Pancakes go on the menu as crêpes américaines. Salsa, sauce mexicaine. If not, the French “language police” dish out fines worth hundreds of euros.
It’s Craig Carlson’s menu at Breakfast in America, a diner chain he started in Paris 13 years ago.
“One thing I never knew when I opened a business here in Paris is that there are people from the government called contrôleurs,” Carlson, 52, says.
“These contrôleurs come in by surprise and they inspect everything from the music to the terrace to — my favourite — the language police I call them, and they come in to make sure the integrity of the French language is still intact with your menu.
“So we weren’t allowed to say just ‘pancakes’ even though most French people know what pancakes are. We had to call them crêpes américaines.”
The Connecticut-born former screenwriter and short filmmaker has just authored a book, Pancakes in Paris, a New York Times bestseller.
It’s a light-hearted tell-tale of an expat who’s navigated French bureaucracy in opening a business and came out not only alive but also thriving.
Surviving it is a dramatic exaggeration, but there is some legitimacy in it.
In 2013, Carlson collapsed along the river Seine under the stress of managing a growing business of more than 70 employees, many of whom were permanent staff with a contrat de travail à durée indéterminée (CDI).
The contract complicates business for a few reasons, Carlson says. He has found it hard to fire staff who were turning up late — or not at all. Secondly, contracts need to be specific — he says, for example, if it’s unclear making milkshakes is part of the job, an employee can refuse the task.
When he collapsed at the Seine, he was dealing with a cook milking the French Labour law, the loi travail, which has this year been making headlines as protestors march against reform favouring employers.
“I had one cook for an entire year,” he says. “He only worked for one month in the entire year, the rest of the time he would go over to the doctor’s office and say, ‘oh, my wrist hurts’.
“There was no way to prove it… they didn’t do any exams… and they said, ‘quinze jours’.”
He was given two weeks of paid work leave — several times. The French government paid 40 per cent of the employee’s salary, leaving the rest up to Carlson.
Know the Labour law is his advice for entrepreneurial expats, and learn to work in the “grey area”, because sometimes rules aren’t black and white. Another tip: Seek help from the French. Agence France Entrepreneur and Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie near Les Halles and are useful resources, he says.
The book is practical and covers everything he’s done to realise his Parisian dream in the hope it’ll help other expats to do the same. But there’s also humour — he talks fondly about cultural differences and his most-animated customers.
There’s that time an elderly French lady dissected her hamburger with her knife and fork and ate it one small square of lettuce at a time. Then there’s the good old American coffee story.
“Ask any French person what they call American coffee and they’ll say, ew, jus des chaussettes (sock juice),” he tells World Radio Paris in a sit-down interview over breakfast.
“Some people say it’s because during World War II, G.I.s didn’t have filters for their coffee so they’d use their socks.
“Other French people will say it’s like when you wring your socks and the water that comes out, it’s like, ewww, disgusting. So you can imagine trying to get the French to have American coffee was a big challenge.”
At the helm of a chain of three diners in Paris, he’s still carrying around a pot of sock juice, offering free refills.
The humble man grew up in a dysfunctional family, paid his own way at film school and worked in French TV for a year. During this French séjour, he learnt about the stark contrast between US and French work culture.
On his return to Los Angeles in the fall of 2000, he had an epiphany while eating buckwheat pancakes at a local 24/7 diner — classic American food was the only thing he’d missed in France.
And so, voilà, the concept of Breakfast in America was conceived.
It was born two and a half years later after raising thousands of dollars thanks to the kindness of friends in the film industry — such as a director of the defunct TV hit series Friends and French animators working at DreamWorks Pictures in California.
Carlson is flying to the US this week to vote in the Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump election on Tuesday, November 8. He’s nervous about the result as, he says, politics have played a part in the success of his Paris business — it was hard to sell classic American food during the George W. Bush administration and the 2003 Iraq invasion.
Anti-American sentiments spread across Europe, Carlson says. Tensions were “so high”, causing Carlson to worry the French would see his diner as some kind of American culinary invasion.
It was Barack Obama who made America great again in French eyes, he says.
Pancakes in Paris: Living the American Dream in France is available in English language bookshops, such as The Abbey Bookshop and Shakespeare and Company in the fifth arrondissement.
Prints in French have not yet published.