On Phoebe Damrosch’s “Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter”

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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.

10 comments

  1. ditto what hillary said. I’ll add it to my amazon saves – coincidentally, YOUR book is sitting at the top of my saves right now (which means next purchase for me) and hillary is the one who got me to put it there. what goes around comes around. ;)

  2. Adam, Loved your book and blog. I also read “Service Included” quickly. Not funny like page 179, but a key point in my opinion was her description of the secret of service on pg 74. I think it gets at your point about the label at 6 o’clock. Everything should be coordinated into a whole picture that is perfect, not to intimidate but to make the guest feel perfect; anticipating their needs. Her stories are fun and interesting. Definately a good read.

  3. Thanks for the great recommendation Adam, now I actually have a gift “hint” for Christmas. Maybe my lovely Mom will take the hint and not opt for that really tacky sweater (she doesn’t have a computer!) this time. Sounds like a great read. Can’t wait to hear about that lunch also!

  4. I’m quite impressed with how much you made me want this book in such a short review. That takes talent! I’m adding this to my Amazon list right now.

  5. I agree with your review of the book-it is really great and I had the pleasure of meeting her a few weeks ago. She is working on another book which I don’t know if she wants to reveal the subject of-so I won’t. But she interviewed my mother for it.

    I also want to take this opportuntiy to say that I had written a negative remark about your book last week and I see that it is not in the comments section. Could you be keeping them off your site. I hope not. Take the good with the bad.

  6. i fell down laughing, and i AM eve. I’d just been informed that it was the rage in london by a sometimes gay friend and had to share. Fancy her remembering that. On the whole, the book was very entertaining, and she was very nice about me though I was probably one of the more difficult “guests”

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