Sunday, December 16, 2007

Service Included (Phoebe Damrosch)

I find the title Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter to be a little misleading. The subtitle sounds like a celebrity/socialite expose instead of a thoughtful book on the finer points of being a server at Per Se, Thomas Keller's New York restaurant. But this was apparently the publisher's meaning, even though it doesn't appropriately represent the book, given this blurb (from William Morrow): "Kitchen Confidential meets Sex and the City in this delicious, behind-the-scenes memoir from the first female captain at one of New York City's most prestigious restaurants." And if by that they mean it's about the inner workings of a restaurant and involves Phoebe Damrosch's (who lives in New York) personal life, then yes, I guess you could say that. But Tony Bourdain and Carrie Bradshaw were not even close to the first two people that came to mind while reading, I can tell you that much.

As I myself have waited tables (in such fine establishments as your local neighborhood Applebee's and everyone's favorite "Australian" steakhouse Outback Steakhouse), I was pleased to see a food-centered book written from the front-of-the-house perspective. (Michael Ruhlman does an excellent job exploring the back-of-the house perspective Thomas Keller's restaurants.)

Keller's attention to detail extends to the dining room of his restaurants and the intensity of the training his employees receive. As some may know from their experience (or, in my case, from watching Top Chef), the head chef in a restaurant is referred to as "chef." Things roll a little different in Keller's restaurant:

I had already noticed that in Chef Keller's kitchens, everyone was called "chef," not only The Chef. In fact, everyone who worked in the restaurant, from the reservationist to the coffee server, was called "Chef." It was an equalizer, a sign of respect for people's metiers, and a great way to get out of learning hundreds of coworkers' names. Not that Thomas didn't know our names, because, for the most part, he did. It was surprisingly hard to resist, and I was soon calling my mother "chef," as well as cabdrivers and guests. I even fell into the habit of calling friends "chefie," which even I found irritating. Once, when I called a man I was dating "chef," he became irate.

"Who's Jeff?" he demanded. When I tried to explain that I had actually called him "chef," he looked dubious.

"I bet you know who this Jeff is, you little Judas?"" he said to the dog sitting at the end of the bed---whom I regularly called "chef" as well.

Damrosch began working at Per Se as a backserver but quickly found herself promoted to captain:

It would be a relief to talk about something other than the bread, butter, and water selections. As a backserver, from the moment the first table entered my section to the time I had changed all the tablecloths at the end of the night, I moved nonstop. Pouring, marking, clearing, surviving the wrath of the captain who had barely survived the wrath of a chef or maitre d' and needed someone to blame. It was an exhausting job, but at least the time went by quickly. Being a captain, on the other hand, would carry more responsibility, but it would also be a hell of a lot more fun. No longer would I feel like a marking machine. I could make real connections with the guests, get to know the chefs better, and become even more familiar with the food.

The Per Se story is entertaining, especially regarding the many visits Frank Bruni made prior to his review of the restaurant in The New York Times. But what really made me keep reading was Damrosch's romance with a sommelier at the restaurant. That's where the real story lies in the book, in my opinion, making it accessible to people who aren't obsessed with food as well.


Unknown said...

Poor cat :-(

Maewen Archer said...

So, is that your cat's tribute to Chuck?