Four Star Secrets Tolerable Only to Foodies

service-included-cover.jpg Service Included: Four Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter, by Phoebe Damrosch, is probably in my top most misleadingly named books of all time. When I first read the title, I assumed it would be a gossip-filled spelunk into the dark dinner-discussion secrets of those rich enough to drop over a thousand dollars on one meal. Something like this has it’s appeal to us hoi polloi—lord knows I would jump at the chance to sit for a meal at a 4-star restaurant (but I would probably want to take a crash course in etiquette first), and reading a book about the people who take what Thomas Keller dreams up for granted is not without its draw.

What this fanciful Imagineering leads me to is simply that this memoir is not about the secrets of the insanely rich—Damrosch reveals nary an eavesdrop— instead it focuses on the author’s personal bumbling journey through waitressing, life, and love. The title instead highlights the backdrop against which we see her life unfolding.

Damrosch began waitressing in a trendy Brooklyn café and sundry other eating establishments. When it opened, she landed a job at the Manhattan offshoot of Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, Per Se, by pure chance. From the moment she first dons the Armani Per Se tuxedo, Damrosch’s entire life begins to center around the restaurant. Don’t get me wrong—working at Per Se is clearly not the same as working at Heliopolis Greek Style Family Diner. For one thing, the wait staff goes through a several-week training period, during which they get a crash course in everything from the varieties of sparkling versus still water, to the history of the Central Park overlook that Per Se enjoys. They have 401(k) plans, health and dental benefits, and make enough money to afford living in Manhattan. The job demands close attention to detail and significant study, which I have to admit I never expected, and which I ended up finding fascinating.

Damrosch waxes long on the intricacies of serving meals that she deems the culinary equivalent to the Sistine Chapel, and this becomes somewhat tedious after awhile. How interesting are the inter-personal relationships between captains and backservers, anyway, (Tables at Per Se are served by teams of backservers, sommeliers, bread-boys, bus-boys, cheese connoisseurs, and others, headed by captains)?

What are of interest though, when they appears, are her reflections on sociological implications of many aspects of high-class dining. For example, she notes that female servers rarely make the same in tips as their male counterparts—tips are called “palms,” and she says it is not unusual for male servers to make $700 in a single night, where a female would be lucky to come away with $200. She supposes the reason is that for a high-society man to palm a female server seems just a little too much like leaving a tip on the dresser. It breeds resentment from his female companions, and upsets the dynamic between the servers and the diners in a restaurant of this caliber. The servers pride themselves on becoming intimate with the patrons; Damrosch considers her job well done when she can anticipate their desires and fulfill them before they are even requested. For a man to give her a significant palm, it shatters the almost maternal bond they have developed over the course of the evening, where a male server’s relationship here would have been more master/slave, the palm resulting from the guest’s discomfort with that dynamic.

Of course, this is all pretty deep for a single meal of several hours and several hundred dollars. However, Damrosch tells this story simply and often with humor. She offers tips for getting along with the wait staff: “Please do not send something back after eating most of it,” “Please do not steal your waiter’s pen,” “Do not ask us to microwave your wine.”

Perhaps because so much of her time is spent there, even Damrosch’s love life becomes embroiled in her career at Per Se; she becomes involved with one of the sommeliers and a good portion of the book is dedicated to their relationship’s ups, downs, and impediments. The book is at its core a memoir, and the point is to tell a story of personal growth. Damrosch’s growth is one of maturation and realizing the complexities of relationships, both romantic and platonic. The setting in a highly structured and demanding environment, almost militaristically so, provides her with stability and responsibility, and requires her to deal with the consequences of her action (or inaction) more so than her previous life. It is in this reading of the memoir that I got the most from it—and it took me a little while to get past what I expected from the book in order to appreciate what it delivered.

However, the book meanders and diverges off the path to Damrosch’s self-realization into deep and pointless intricacies of 4-star restaurant life. If I were to draw a picture to represent the story, it would be like a sprawling middle-of-nowhere city on a lonely highway—a tumor of streets leading off, but eventually leading back to the only road that goes anywhere. Unless you have an unholy interest in pursuits culinary, (like me) these side roads aren’t terribly interesting or thought-provoking. And they are legion. They should probably make you want to save up ($500 per person, give or take) and eat at Per Se one day, but again, unless you’re me, you’ll forget about this desire and continue on with a normal and happy life.

Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: William Morrow (September 25, 2007)

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