Reading Charlotte Silver's new memoir, Charlotte au Chocolat: Memories of a Restaurant Girlhood is like being in an art museum, gazing at images of another time and place. And that's what Silver, 31, had in mind when she wrote this remembrance of her early years growing up in her mother's four-star restaurant, Upstairs at the Pudding. Located above Harvard's Hasty Pudding Club, the famed student society, the restaurant was the “stage set” of her childhood.
“My life was not a child's life of jungle gyms and Velcro sneakers, but of soft lighting, stiff petticoats, rolling pins smothered in flour, and candied violets in wax paper,” the book begins.
In a phone interview last week, Silver told Squid Ink: “I think that like many people with unusual childhoods, I had always thought that I might write about it … I wanted it to be a very visual book, even kind of painterly. … I really wanted it to be a portrait of this beautiful lost world.”
As a little girl, Silver crawled under the bar to take naps. When the wait staff changed into their uniforms, she would don one of her frilly party dresses. She ate dinner at table A-1, dining on crab vicar, smoked pheasant and Roquefort flan. On weekends, her main job was to stay out of the way.
“Professional kitchens are not really a place for a child,” says Silver. “There's a scene in the book where my sash gets caught in the Cuisinart on a very busy Saturday night in the kitchen.”
This is not a memoir in, say, the James Frey mold. The story feels authentic, while cast in a warm glow of affection. Even events that could be considered traumatic — such as her late father's abrupt abandonment of the family — are dealt with gently, and often in the context of food: “It always seemed to me, in memory, that my father up and left, vanished from our lives, that night at the Pudding. … I couldn't find him behind the line. All I remember: the hunk of prime rib smoldering in a black pan.”
Asked about her apparent absence of anger, Silver says simply, “Bitterness is usually not attractive in memoirs, so it was not a tone that I wanted to strike.”
After her father left the restaurant, Silver's mother, Deborah Hughes, took charge. She wasn't the kind of mom who kept fresh food at home or packed great lunches for school, but she clearly was, and still is, a larger-than-life person whom Silver loves and admires. The book is very much a tribute to her mother's style, spirit and endurance. (Hughes and business partner Mary-Catherine Deibel now run the Cambridge, Mass. restaurant UpStairs on the Square.)
Silver spent most of her childhood evenings hanging out with the quirky cooks and waiters, back in the day when the kitchen staff smoked and drank while on duty. One of Hughes' hires was head chef Gus, who most likely had a prison record and a substance-abuse problem. He also had a tattoo on his neck reading CAN'T STOP WON'T STOP, which Silver's mother interpreted to mean that he wouldn't take sick days.
In the book, Silver describes Gus as the Pudding's last colorful kitchen character, with the restaurant business beginning to change: “Chefs were just starting to get their own television shows, a development that would have been laughable in my childhood, when the chefs I knew were hardly fit to be seen in public, let alone on television.”
Named after her mother's signature charlotte au chocolat dessert, Silver says she decided to end the book with the last night of the Pudding, after her mother lost the lease. She says the night the doors to the restaurant closed felt like the end of her girlhood.
Silver confesses that she doesn't cook: “I love the theatricality of restaurants and the community that can be found in them. … I actually love going out to eat alone, which I think is probably a legacy of my restaurant childhood.”