Published on April 15th, 2021 | by Isabelle Karamooz, Founder of FQM0
Craig Carlson’s Interview with French Quarter Magazine
“New York Times bestselling author Craig Carlson first came to France as an exchange student in 1985 and instantly fell in love with the country. He never could have imagined that some thirty-five years later he’d be the owner of two American diners in Paris and be nicknamed “Le Pancake Kid” by the French. With a background in journalism, Craig studied cinema at the prestigious USC School of Cinematic Arts, using his experience as a screenwriter to pen his debut memoir, Pancakes in Paris: Living the American Dream in France. Craig and his husband Julien currently split their time between Paris and Los Angeles. Well, at least they try to. With two busy diners that can’t be left alone for too long, their lives lean heavily on the Paris side, which, of course, is not such a bad thing, n’est-ce pas?“
Why did you come to Paris?
I first came to Paris as an exchange student in 1985. Interestingly enough, both the French language and the study abroad program entered my life by accident. Growing up in a working class town in Connecticut, my father insisted that I take Spanish in school because he wanted to know what the Puerto Rican neighbors were saying about him. So in sixth grade when my teacher asked which language I wanted to take the following year, I blurted out, “Spanish!” Just then, two of the most popular kids in class, Ann and Dan (who’d been dating since the fifth grade), chimed in, “Oh, no, don’t take Spanish! We’re taking Spanish.” I turned to the teacher and said, “Okay. French then.” That serendipitous moment changed my life forever. Turns out sometimes it pays to be an outsider.
From my very first French class, I fell in love with the language and dreamed of visiting France one day. That dream came true in the most unexpected way when I was a student at the University of Connecticut and received an invitation out of the blue to take part in the Junior Year Abroad program. The next thing I knew, I was on a plane to Paris with only $300 dollars in my pocket to last the whole year. I recount both these stories in my first book, Pancakes in Paris.
What do you love most about Paris now that it’s your home?
There are way too many things to list. Of course, I love the food, culture and beauty of the city. Everyday, no matter how long I’ve lived here, the architecture and intimacy of Paris’s narrow streets comforts me, lifts my spirits and often takes my breath away. Also as a Parisian (and recently nationalized French citizen!), I love getting to know the colorful cast of characters in my neighborhood. For example, at my favorite café, the manager texts me whenever my favorite special is on the menu. “Craig, I have two aligots left. Shall I save you one?” To which I quickly reply, “Oui! Oui! I’ll be there in 15!” (Aligot is a French specialty consisting of mashed potatoes laden with melted Tomme cheese on which sits a delicious spicy Auvergne sausage). Daily exchanges like this with the locals make a big city like Paris feel like a village, with each arrondissement having its own individual character.
On the other end of the spectrum, I love the international nature of Paris. Sure, most major cities in the world have large immigrant populations, but in Paris I find it’s much easier to integrate with people from different cultures. For example, my French husband, Julien, who taught himself Japanese (and helped me learn a phrase or two), is very involved in the Japanese community here in Paris. Most recently, he worked as an interpreter for an annual Sake conference, where it became quite evident that the Japanese and French have a lot in common, with both applying the same care and refinement that goes into wine tasting.
Similarly, one of my favorite parts about living in Paris is how centrally located it is to other countries. Before the pandemic, it was so easy – and inexpensive – to hop on a plane to Sicily for a long weekend, for example. Same with the world-renowned high-speed train system. The TGV network in France has expanded to nearly every region in the country so that Julien and I can zip down to the Rivera to visit his mom, leaving damp and cold Paris for the sunny Mediterranean in a matter of hours.
When you first arrived in Paris, what impressed you most?
I have to say the quality of life. Growing up in a working class family, where my dad struggled from month to month to make ends meet, I never realized one didn’t have to be wealthy to eat well. During my Junior Year Abroad, I had my first experience with the infamous 5+ course meals that French families have, no matter their level of income. I quickly learned that the simple pleasure of sitting at the table for hours, taking one’s time to enjoy delicious food and enriching human interaction was what was most important to the French. For me as an American, it was like having Thanksgiving every day!
