Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter, by Phoebe Damrosch
This was a quick read and a mostly interesting glimpse into the world of fine dining — the author spent time as a backserver and a captain at Per Se, a well-known and well-respected fancy-pants restaurant in New York (for those who know about these things, it is one of Thomas Keller’s restaurants).
To me the most interesting parts were those about the author’s own love affair with food and those about the restaurant’s inner workings and the dynamics among the staff. All in all, I found Damrosch’s descriptions of the food, her fellow staff, and the diners, including, of course, the New York Times food critic, enjoyable and even sometimes educational. I especially enjoyed her descriptions of the terribly in-depth training — think months-long — for the entire staff as they prepared to open the restaurant. And one particular anecdote will stick with me for a long time: before the restaurant actually opened to the public, they had several evenings of test runs. On one of these nights, everyone was overwhelmed, frantic, and behind (“in the weeds” in restaurant-speak). Damrosch was working as a backserver and one of the captains had snapped at her. She was furious and proceeded to the kitchen where she took her anger out by slamming the dishes into the sink. Behind her she heard, “Slow down, chef,” and she turned around to see none other than Chef Keller, who had taken over for a dishwasher who was also in the weeds.
Less successful, to my mind, were the parts of the book where Damrosch described her love affair with one of the sommeliers. I suppose I cared enough to know whether they stayed together but not enough to really root for them. (She doesn’t actually say what became of them as a couple, but I did notice that the book is dedicated to him.)
My biggest complaint is that the book is unevenly paced, dragging at first, lingering too long in parts (the part about her visit to a farm in Vermont where they make artisan cheese comes to mind) and not long enough in others (I could have read about the restaurant itself all day), and ending abruptly.
The book was entertaining, but not a must-read. I’ll say three stars out of five.