Book Review: Pancakes in Paris: Living the American Dream in France

Reviewer’s Note: Review copy of the book discussed here was provided to me at no cost in exchange for my honest opinion.

This book by American-born restaurateur Craig Carlson recounts the birth of his “Breakfast in America” diner franchise in France, and is written with a heart that calls to mind the phrase “Down, but never out.”

As well-worn as the phrase “journey of self-discovery” has become, it feels apt among the descriptors one might apply to this book. If one were to trace the course of the author’s achievement of his dreams to a single defining element, it would be a gastronomic epiphany—arguably the best, most potentially life-altering kind of epiphany—that he experienced during his time in France. As a university student taking immersive French lessons, Carlson fell enamoured of the country, and but for one missing element, would have considered it a perfect place of permanent residence. That missing element was the availability of a place to find a proper American breakfast replete with pancakes, bacon, sausage and the like, and the course of events set in motion by his desire to do something about it would test much of what he knew about himself.

This book is by turns humorous (ask a French friend what “jus de chaussettes” means and prepare to have your view of American-served coffee forever altered), and terrifying (the bureaucracy involved with opening, much less running a successful eatery in France is enough to keep aspiring restaurateurs awake at night). Beset by what at times seems like a nonstop parade of obstacles, the author provides an unvarnished account of the spiritual highs and lows that came with launching a risky endeavor that by all accounts, never should have succeeded. The rate at which first-time restaurateurs see their establishments fail was massive—a metric that endures to this day—and that was without the added disadvantage of having selected for a launch site a foreign country unaccustomed to taking its culinary cues from America.

From contractors who arrived for work drunk if they arrived at all, to litigious underperforming ex-employees, to adversarial public servants who took unveiled pleasure in handing out fines like Halloween candy, Carlson recounts his experiences with a wry sense of humor whose maintenance was no doubt crucial for sanity-retention in his most troubling hours. Baser human impulses, after all, were not the only things complicating his progress. Carlson also would find himself confronting the implications of operating an America-themed diner abroad in a world changed by events like the September 11th World Trade Center attack and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. During that time, Carlson’s best days were yet to come, though not before he saw the inside of a prison cell and had his establishment temporarily shuttered. That the author not only survived these woes, but came away from them stronger and ostensibly wiser, feels due in no small part to a network of trustworthy friends and employees he would come to view as family, as well as his finding romance some years on.

This book’s voice is as colorful as the menu at Carlson’s diners, or as the native French cuisine that first enraptured him decades earlier. Even the moments that find him at the uncompromising mercy of personal anxiety or antagonists with agendas are infused with an acerbic eye roll that speaks to his mettle and incites solidarity with him. The author’s depictions of France as a living organism with which the industrious foreigner must learn to make peace in order to survive—one that is nonetheless responsive and eventually, even welcoming to having its tastes influenced through the right stimuli—will appeal to Francophiles, gourmands, and restaurateurs alike. Carlson’s France, warts and all, is one that I hope to taste someday.

Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Sourcebooks
ISBN-10: 1492632120
ISBN-13: 978-1492632122

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