel folded in. As she makes the halibut, she’s closing the oven with her foot and swinging her body around to hover over half a dozen saute pans searing fish. She demonstrates the same TV chef swagger as anyone you’d want to watch a reality series about. She just demonstrates it where it counts.
I laughed several times watching this show because it’s disgustingly charming. Diners show up all the way from Denver. A couple gets engaged on the wooden bridge. Erin wells up with “happy tears” before her final service of the season. It all amounts to a type of warmth that I can’t really even imagine, having learned how to cook exclusively from broken men. The yelling, the pills, the abuse, the long hours and shit pay. The feeling like you’re something and nothing all at the same time.
A kitchen, it turns out, doesn’t need any of these things to be successful. The Lost Kitchen demands cohesion, timeliness, and focus, and sets high standards for itself and the food it serves, but it does so without glorifying any toxic behavior. That is rare, and maybe that’s what we mean when we call it “peak white woman television.” I would have loved to have gotten my restaurant career started in a place like this. It’s a shame that a familial atmosphere and thoughtful, loving cooking hasn’t been the industry standard, perhaps never was. Both men and women have been forced out of the business due to its unhealthy nature, and cooking shows about abusive kitchens have been the norm for so long that maybe we don’t know how to categorize an empathetic alternative when we see one. Though The Lost Kitchen leaves you with a lasting warmth, it’s sobering to reflect on how fucked up the rest of the industry is, and how much better things could be.