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Secrets from the Lost Kitchen: How to Arrange Flowers like a Self-Taught Maine Chef

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Secrets from the Lost Kitchen: How to Arrange Flowers like a Self-Taught Maine Chef

August 23, 2018

When I reach Erin French by phone to talk about her flower-arranging tips, she’s holding the phone in one hand and twining vines and arranging flowers for her own wedding, which is happening this weekend, with the other. It’s a prime example of how French works: The self-taught chef behind The Lost Kitchen, the country’s wildly successful restaurant of the moment, does nearly everything—from cooking multicourse meals to arranging the flowers to building the tables—herself.

The Lost Kitchen is an unlikely success story (you can read the full version in A Glimpse Inside Maine’s Most Wildly In-Demand Restaurant on Remodelista). French started it as an underground supper club in her Maine apartment, then opened a brick-and-mortar location, which she lost in a contentious divorce. She started again, serving elaborate dinners out of a renovated Airstream parked in the meadows and woods of Maine, before setting up shop in an old mill in the tiny, rural town of Freedom, Maine (“population: 719” French writes in her cookbook). There, French cooks multicourse meals with no menu in mind, drawing only from what’s available and recipes learned from her mother and grandmother. This year, nearly 20,000 people mailed in postcards—the only way to get a seat—for a chance at a table.

Somehow, French finds time in the midst of all of this to create wild, dramatic arrangements for the dining room each evening. “This is my little joy time, when I step away from the stove,” she told me on a recent day when I drove north to Freedom to watch her at work. Here are a few of the tricks up her sleeve.

Photography by Greta Rybus for Gardenista.

 The Lost Kitchen is located in the Mill at Freedom Falls, which was saved from abandonment and sits perched above a wide creek.
Above: The Lost Kitchen is located in the Mill at Freedom Falls, which was saved from abandonment and sits perched above a wide creek.

1. Winnow down your choices.

French steps away from the stove to see what flowers she has to work with today. Ashley Savage, one of the servers from the nearly-all-female team at the restaurant, brings buckets of flowers from her farm, Belladonna Floral in Knox, Maine.
Above: French steps away from the stove to see what flowers she has to work with today. Ashley Savage, one of the servers from the nearly-all-female team at the restaurant, brings buckets of flowers from her farm, Belladonna Floral in Knox, Maine.
French&#8\2\17;s self-taught arranging philosophy is to keep it simple. &#8\2\20;I want fewer things: less is more,&#8\2\2\1; she explains. &#8\2\20;I asked Ashley to bring fewer things this year. She knows the color palette I like and doesn’t bring me what I can’t stand.&#8\2\2\1; Source fewer things—only what&#8\2\17;s available in the garden—for a more impactful arrangement.
Above: French’s self-taught arranging philosophy is to keep it simple. “I want fewer things: less is more,” she explains. “I asked Ashley to bring fewer things this year. She knows the color palette I like and doesn’t bring me what I can’t stand.” Source fewer things—only what’s available in the garden—for a more impactful arrangement.

Above: The day’s selections, of a similar palette.

“It’s really knowing what flowers you love,” French says, explaining that sometimes she’ll just focus on one flower—like lupines. “One thing on its own looks really great,” she says.

2. Buy vases for a song.

Most of the fittings at the Lost Kitchen are budget and vintage finds, from the antique china to the retro refrigerator and sink in the open kitchen. French&#8\2\17;s go-to vases are no different: She sources oversize but simple glass versions from Ikea and TJ Maxx. &#8\2\20;I&#8\2\17;ve never spent more than \$\20 for a vase,&#8\2\2\1; she says. Their size lends maximum drama (and helps create separation between French&#8\2\17;s cooking area and the rest of the dining room).
Above: Most of the fittings at the Lost Kitchen are budget and vintage finds, from the antique china to the retro refrigerator and sink in the open kitchen. French’s go-to vases are no different: She sources oversize but simple glass versions from Ikea and TJ Maxx. “I’ve never spent more than $20 for a vase,” she says. Their size lends maximum drama (and helps create separation between French’s cooking area and the rest of the dining room).

3. Use birch logs as an anchor.

French starts every arrangement with a few birch logs in the bottom of the vase, which add a woodsy touch and help anchor the large, heavy arrangements to the table. She collects them from the side of the road &#8\2\20;when no one&#8\2\17;s there: That&#8\2\17;s what you do in Maine,&#8\2\2\1; she says.
Above: French starts every arrangement with a few birch logs in the bottom of the vase, which add a woodsy touch and help anchor the large, heavy arrangements to the table. She collects them from the side of the road “when no one’s there: That’s what you do in Maine,” she says.

