By Erin French. (Celadon Books, 304 pages, $28.)
This account from Erin French, the owner/cook of the Lost Kitchen restaurant in Freedom, Maine, may be billed as a culinary memoir, but it's so much more. Yes, "Finding Freedom: A Cook's Story Remaking a Life From Scratch" describes food in a way that makes a reader hungry, but the underlying story — the more compelling one — is of overcoming adversity with hard work, perseverance and grit.
French, who describes herself as a self-taught cook and not a chef, grew up in rural Maine, where her father ran a diner and enlisted her help at an early age. She heads off to college, having outgrown the small town, only to return two years later, pregnant. With an infant at her side, she turns to the skills she knows — baking, catering and waitressing — for income to support her son. A marriage to a boat builder follows, but turns dysfunctional as she realizes, "I had married a drunk."
Meanwhile, French focuses her considerable energy on pop-up dinners, calling the events "the Lost Kitchen," which eventually leads to her own restaurant of the same name. Despite its success, she faces anxiety and prescription drug and alcohol addiction as her relationship with her husband worsens.
When she heads off to rehab (her description of the mental health system alone is worth a read), French loses the restaurant, as well as her son in a custody dispute. Bereft, she tries again, gutting an Airstream trailer to use for dinners on local farms. Finally, she sets up a restaurant in a 19th-century gristmill. Today that 48-seat dining locale, now in its eighth year, has become one of the most difficult-to-get reservations in the nation, available only by a postcard lottery. For a taste of her restaurant at home, find her Maine-inspired recipes in her earlier, much lauded volume, "The Lost Kitchen."