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'Finding Freedom': Chef Erin French discusses struggle with depression

"I considered myself a gigantic failure," said chef Erin French, owner of The Lost Kitchen in Freedom, Maine.
Photo collage of young woman with photos of her past ripped behind her
"Whether it was the first restaurant, it was this restaurant, it was the inside of the Airstream or this, it was always about, 'What can I create?' Because it's in me. Lost Kitchen is me. It's in my heart. It's my core."TODAY Illustration / Greta Rybus / Courtesy Erin French
/ Source: TODAY

Erin French, a self-taught chef from Freedom, Maine, did not have a straightforward path to success. The owner of The Lost Kitchen restaurant, which began as an underground supper club run out of her apartment, has suffered from heartbreak, addiction and depression as a businesswoman and single parent.

Her new memoir, "Finding Freedom: A Cook's Story; Remaking a Life from Scratch," comes out Tuesday, and the chef spoke with NBC's Harry Smith about her long and sometimes uncertain journey from line cook to successful entrepreneur, whose dinners consistently sell out as diners flock to eat her culinary creations from far and wide.

"I wrote this book for a few reasons," French told Smith. "One was that I realized that when I was going through these moments, actually, physically going through them, at the end of it I hadn't really taken the time to put it to bed, to be OK with it, to process it, to really look at it and say, 'This shaped you. This made you. And you should be proud of every stumble that you had.'" She said that, in a larger sense, she wrote the book for the other people out there just like her who can't see the light and might even have suicidal thoughts.

"I considered myself a gigantic failure," said chef Erin French, who has suffered from depression and addiction.Courtesy Erin French

"I considered myself a gigantic failure," said French, who had the heart-wrenching task of telling her parents that she was pregnant at age 20 and dropping out of medical school. "And, you know, being a single mom was hard. I saw myself as this completely undesirable person. And I also saw my life as something that I had to now fix, that I was a project to myself that I had to fix. I had to repair this for my son. Because I could not live this life without providing him with a normal life, a mother, a father and all of these basic things that I thought perfection was."

Through cooking simple-yet-elevated food, French found a way out of her despair. After starting The Lost Kitchen as a supper club out of her apartment, she enduring a difficult divorce in which she lost almost everything. Addicted to prescription meds and self-medicating even further with alcohol, French reached her lowest point. But her resilience led her to recovery, and she was eventually able to reopen the restaurant, serving pop-up dinners in an Airstream before she was able to take on the old mill in her hometown of Freedom.

The Lost Kitchen has taken many forms throughout the years — including an Airstream.Courtesy Erin French

Working with an almost all-female crew, French's restaurant is the essence of farm-to-table — she uses only in-season ingredients procured from her farmer friends who are all an essential part of the dining experience. The only way to get a seat at The Lost Kitchen is, romantically, by sending a request via postcard.

"I still go down to the mailbox every day and there's postcards every day for hope, for a dinner one day," she said, marveling at the fact that people would travel all the way to Freedom to eat her food. "I have 60,000 postcards in my attic right now."

Then Chip and Joanna Gaines' Magnolia Network came calling about doing TV show about The Lost Kitchen, which can be streamed on Discovery+.

And while COVID-19 forced French to adapt once again, there are no signs that she'll be slowing down anytime soon.

" … everything that's thrown me down, it's never about those four walls that you think define you," said French. "Whether it was the first restaurant, it was this restaurant, it was the inside of the Airstream or this, it was always about, 'What can I create?' Because it's in me. Lost Kitchen is me. It's in my heart. It's my core."

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.