(Tip: “I made the mistake of drying out the logs in the off-season,” French says. They need to be kept wet all the time in order to avoid them bobbing up to the top of the vase: Keep them covered with water in the vase, even when they’re not in use.)

4. Start with filler.

&#8\2\20;Start with filler that&#8\2\17;s fluffy and gives the arrangement shape,&#8\2\2\1; French advises. Here, she&#8\2\17;s chosen languid trails of amaranth and Queen Anne&#8\2\17;s lace for a neutral but full backdrop. &#8\2\20;Then, I start tucking in from there little flowers or things that I love.&#8\2\2\1;
Above: “Start with filler that’s fluffy and gives the arrangement shape,” French advises. Here, she’s chosen languid trails of amaranth and Queen Anne’s lace for a neutral but full backdrop. “Then, I start tucking in from there little flowers or things that I love.”

5. Follow the rule of odds.

&#8\2\20;I&#8\2\17;ve kind of gotten into this thing of doing three flowers, no more: plentiful, but just three different kinds,&#8\2\2\1; French says. &#8\2\20;It&#8\2\17;s the same thing with gardening: Buy things in quantities of threes or fives. Odd numbers with floral arranging or gardening look right to the eye.&#8\2\2\1; (In keeping with the rule, a bunch of one kind of flower makes a statement too.)
Above: “I’ve kind of gotten into this thing of doing three flowers, no more: plentiful, but just three different kinds,” French says. “It’s the same thing with gardening: Buy things in quantities of threes or fives. Odd numbers with floral arranging or gardening look right to the eye.” (In keeping with the rule, a bunch of one kind of flower makes a statement too.)

6. Let the flowers capture a mood.

Once you have your filler set, &#8\2\20;built upon it here and there, looking at each side for balance,&#8\2\2\1; French says. &#8\2\20;You can kind of feel my mood in the flowers: I can go into it in a bad mood and come out in a good mood, or I can start to arrange in a bad mood and have to walk away,&#8\2\2\1; she explains.
Above: Once you have your filler set, “built upon it here and there, looking at each side for balance,” French says. “You can kind of feel my mood in the flowers: I can go into it in a bad mood and come out in a good mood, or I can start to arrange in a bad mood and have to walk away,” she explains.

Tip: “Add a little bleach to the water to keep it clean and clear,” French advises. “Flowers will last longer too! Kills bacteria!”

7. Keep pruners in your car (and know where the best lilac bushes are).

Be open to what you find along the way. &#8\2\20;I know where the best roadside bushes are: elderflower bushes, lupines, lilac bushes,&#8\2\2\1; French says of the back roads around Freedom. &#8\2\20;I&#8\2\17;m always keeping my eyes peeled for something awesome I can forage when I&#8\2\17;m driving.&#8\2\2\1; Follow her lead: &#8\2\20;I keep a saw in the back of the car and pruners in the glovebox,&#8\2\2\1; she says.
Above: Be open to what you find along the way. “I know where the best roadside bushes are: elderflower bushes, lupines, lilac bushes,” French says of the back roads around Freedom. “I’m always keeping my eyes peeled for something awesome I can forage when I’m driving.” Follow her lead: “I keep a saw in the back of the car and pruners in the glovebox,” she says.

(Pictured: a small arrangement for the downstairs wine shop by French’s mom, Deanna.)

8. Do it yourself.

Leftovers on the Lost Kitchen floor.
Above: Leftovers on the Lost Kitchen floor.

French is doing all of the arrangements for her own wedding, with help from Savage, who’s providing the flowers. “I’m sure most brides plan this out years in advance and have Pinterest boards,” French tells me. Instead, her wedding is sure to have all the wild elegance of the Lost Kitchen: French walked through Savage’s farm to choose flowers a few days ago, selecting “big old vintage plants growing up with the ragweed and ferns poking up in the woods,” she says. “We have little apothecary bottles that we’re using, and we’ve been collecting wine bottles from the restaurant and taking the labels off,” tucking ferns and candles inside, she says.

French, during a brief moment of pause after arranging.
Above: French, during a brief moment of pause after arranging.

For more secrets to the elusive art of flower arranging, see our Rethinking Flowers posts, as well as:

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