Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, July 11, 2016

Monday, July 11, 2016: Maximum Shelf: Pancakes in Paris

Sourcebooks: Pancakes in Paris by Craig Carlson

Sourcebooks: Pancakes in Paris by Craig Carlson Sourcebooks: Pancakes in Paris by Craig Carlson Sourcebooks: Pancakes in Paris by Craig Carlson

Pancakes in Paris: Living the American Dream in France

by Craig Carlson

Why would a former Hollywood screenwriter, with no business or restaurant experience, open an American diner in Paris? Pancakes in Paris answers that question by recounting Craig Carlson's wildly circuitous journey to living his dream in the "City of Lights." A determined, tenacious risk-taker, Carlson unscrambles the unconventional aspects of his life, tracing the chronological route he traveled to launch Breakfast in America, a popular restaurant chain located in the heart of Paris.

Carlson, now in his 50s, was raised in upstate Connecticut, the son of divorced parents and the youngest of four children in a poor Polish-Finnish immigrant family. His mother was bipolar and often institutionalized. His father, an alcoholic with a gambling problem, was a "swinging bachelor" known as "Fast Eddie" with the ladies. This left Craig and his siblings to be raised largely by his grandparents. "Despite all the evidence to the contrary... I always felt loved--just never wanted."

France was far from Carlson's radar. His first exposure occurred when he was seven years old. Carlson and his older sisters had been cruising around in Fast Eddie's "chick mobile," a rusted old station wagon, when his sisters started talking in French to shroud the details of their less-than-stellar opinion of their father. As Carlson listened to his sisters' exchange, he understood perfectly: "...I had a gift for languages right from the start."

This incident was just one of many eerie French-related coincidences. Carlson's mother eventually eloped to Florida with her boyfriend, a charmless French Canadian. And when Carlson, at age 12, went to live with his father in Frenchtown--a tough neighborhood infused with poverty and crime, where not a single French person lived--he quickly developed strong survival and entrepreneurial skills, which set the foundation for his future business endeavours. When Carlson had to select a foreign language to study in school, he chose French: "From that moment on, mon destin was set in motion."

Studying French inspired a sense of wanderlust in Carlson, who longed to escape small-town life. In his junior year at the University of Connecticut, he was selected to study abroad. A year in Paris, Normandy and Rouen seemed a dream come true, but tested Carlson's preconceived ideas about French living. He was assigned to live with a spinster--a "half mad genius, half schoolmarm" and terrible cook--who put Carlson and his roommate up in a backyard shed. A trip to the annual Gastronomic Fair in Dijon proved a turning point that encouraged Carlson to stay in France at the conclusion of the program. He rented an apartment in the Latin Quarter, worked at an English-language school and fell in love with French cinema.

When he returned to the States, he was accepted into the film program at the University of Southern California. He paid his tuition by becoming a contestant on Wheel of Fortune. His winning experience served as the subject for his short thesis, an award-winning film slated for an Oscar screening; it never happened because of the 1992 Rodney King riots. Carlson's chance for success fizzled until fate intervened again via a job lead for a French television show. When the show ended, Carlson, now in his 30s, came back to the States in search of a "good ol' American breakfast." When he stared down at a ham steak, scrambled eggs, home-fried potatoes and buckwheat pancakes, inspiration struck: "Paris has it all. The Louvre. The Eiffel Tower. Romance and fine cuisine. But one thing it doesn't have is an authentic American breakfast."

Carlson set out to change that, educating himself on the business of opening an American diner in Paris. The odds were stacked against him, but he developed a management plan for his diner, Breakfast in America (BIA), inspired by the title of a 1980s hit song. Acquiring rights to the name proved almost as difficult as landing investors for a project whose baseline costs escalated from $5,000 to $250,000. Yet again, he was forced to look for work. A job in the marketing department of the Walt Disney Company, and the unexpected good fortune of a later corporate buy-out package, granted Carlson the collateral needed to reel in BIA backers.

Bidding goodbye to L.A. and a girlfriend, Carlson moved back to France, where he scouted diner locations, met colorful personalities and, after facing repeated heartbreaks and disappointments, finally leased an old French café. Renovations, unreliable contractors and hiring competent staff--including chefs who had to learn how to cook American food--were as taxing as acquiring American ingredients such as peanut butter, cheddar cheese and maple syrup. By 2003, BIA opened its doors, serving breakfast all day, along with hamburgers and milkshakes. Just as business was taking off, America invaded Iraq and anti-Americanism soared in France. BIA, however, soon became featured in the press as a "cultural crossroads between conflicted countries," and also a place where anyone--French or American--could enjoy a good hamburger and even a traditional Thanksgiving Dinner.

