It takes a great deal to make me burst out laughing in the middle of a coffee shop. First of all, I suffer from some social anxiety: I don’t like to make a spectacle of myself (unless I’m making horror movies on the internet) and I often give dirty looks to those who carry on obnoxious cell phone conversations or cackle loudly as I try to write my memoirs while sipping frothy cappuccinos. But yesterday, as I finished Phoebe Damrosch’s fantastic new book “Service Included,” I broke out of character and burst out laughing. It happened on page 179 and it may be the most shocking sentence I’ve yet encountered in a food book. I can’t repeat it here nor, for that matter, can I repeat it anywhere: it’s filthy. It’s something a customer says to Phoebe when she’s a captain at Per Se, one of New York’s (if not the country’s) most illustrious and renowned restaurants. The context alone would make any irreverent comment hilarious, but this particular one–well, I’ll let you get there yourself. It still makes me laugh just thinking about it.
To focus on that comment, though, is to ignore the larger achievement of Phoebe’s book: this is an exciting, insightful, informative book about all the workings of a four-star restaurant. What makes it so refreshing is that Phoebe’s perspective is not that of an elitist, torch-carrying gastronomical bully. It’s that of a wide-eyed, inquisitive soul who finesses her way to the very very top of her haphazardly chosen vocation. The journey is fraught with intrigue–when will the restaurant open? When will Frank Bruni show?–as well as romance (Phoebe falls for the dapper sommelier, Andre, who moved to New York with his girlfriend who also works at the restaurant). Phoebe weaves the story of Per Se’s opening and her affair with Andre with expert skill and care: I was turning the pages so fast, I finished the book in record time. (It only took two days–normally, it’d take me a week.) The ending, like the rest of the book, is honest and moving without being forced. You feel like you know Phoebe and her world intimately and you silently cheer for her as she steps into the next chapter of her life.
The book’s greatest strength, though, is its detailed descriptions of what goes on behind-the-scenes at a four-star restaurant. Did you know, for example, that if you get up to use the bathroom just before they’re about to serve you a hot course, that the chefs will very often throw out your dish and start again so they can serve it to you hot when you get back? (A tip from Phoebe, pg. 103: “In more formal restaurants, let someone know when you are getting up to smoke or to make a phone call. Even better, let them know one course ahead, so the chef doesn’t start your dish until you return.”) This causes trouble the night Frank Bruni arrives: he gets up between every course to go scribble notes in the bathroom–the kitchen is thrown into a frenzy and refires several courses for the remainder of his meal.
The amount of detail and care and effort that goes into serving a four-star meal, as described by Phoebe in her book, is mind-boggling. The different plates and silverware for each course; placing the champagne flutes down so the label on the bottom is at 6 o’clock, it begs the question: is it worth it? And is it really more pleasurable to dine somewhere with such exacting service than somewhere where the mood is more casual and/or relaxed? I’m not quite sure and so Phoebe (who I’ve met twice now along with Andre, who’s charming and shockingly humble for all he’s accomplished) is going to join me next week for a fine-dining lunch so we can explore that very issue. Stay tuned for that.
But until then, I can’t recommend this book enough: it’s funny, entertaining, and moving. What more could you want? Oh yes, and shocking. Wait ’til you get to page 179: I’m still recovering.