One other thing that impressed me when I first arrived in Paris was all the public displays of affection. Growing up in Puritan New England, I’d never seen couples my age smooching on the sidewalk or a park bench for hours, which for me seemed to be a lot more fun than getting “wasted” at dorm parties, something I’d seen students so often do in America. On a personal level, Paris really helped me open up to my own sexuality, paving the way for me to be “bien dans ma peau” (comfortable in my skin) and eventually meet my French husband.
What made you decide to write “Let Them Eat Pancakes” that was released in July 2020?
When I finished my first memoir, the New York Times bestseller, Pancakes in Paris, the publisher sponsored a book tour/launch on the West Coast. For two weeks, Julien and I stopped at dozens of independent bookstores from Los Angeles to Vancouver, Canada. At each presentation, I met so many of my readers, who loved my book and wanted to hear more stories. Whereas my first book was the “origin” story of my American diners in Paris, Let Them Eat Pancakes allowed me to delve deeper into how France changed my life – and more importantly, how each country (France and the U.S.) could learn from each other. For example, as a business owner in Paris, I’ve come to appreciate the value of universal health care, five weeks vacation for every citizen and the strong social safety net that allows the French to live in less fear than Americans, who often, as was the case with my father, are only one paycheck away from being homeless. On the other end, French bureaucracy and its overly rigid labor laws can really hamper creativity and risk-taking. The hardest part about being an entrepreneur in France is how inflexible the system is. It’s virtually impossible to fire a bad employee, which often brings down the morale of coworkers and can do great harm to the business.
In the end, however, Let Them Eat Pancakes is a celebration of France and the transformative nature of its rich culture. For me, it’s like having two parents – one French, one American. I can’t imagine not having both.
What is one of the most interesting things you learned in doing research for your book?
There are a couple. On a humorous note, I never knew there was a “Snail Hunting” season in France. I discovered this when Julien and I were visiting his mom who was living in Dijon at the time. After a delicious multi-course Sunday dinner, we went for a stroll to help digest. In the misty rain, escargots suddenly appeared out of nowhere, at the base of trees and peeking out of the grass. In a matter of minutes, Julien’s mom had scooped up over 250 snails, with Julien checking online to make sure Snail Hunting season had officially started. Luckily, it had!
On a more historical note, I did a lot of research on the events of Mai ’68 (May ’68). I learned that that period consisted of much more than student riots, but rather a veritable “revolution” to French society. For example, before Mai ’68, a woman wasn’t allowed to open her own bank account unless she had a written consent from her husband or father. Closer to home, I was shocked to learn that before Mai ’68 homosexuality was illegal. This – and so many other facets of French society – radically changed in just one month. That’s another surprising detail I discovered about Mai ’68: how quickly the protests came and went.
To someone who has no idea what “Breakfast in America” is how would you define your restaurant that you opened in 2003 and the experience in dining there?
The reason I opened Breakfast in America came about after I’d been working in Paris on an international TV show for three seasons. When the show wrapped up, I knew I no longer wanted to live in Los Angeles (where I’d done my masters in cinema), but instead preferred to settle in Paris. But doing what? Long story short, I had an “aha moment” back in the States while enjoying a big American breakfast, realizing it was the one thing I missed in France. I suddenly knew I wanted to open the first American breakfast diner, despite having no restaurant experience and never having owned my own business. On top of that, I decided to open my diner in a foreign country that also happened to be the culinary capital of the world. How I turned my dream to a reality is the central story of both books.
From the beginning, my goal for Breakfast in America was to bring together both my worlds. For Americans living abroad (or those on vacation), the diner feels like a bit of home, satisfying their cravings for hearty American comfort food. For the French (which, incidentally, make up 70% of the clientele), the diner is a way for them to discover a piece of America — or to conjure up fond memories of their own trips to the States. As one French friend who traveled often to the US said to me, “Breakfast is the one meal you Americans do right!”
There is one thing that worries me, though: even before the pandemic, classic American diners all across America had already begun to close down, replaced by fast food chains and more trendy fare. Ironically, Breakfast in America preserves the tradition of the roadside, Mom & Pop diner, but does so across the pond, in the City of Light.
