A foodie memoir to savor
By Jaime Jordan
Phoebe Damroschs foodie memoir, Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter (William Morrow), is the kind of book that you try to read slowly, because you want it to last. Part tell-all account of the opening of Thomas Kellers renowned restaurant, Per Se, and part love story, Service Included offers a behind the scenes chronicle of the experience of the first female captain at one of New Yorks four-star restaurants.
Service Included is full of surprising insider info. We learn that the waitstaff memorizes sheets of facts about the sculptor and date of the statues visible from the window and the acreage of Central Park; that they are coached by an eighteenth-century dance specialist to learn to walk, to stand, and to bow like ladies and gentlemen. Damrosch also dishes some of the most interesting rules governing the staff, such as Everyones hair must remain as it was when they were hired. She also intersperses some chapters with tips for diners, like, Please do not ask us what else we do and tells us that Do you know who I am? is a very unattractive question. (Though one I imagine they hear frequently at the perpetually booked Per Se.)
But Damroschs memoir yields more than a bunch of cool tidbits. Her writing makes you think about the similarities inherent in fulfilling food and satisfying sex, about gender politics on the dining room floor, about food as more than just something to eat. Its also transporting. As she detailed each meal of New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni, I held my breath along with the kitchen and waitstaff, praying for four stars. According to Damrosch, Thomas Keller constructs his menu in order to give only enough to satisfy your appetite and pique your curiosity, enough to have you beg for just one more bite. By the end of the book, I had developed my own crush on Thomas Keller, Per Se, and its West Coast counterpart, French Laundry.
In one of the final chapters, I Can Hear You, Damrosch offers short vignettes, peppered with intuitive remarks about the diners she encounters. In one story, a gentleman arranges for the staff to deliver a Faberge egg to his dinner guest and future fiancée. When his date opens the egg
there is not a ring in sight. She begins to cry. Her fiancé instructs her as to the eggs value
He eats his sorbet and dessert with gusto while she prods at hers with her spoon, crestfallen. When he finally pulls the ring from his pocket, her joy is more like a worn relief. Reading each of these stories, filled with people Damrosch describes in masterful detail, feels like eavesdropping on a juicy conversation.
Luckily, only a small fraction of the book is devoted directly to Damroschs own love story. While certainly an underlying theme of the entire memoir, her relationship with Andres, a sommelier at Per Se, is only mildly interesting as Damrosch is unable or unwilling to delve into the grittiness of the relationship. Their love story feels unconvincing and her depiction of their courtship ignores the drama that would typically arise from reading your boyfriends emails (as Damrosch does) or living in tight quarters with an ex-girlfriend (as Andres does). Were left with the distinct impression that Damrosch is holding back, trying to fool the reader or herself or both.
Ultimately, the love story that delivers in this deliciously constructed and highly readable book is the one between the author and great food.