Serious Reads: Charlotte au Chocolat, by Charlotte Silver

20120215-charlottecover.jpg The Hasty Pudding Club is one of Harvard University's oldest social clubs, and for many years Upstairs at the Pudding was the elite restaurant that served the group's students, alumni, and guests. Until its close in 2001, the restaurant embodied elegance with gourmet food, an enchanting hostess, and a little girl who ran around the dining room in party dresses and blond ringlets. That little girl, Charlotte Silver, has written a memoir about her experience as the daughter of the owners of Upstairs at the Pudding. Charlotte au Chocolat: Memories of a Restaurant Girlhood would perhaps make one jealous of all of the delicious food and lively adventures of Charlotte's youth—except for the tinge of melancholy that lingers on every page.

Charlotte's parents ran the restaurant when she was a little girl, with her dad as the head chef and her mother working the front of the room. Her mother, beautiful and controlled, made the restaurant's pastries and kept the staff in line. Her father ran the kitchen, a gang of chain-smoking, tattooed oddballs who produced delicious Italian-influenced American food. The restaurant sourced only the finest ingredients, from purveyors the family knew by name. From the decor to the polished cuisine, Upstairs at the Pudding ran a remarkable business.

Charlotte explored the kitchen and the dining room, chatting with the waiters and enjoying solitary three-course meals nearly every night. She was enamored with the flavors of her mother's desserts, her father's roast chicken, and especially Shirley Temples. But when she was still young, her father left the family. Charlotte's mother was left to run the restaurant and a broken household.

Charlotte's childhood lost its shimmer after that. Her mother's harried lifestyle left Charlotte and her brother, who is rarely mentioned, to fend for themselves. She grew too old to hide under the bar and mingle with the waiters, and the raucous staff from her father's era slowly moved away. And after a while, the restaurant's financial difficulties became more apparent. When she was a sophomore in college, the restaurant closed—and took with it the memories and experiences of Charlotte's girlhood.

Charlotte au Chocolat is a fast and compelling read. Silver's prose is flowery and descriptive, but quite sad. I would certainly recommend this memoir for its literary quality, but perhaps not for a lighthearted and indulgent behind-the-scenes look at the restaurant world.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work has also been featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.