I’ve read my share of chef’s memoirs and food books, but CHARLOTTE AU CHOCOLAT might take the cake --- or, more accurately, the charlotte au chocolat, a delectable-sounding French dessert for which the author was named. Charlotte Silver, like a real-life Eloise, spent most of her childhood in the dining room (or napping under the bar) of Upstairs at the Pudding, her parents’ fancy restaurant in Harvard Square. Jealous much? I am.
"CHARLOTTE AU CHOCOLAT is a lovely, delicious memoir. It is nostalgia at its best, full of detailed description and nuanced observations of the different types of people that make up a successful (or not) restaurant..."
At once a magical fairyland and an unstable, unpredictable business plagued by high staff turnaround (as in any restaurant) and a constant battle with Harvard Real Estate, the Pudding was a home far more cherished and familiar to Charlotte than any of the houses or apartments she lived in. Always decked out in a party dress, Charlotte was the star of the Pudding, and her parents, brother and staff the quirky supporting cast. From childhood to college, when the Pudding finally closed, staff and customers alike knew Charlotte, even if she didn’t feel that she knew them.
Named for her mother’s signature dessert, Charlotte was a precocious child in her food and reading tastes. Unsurprisingly, then, adults around her often forgot she was just a kid, and she was left to find her own way to process her feelings when her father walked out on the restaurant and his family to become a photographer. What was constant, inspiring and sometimes cold was her mother, who insisted on always wearing heels, never crying in public, and keeping the Pudding running at any cost.
Charlotte’s strongest emotional memories are tied to food experiences, as you’d expect. Chapters take as their theme special butcher shop visits with her father, annual Christmas parties, and Sunday a cappella sets that delighted customers and drove waitstaff and line cooks crazy. Children of restaurant owners and chefs might have been untapped resources for food memoirs up to now. But clearly they are no less equipped to understand the unique struggles, quirks and triumphs of the restaurant business, and they have just as many stories, if not more, since Charlotte traversed the two worlds of the restaurant --- kitchen and floor.
CHARLOTTE AU CHOCOLAT is a lovely, delicious memoir. It is nostalgia at its best, full of detailed description and nuanced observations of the different types of people that make up a successful (or not) restaurant: cooks, waiters, bartenders, regulars, tourists and entertainers. If Charlotte Silver did not have the most conventional or child psychologist-sanctioned childhood, she more than makes up for it by proving that the Pudding --- as home, as playground, as school, and as prison --- gave her ample fodder not just for a memoir, but for understanding and appreciating her mother’s sacrifices.
Reviewed by Sarah Hannah Gomez on March 15, 2012