FREEDOM — Freedom Community Historical Society received an unexpected Christmas present of $20,000 from Erin French, owner of The Lost Kitchen.

According to Michael Dutton, French’s husband and media coordinator, as part of her appearance on Ina Garten’s (aka The Barefoot Contessa) new Discovery+ and Food Network series, “Be My Guest,” she was offered funds to put toward a charitable donation of her choice.

Typically, Dutton said, they do not do many paid appearances, but added, “Ina wanted Erin to be a guest,” and the money was part of an agreement. French suggested donating the money to the Freedom Community Historical Society to help with its operations and support the Keen Hall restoration project. 

“Erin’s first reaction,” he said, “is bring it (the funds) back to Freedom. This is just a great opportunity that came our way.”

The historical society bought the Keen family home, up the street from the restaurant, in 2019 and is transforming it into a village cultural center. The Carter B. Keen homestead, built c.1850 and later donated to Freedom Academy to be the principal’s house, is the second property in Freedom to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The first was the restored mill that now is home to The Lost Kitchen.

Myrick Cross, historical society president, said the committee is “thrilled” with French’s donation. Since the Keen Hall project began over two years ago, he said, the effort has been funded by private donations and grants.

Currently the contractor is working on the first floor, with studs framing most of the downstairs and all new flooring installed, he said. “I can’t tell you what specifically the contractor will use (the money) for,” he added.

The house will eventually be converted into a multi-use facility for community presentations and meetings, along with office, library, archive and exhibit space.

Cross hopes that next spring or summer work can begin on the second floor, where a proposed rental apartment will be located. He said French’s generosity was “wonderful.” And with the project’s close proximity to her restaurant, it is like restoring a village, one building at a time.

Dutton said for French, being a Freedom native, it made sense and meant a lot to put the money toward helping the town. The couple have been finding ways in the past few years to get more involved and give back to the community, the town and the state.

“It wasn’t until we got involved with Waldo County Bounty that we realized we had some muscle,” he said. The restaurant’s partnership with the hunger-relief agency raised over $325,000 in just under two weeks in May, providing much-needed access to locally grown food for people experiencing food insecurity in the county.

“COVID really did force our hand to diversify the business,” he said. The Lost Kitchen set up an online farmer’s market through its website in March 2020 to help farmers who could no longer sell their products to restaurants. French has since morphed their website into a lifestyle marketplace selling household products and goods.

Besides the “Be My Guest” appearance, which will air this year on the Food Network, stream on Discovery+ and appear on a companion podcast, French is also busy working on a documentary series about The Lost Kitchen, its community, staff and diners, for the Magnolia Network and released a memoir, “Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story, Remaking a Life from Scratch” last spring.

Dutton, who is one of the executive producers of the documentary, said it will air Thursday nights at 9 p.m. starting Jan. 6 on the Magnolia Network. The rights to her book, he added, were purchased by a Hollywood producer who is working on developing a film, and French is also writing another cookbook.