In his first memoir, the delightful Pancakes in Paris, Californian Craig Carlson details his life-changing journey of opening “my diner in a foreign country, with a foreign language, which also happened to be the culinary capital of the world.” It made for an entertaining, sarcastic but heartwarming look at the difficulties of opening Breakfast in America, the first American-style diner in Paris. (Personal aside: we ate there [twice!] last year during a trip to Paris and it was so much fun, the food was great and the bottomless American coffee so welcome, especially for our visiting family who can’t get on board with espresso, and it was made all the sweeter by knowing his story and what it took to get the place up and running.)
Let Them Eat Pancakes is his follow-up memoir, and it’s every bit as cheerful, charming, and witty as the first. Carlson tells stories from his day-to-day both at work and at home with his French partner, Julien (including that they finally tie the knot!).
It also digs surprisingly deeply, considering the light, positively upbeat tone it maintains, as Carlson recounts serious and formative moments from his past, like his emotionally distant dad and time spent in an orphanage (!) and his unease at returning to his hometown. It makes his attitude towards life all the more impressive — that he’s overcome no small share of adversity and still manages not to take things too seriously while working hard for his dream (a little too hard, as his health scare described here indicated) and achieving so much.
Opening his now two diners was no small feat, and as he detailed some of the unbelievable bureaucracy the first time around, here he focuses more on employee-hiring difficulties (he tells it much more hilariously than I’m making it sound). Labor laws are notoriously strict in France and come down heavily on the employee’s side, which makes running a business tricky even for a boss like Carlson who clearly cares about his employees and their well-being. It seems that some know how to take advantage of the generous legalities available to them, and my god, do they know the ins and outs of it all! Carlson notes they seem to have memorized the legal codes in this area and his stories certainly make it seem so.
Although this may seem a bit frothy, there’s a much more meaningful story under the surface. Carlson skips from anecdote from anecdote, loosely connected but forming a picture of his life and personality, including treating an elderly Parisian neighbor to her first taste of American diner fare while marveling at the history people can share, the difficulties of planning an American Thanksgiving dinner in Paris, and compiling a dossier on the “pigeon man” whose eccentric habits ruined his new neighborhood: “The true Frenchman in Julien awakened at the mere mention of the word; ‘Did somebody say ‘dossier’?!” Carlson has a great way of handling generalities and quirks particular to the French without being offensive, but still emphasizing oddities unique to them. I was impressed with how he crafted this.
Sometimes things come together a smidgen too neatly and I can see where scenes were seemingly stitched together for the sake of good narrative, or dialogue gets a bit extensive. Ruth Reichl would approve! But he pulls it off well for the most part, and the overall effect is touching. I found myself more moved than I expected to be, because what I remembered from his previous book was more the humor and inspiration of it all, but here he goes deeper and gets you in the feels as well.
At one point, he returns to his Connecticut hometown for a book signing, where he’s met by his high school French teacher, someone who started him on the road that would eventually lead to his life in Paris (although he’s half there and half in the States now, what a dream!) He also has to confront some less-than-happy feelings and negative associations, like that deep-seated sense of not belonging, and it showed the bond he and Julien share when his partner helped him through difficult moments. I really felt one statement he made about being an adult, feeling like you finally have your life together, and then “you visit your family and suddenly you feel like a ten-year-old kid all over again”. He weaves these relatable moments in without hitting you over the head with their heaviness. It was sweetly comforting.
This is a charmingly funny, deeper-than-expected look at his restaurateur work and expat life, perfect for happily imagining yourself elsewhere right now. It’s also a nice reminder that wild dreams — like of making a life in Paris — aren’t always what they seem, but sometimes can become something else instead, surprising and wonderful.
Let Them Eat Pancakes: One Man’s Personal Revolution in the City of Light
by Craig Carlson
published July 7, 2020 by Pegasus Books
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.