For years, Carlson worked seven days a week. He assembled a strong restaurant team--a varied group of employees from different cultural backgrounds--though a few exceptions caused Carlson serious problems, including the inability to comply with the stringent, "screwy French system" of labor. Legal disputes with several disgruntled employees who took advantage of Carlson's good nature ultimately led to Carlson's arrest and forced BIA to shut down temporarily.

Despite repeated challenges, Carlson remained determined for BIA to succeed, despite differences between French and American cuisine, tipping policies and the concept of "doggie bags." BIA became a cultural hub, hosting literary nights and live music events, ultimately morphing into the supportive family that Carlson had always longed for. This realization led Carlson, in 2005, to finally address his long-time intimacy issues. He then met Julien--a loving, caring man and Carlson's soul mate. The love they share led to the launch of a second, and later a third, BIA location.

The detailed, linear facts of Carlson's frenetic, inspiring account speak volumes. But the tragicomic tone of Carlson's writing, along with cliff-hanger chapter endings, are what perfectly season the overall arc of this entertaining success story. At one point, when things seem most bleak, a friend of Carlson's says, "I know things are confusing right now. But I truly believe that one day your life is going to make sense. That all the twists and turns, all the ups and downs.... They happened for a reason." This wisdom propels Carlson to press on through hard times. And by the 10-year anniversary of BIA, Carlson looks back on his life-changing experiences and his accomplishments in living an American dream in the land of crepes and croissants with pride, nostalgia and an overt sense of gratitude.--Kathleen Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

Sourcebooks, $15.99, paperback, 9781492632122, September 6, 2016

Sourcebooks: Pancakes in Paris by Craig Carlson

Craig Carlson: 'Challenges and Rewards Go Hand in Hand'

photo: Yukari Goda

Craig Carlson is the owner and founder of Breakfast in America, the first American-style diner in Paris, which has been featured in Lonely Planet and Frommer's Paris travel guides. Before opening BIA, Carlson studied film production at USC and won the prestigious John Huston Directing Award, as well as awards from the Chicago International Film Festival and the Lucille Ball Comedy Festival. Pancakes in Paris (Sourcebooks) is Carlson's debut memoir. He talks about opening Breakfast in America here.

What inspired you to write this memoir? Why now?

Two things: first, hardly a day goes by that I don't have a customer ask me questions about Breakfast in America and how it came into being... so I realized there might be a strong interest for my story. And second, the idea of the book didn't really solidify until I was lying in a hospital bed after collapsing from the stress of doing business in France. I thought to myself, "How ironic? For years, I've dreamed of living in France. And now that I'm here, I want nothing more than to escape--before it kills me!" By writing Pancakes in Paris, I found myself falling back in love with France all over again, rediscovering what it was that brought me here in the first place.

Why did you decide to write Pancakes in Paris as a memoir and not as a screenplay?

Writing a book allows a story to have a much larger scope than a screenplay. In Pancakes, I was able to establish the story in the context of my turbulent upbringing, then show the reader the nuts and bolts of what it takes to set up a business--especially in a foreign country. I could also show all the humorous cultural differences between the French and Americans when it comes to diner grub. And lastly, writing my story as a memoir allowed me to convey all my internal hopes and fears, which, in screenplays, can only be conveyed through clunky voice-over narration. Also, I was so burnt out from all my years as a struggling screenwriter in Hollywood, I really wanted to do something fresh and new. In fact, writing a book had always been on my bucket list.

Did any book(s) in particular inspire you in your writing?

I read a lot of inspiring books, but two stand out: My Life in France by the wonderful Francophile--and cook--Julia Child. And Pour Your Heart into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time by Starbucks founder Howard Schultz. Both books focused on the importance of developing the human side of a food-service business. From the start, I wanted to make sure my diner had a heart and soul. I think we've succeeded at that, which is one of the things I'm most proud of.

Does your screenwriting background influence your restaurant/business life?

