By Annette Hinkle
As you stroll along Rue Des Écoles in Paris’ 5th arrondisment, there is a lot to take in — quintessential brasseries, patisseries with mouth watering éclairs in the window and boulangeries defined by long queues of bread lovers out front.
Then you see it — Breakfast in America — a 1950s-style American diner smack dab in the middle of the Latin Quarter.
As an American, you’re apt to have one of two reactions when you encounter Breakfast in America (or BIA as it is familiarly known). Turn away in shame and pretend you never saw the place, or rush in, grab the nearest booth and devour a tall stack of pancakes smothered in maple syrup.
Craig Carlson, who founded Breakfast in America back in 2003, understands both emotions and makes no judgement either way.
“When was a student in France, I was a bit of a snob,” concedes Mr. Carlson, who, before opening BIA, was a screenwriter and filmmaker in L.A. and had never even worked in a restaurant much less owned one. “I wouldn’t eat at McDonalds and as a student, I’m not sure I would go to my restaurant.”
“But when you’re there a long time, I was there a whole year, you start craving breakfast,” he adds, citing the words of one customer — an American living in France that came in with her daughter and exclaimed, ‘Finally! A real restaurant in Paris.’”
Those expats were the true motivation behind BIA. Mr. Carlson explains the idea for the restaurant came to him when he was back in L.A. after having lived in France, went to a diner for breakfast and suddenly realized exactly what was missing in Paris.
That’s because in France, breakfast (or petit déjeuner) tends to be a pretty low key affair consisting of a bit of last night’s baguette, a pain au chocolat and maybe a café crème. Forget about the bottomless cup of coffee, pancakes slathered in maple syrup and giant piles of bacon and eggs.
So Mr. Carlson embarked on what many would consider a fool’s errand — a food-themed mission to change what the French eat and when by introducing them to the entirely foreign concept of American breakfast.
Now, you can read all about it in “Pancakes in Paris: Living the American Dream in France,” Mr. Carlson’s new memoir which came out just a couple weeks ago. In it, he details not only some of the idiosyncratic hoops that must be jumped through when opening a restaurant in a bureaucratic-loving country like France, but Mr. Carlson also takes readers on a personal journey through his early life, which began poor and dysfunctional in small town Connecticut, about as far from Paris as one could get.
“This book could go under the category of inspirational, business or personal growth, which was kind of my goal in the beginning,” says Mr. Carlson who will talk about “Pancakes in Paris” at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor this Saturday. “It was so all-encompassing in my life, it changed me in so many ways. Overall, I think it’s about a personal journey and pursuing your dreams.”
“The other part of the book, and the grand disillusionment, is French labor laws which are so entertaining and important,” he says. “I had so much stress I collapsed and ended up in the hospital. I put in my labor law examples, which include you can’t fire anyone and workers get one year paternity leave.”
But ultimately, for Mr. Carlson the true test of success was whether or not real Parisians would eat at a place called Breakfast in America, and he admits it was initially a hard sell.
“In the beginning, we just served breakfast, but my young French customers wanted real hamburgers, not MacDonald’s,” he explains. “So I incorporated them earlier than I intended to and that took off with French people.”
“I was expecting more of a backlash. But everyplace in Paris now has burgers on the menu, including the foie gras burger, so I don’t want to take the blame for that.”
What he did want to do, however, was get back to the original concept of the restaurant, which is breakfast American style. While expats and many tourists love Breakfast in America, for Mr. Carlson one of the biggest challenges has been convincing Parisians to redefine their strict definitions of meals, including what they consist of and when they are eaten.
“To me, breakfast doesn’t mean just the morning. We have it any time,” he says. “The first French customer to order pancakes and eggs at night, I thought ‘yes.’”
Mr. Carlson now has three Breakfast in Americas scattered throughout Paris, and if his dozen plus years running restaurants in Paris has taught him anything, it’s that mastering the language is not the same as mastering the culture. The intricacies of maneuvering through French bureaucracy is still something that astounds and confounds him.
Fortunately Mr. Carlson not only found his life’s calling in Paris, he also found his life partner, husband Julien Chameroy, a native Frenchman who knows exactly how to get things done.
“My French was decent enough to handle communication, but culturally I had a lot to learn,” said Mr. Carlson. “I’m ‘Mr. Follow the Rules,’ and when it was time to replace our sign at the café, it took months to get approval.”
“My partner took over the second restaurant and within a couple weeks had managed to change the signs,” he adds. “Culturally, in France you pick and choose what rule to follow and in what ways. It’s second nature. There’s this rule, that rule, black and white, and then there’s the gray area, and Julien knows what he can do.”
A good example of that gray area was revealed in Mr. Chameroy’s own stated food preferences when he and Mr. Carlson met in 2006.
“When I met Julien he was vegan, except for two glaring exceptions, foie gras and escargot,” says Mr. Carlson. “He came to the diner and didn’t know what to order. So he ordered a pancake and covered it with guacamole and black pepper.”
“I said, ‘I had this maple syrup shipped from America! Use it!’”
Highlighting those cultural differences over the years has been a fun part of the multicultural experience at Breakfast In America, and Mr. Carlson has even produced a video showing Mr. Chameroy eating a hamburger with a knife and fork while his American counterpart is shoving it in his mouth with both hands.
Vive la différence.
So now that he’s got three successful restaurants in Paris and a new memoir, looking back over the last dozen or so years and this dream of Breakfast in America, is there anything that Mr. Carlson would do differently?
“I moved there at 38,” he says. “I’d be more careful about some things like employee hiring, looking back I would do it all do it all again!”
“And I wouldn’t have waited three years to find Julien.”
Craig Carlson talks about and signs copies of “Pancakes in Paris: Living the American Dream in France,” this Saturday, September 24 at 5 p.m. at Canio’s Books, 290 Main Street, Sag Harbor. Naturally, a pancake reception follows. Call (631) 725-4926 or visit caniosbooks.com for more information.