Are Paris restaurants better or worse than when you arrived?
I’d have to say both. On the plus side, for my vegetarian and food allergy friends, there’s much more selection in Paris restaurants than there used to be. For example, when Julien was going through a vegetarian period, he said the only things most French brasseries and cafés would offer were French fries and overcooked green beans served with perhaps some rice or plain pasta. Now most places have a much more varied selection of “healthy” dishes, including gluten-free, etc., which we’ve incorporated into the menu at my diners as well.
On the down side, I’ve noticed that Paris seems to be slowly losing the equivalent of diners in the States: that is, cafés and brasseries are serving less and less traditional French fare. For example, a brasserie in the 5th arrondissement I frequented for years used to have a menu full of classic French dishes, such as confit de canard, blanc de veau and cassoulet. But little by little, each of these items was replaced by a different kind of burger, until one day the only French dishes left were steak frites and a salade niçoise.
As an American diner owner, I was horrified to see these changes, and at first felt a little guilty that maybe my diners played a role. But then I remembered that my main goal had been to bring American breakfast to Paris, not burgers. In fact, when I opened my first diner, I wanted it to be the antidote to American chains like McDonalds and Subway, which were sweeping across France. That’s why in the beginning I didn’t even serve burgers, just pancakes, bacon, bagels and the like. Ironically, it was my French customers who insisted that I serve “les vrais ‘amburgers” (real hamburgers, not fast food). Apparently, there was already something in the air, my guess being that either American movies and/or TV shows influenced young French people to demand a real “‘amburger!”
In your opinion, what’s the role of a food critic today when everyone’s a critic (ie Trip Advisor, Yelp)?
Good question. In some ways, it really helps business; so many new customers, especially Americans, discover Breakfast in America through reviews on Yelp and Trip Advisor. However, as you say, “everyone’s a critic” so there’s been some backlash from these kinds of open forums. For example, there are times when I’m in the diner, serving a customer who I know will never be happy, no matter what I do. From their tone and constant demands, I can often sense that they’re already forming their “scathing review” in their heads. Sure enough, not long after they’ve left, their negative comments pop up all over social media, with them making sure to “tag” the diner so we don’t miss it.
Unfortunately, it’s very hard to defend ourselves against people who seem to get a thrill out of panning restaurants. (Facebook, for example, doesn’t allow us to delete what we clearly think is an unfair review). Furthermore, a quick search of the reviewer’s user name often shows that they’ve posted everywhere, with no restaurant immune from their wrath. Fortunately, the public seems to have become more savvy to such trolling and thankfully, take the time to look at the generally positive reviews before making a quick judgment.
What is your favorite neighborhood In Paris? Your favorite film(s) about Paris? We know that you earned an M.A. in film production from the University of Southern California and that you have been once a produced screenwriter.
My answers to these questions are actually connected. My favorite neighborhood is the 5th arrondissement, mainly because it’s home to so many of my favorite repertory and “art house” cinemas. Fitting because my love affair with cinema began here in Paris when I was an exchange student, ultimately motivating me to move to Los Angeles to study cinema at USC. Some of my favorite films that take place in Paris include: 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cent Coups by François Truffaut), À Bout de Souffle (Breathless by Jean-Luc Godard); Diva, a favorite of mine from the 1980s, which I first saw as an exchange student; Hôtel du Nord, a classic French film from 1938; and finally, Paris, Je T’aime (Paris, I Love You), made up of 18 short films by famous directors, my favorite being the one that takes place in the 14th arrondissement.
As a lifelong cinephile and produced screenwriter, my dream is to one day adapt my books into a film or TV series, bringing together my two biggest passions in life: cinema and diners.
A short video on YouTube explaining how I came up with the idea for Breakfast in America:
A link to Pancakes in Paris on The New York Times Bestseller List (#9 Travel):
A link to Let Them Eat Pancakes on The New York Times “New and Noteworthy” list:
This article was translated in French by Marie Parant Squires.