Absolutely. As a former filmmaker, I realized as I was putting my diner together, that it was a lot like making a movie. For example, with a restaurant you have to find a location, decide on the décor, figure out the "story" of your restaurant--the theme--with mine being a neighborhood breakfast joint where everyone is welcome, day and night. Then there's the casting--making sure you have a dynamic staff. The music. Catering. And, of course, with a restaurant, every day is like putting on a show. I have some theater experience, and I was constantly reminded each time I had a problem at the diner--whether it was a cook being sick or the electricity going out--I was always determined to make sure we somehow stayed open. I'd always think to myself, "The show must go on!"

What were the greatest challenges and rewards in writing Pancakes in Paris?

For me, challenges and rewards are virtually the same thing. The two go hand in hand; the amount of reward comes from the size of the challenge. Writing Pancakes really forced me to push myself--emotionally, spiritually and physically. Given the nature of the story, I had to relive many painful events from my childhood. But at the same time, putting the pieces of my life together gave me a wonderful perspective--how everything in life happens for a reason. In other words, without the difficult challenges I faced growing up, there never would have been the personal transformation I experienced; nor would there have been a Breakfast in America.

Any plans to adapt your memoir into a screenplay?

Absolutely. Some of my Hollywood friends have recommended a "limited series," which is de rigueur nowadays. Limited series are often not more than five or six episodes. And since my book is divided into five parts, I'm thinking this might be the best way to go.

Craig Carlson and Julien Chameroy at BIA's 10th anniversary party

So you'll write the screenplay.

I'd like to be involved in the adaptation of Pancakes, but I'd prefer to have another writer to collaborate with. Since my story is so personal, it's hard for me to be objective.

Who would direct? Who would play you?

Ideally, my dream would be writer/director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook). The actor who starred in that film is also my number one choice to play me: Bradley Cooper. Besides being the spitting image of me (bien sûr!), Bradley also speaks fluent French!

You've faced a lot of challenges in your life and in your journey with Breakfast in America. Where does your determination and drive originate?

Part of it, I think, comes from my Polish immigrant background. My grandma Mary was the hardest worker I've ever known; she never missed a day of work in her life, and the rare times she was sick, refused to see a doctor. Pure Polish stubbornness. I also think my dad's dark sense of humor helped me get through the tough times, coupled with my mom's Candide-esque optimism.

photo: P. Alexander Chodak

What are the top five dishes French-born and American-born patrons order at your diner?

When I first opened Breakfast in America, we served only breakfast. But soon all French customers began asking when I was going to start serving "un vrai 'hamburger--not McDo" (a real hamburger, not McDonalds). Therefore, not surprisingly, the top five dishes for my French customers include mostly hamburgers and the 2x2x2 (two eggs, two strips of bacon, two pancakes; French customers say they love having the sweet and savory mixed together). For American customers, it's mainly breakfast items: the simple but classic breakfast of eggs, bacon and homefries (with toast), followed by blueberry pancakes, then the breakfast burrito and, finally, the home-made chili burger (not too spicy, because the French hate "hot!")

Do you cook?

I consider myself more a food-loving foodie than a food-making foodie. In other words, although I love making breakfast--my favorite meal--I much prefer going out to a nice restaurant or enjoying home-cooked meals with my wonderful foodie friends. In fact, Anthony Bourdain suggests in his book, Kitchen Confidential, that often the best restaurant owners are not cooks, but entrepreneurs. I consider myself more in the latter category.

This being a presidential election year in the U.S., tell us about the Breakfast in America tradition of having customers vote for their favorite candidates.

In 2012, we offered (via our blue plate specials) the "Obama Burger" and the "Romney Omelet," with the "Obama Burger" winning in a landslide. This year, we're brainstorming to come up with something creative for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. One of our staff members has suggested "Orange Spice Pancakes" in honor of Mr. Trump's "mussy" mane, bringing new meaning to the term "voting with your gut!" And since Hillary Clinton has said that if you vote for her you get "two-for-the-price-of-one," meaning you get her and Bill, we're thinking we might offer "Hillary's Hot Dogs: two flamin' hot chili dogs for the price of one." All of us can't wait to see who will win the election this year at BIA! If readers have other suggestions, I'd welcome ideas: If I choose to use a reader's suggestion, he/she will win a free breakfast--redeemable at BIA in Paris! --Kathleen Gerard

Images from Breakfast in America.

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