The Dining Dish blog is Dara Bunjon's take on anything food, both national and in her hometown of Baltimore. Warning: this food blog can be harmful to your waistline.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Service Included - One Book, Two Reviews

One of the "hot" forthcoming books for the fall is Service Included: 4-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter by Phoebe Damrosch. I read the review copy but didn't feel qualified to render a review for the subscribers of the Dining Dish E-Newsletter and the blog. Fortunately I have very talented and savvy Dining Dish subscribers/readers and two volunteered to read the review copy and render their opinions.

Our first reviewer is Barbara Tasch Ezratty. Barbara shares her time living in Puerto Rico and Baltimore. A talented women by anyone standards, she is a food critic in Puerto Rico as well as editor/author of cookbooks featuring What's Cooking - Que Se Cocina En Puerto Rico: An English-Spanish Cookbook, Kids in the Kitchen/Ninos En La Cocina: An English-Spanish Cookbook and The Great Chefs of Baltimore. Barbara also has her own publishing company.

Service Included: 4-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter
by Phoebe Damrosch
in stores September 25th

(William Morrow; $24.95; 240 pages; paperback; ISBN: 978-0-06-1228114-8)

Barbara Ezratty's Review:

Phoebe Damrosch, aspiring writer (at times); living in an apartment above her (ex) boyfriend in Williamsburg (Brooklyn); and out of a job, becomes a busboy (girl) in a funky café, which she describes as “rife with clichés: roaches in the dry goods, mice everywhere, shady finances, messy love affairs, drugs, theft, basement flooding and chefs with a penchant for throwing pots, pans and produce.”

So it’s perfectly natural that after a year of rising above such distractions, she would seek and be awarded with a job on the staff opening New York’s prestigious Per Se Restaurant, an offshoot of California icon chef Thomas Keller’s French Laundry.

Service Included” takes us into the kitchen, dining room, aisles and hallways of Per Se, as Damrosch, as she learns how to be one of the best backservers (waiters) in the business. It also takes her into various bedrooms, until she finds Mr. Right.

But as fascinating as her love life might be, it’s the restaurant rules, disciplines and gossip that have us eating out of her hands. Once she was taught how to walk, stand, bow, and curtsy (they called it “the dance; the grace of serving”) … and learned the uses for assorted glassware, flatware, china and linens… and memorized the history of various foods and their suppliers, and the lineages of GCSB (goat, cow, sheep, and blue cheeses) … and knew each and every detail about the menu, she was ready to take the floor. Oh, almost: she also learned that “the secret to service is not servitude, but anticipating desire.”

For instance, when the New York Times critic arrived for his second visit with three tablemates, they each ordered separately from the Extended Chef’s Tasting menu, which totaled about 20 courses and close to 80 different dishes. Phoebe pulled it off.

Per Se is not a restaurant most people will pop into for lunch. But those who can afford lavish luxury become regulars. One sentence sticks with me: “some regulars spent $20,000 on their first visit.” And yes, that is enough to get them to the top of the lengthy reservations list each subsequent time they call.

But then again, look at what they get. Starting with Damrosch’s Diners Bill of Rights: the right to
1) Have your reservation honored;
2) Water;
3) Food ordered at the temperature the chef intended;
4) A clean, working bathroom;
5) Clean flatware, glassware, china, linen, tables and napkins;
6) Enough light to read a menu;
7) Hear a dining companion when they speak;
8) Be served until the restaurant’s advertised closing time;
9) Stay at your table as long as you like; and
10) Salt and pepper.

The fresh flowers are nice too. As is the sterling silverware. And an incredible wine list. All of this and total commitment by the wait staff.

In “Service Included,” Damrosch quotes a chef as saying “In an American breakfast of bacon and eggs, the chicken was involved but the pig was committed.” Damrosch says “This is a story about commitment to food, service, love, perfection and to being the bacon.”

Our second reviewer is veteran cookbook author, Linda West Eckhardt who possesses that rare quality known as voice. Linda is funny, authoritative, and unique both as a personality and a cooking talent. In addition to winning the James Beard Award, for Entertaining 101, Linda also won the Julia Child IACP Award for her innovative book, Bread in Half the Time, 1991 which was not only named the Best Cookbook in America for 1991, but also the best book on the subject of baking for that year.

In addition to a busy schedule writing books and magazine pieces, she co-hosts the national radio show “Don’t Talk with your Mouth Full” with Jennifer English on The Food and Wine Radio Network, nominated for a James Beard prize in 2002, and teaches monthly Master Classes at A Cook's’ Table, Baltimore, Md, as well as teaching in cooking schools from coast to coast and managing a small group of select food public relations clients.

Linda Eckhardt's Review:

Books about food have begun to climb not only to the best seller lists, but to lists of the Best by such luminaries as the editors at the New York Times. We’ve heard from the back of the house from chefs, see Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, we’ve begun to think deeply about food, see The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, and even the essayist David Foster Wallace chose a discursive bit on the plight of the lobster in the boiling water to head up his latest collection. But a waiter? How could a member of the front of the house staff cobble together enough words to make up a book?

Phoebe Damrosch, who, by her own admission, is not a painter/actor/artist who must earn her keep as a waiter, but rather the other way round, is a waiter who feels the urge to write it all down. And write she has. Miss Phoebe was one of the original wait staff at Thomas Keller’s Per Se, when it opened in the New York Time Warner Center. She was there for it all. The grueling training, the fire that shut the place down, the reviews by the big guns. And through it all, Miss Phoebe rose from bus person to Captain with a remarkable alacrity and managed in the process to create a book that I, personally, could not put down.

The book follows the expected memoir/confessional pattern that has fueled such books as the Devil Wears Prada with one notable exception. Miss Damrosch can actually write, and think. If you’ve ever wondered just exactly what’s at stake for a big restaurant when a notable reviewer, say Frank Bruni, of the New York Times, drops in, here’s your book. There is so much at stake, and the reviewer has so much power, that its quite mind boggling to read about.

But this book points up one thing clearly. The restaurant world is big business, and requires an army to keep it running. People, product, and beyond all that, a philosophy. You will learn a lot about Thomas Keller reading this book. But perhaps, more importantly, you’ll look at the wait staff in the next restaurant you go to, with a newfound respect. I recommend this book unreservedly.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Cheez-It Tour

I was asked to help promote Cheez-It Crackers with their "BIG CHEESE" taste this weekend. My gig was to talk about the amazing 700 pound block of cheddar cheese that was carved by a Wisconsin cheese carver, Troy Landwehr into Mt. Rushmore. The carving is on a 15 day road trip in a brightly colored semi that has clear side walls.

Simple gig, talk the Cheez It talk and hand out samples. Like in life, things don't always run smoothly. My samples didn't arrive as well as my Cheez It t-shirt. So out to get bulk snack packs of Cheez It's - 500 packages. Another call, one of the walls of 1 lb Cheez Its on the truck had fallen down, could I, would I, go buy 100 boxes of Cheez Its and meet the touring truck at the Baltimore Farmer's market at 6:30 a.m. and rebuild the wall.

I had no problem with the snack packs but that warehouse store didn't carry the 1 lb boxes so off to Giant Food. I went to the service desk to see if they had cases of the 1 lb boxes. I heard her tell the other staff on the phone 1 lb off course they came out with the wrong size.
Okay, so now I went to the shelf and took every box that was in good shape off their shelves, 62--I counted them. I went to the service desk thinking it wise with such an unusual check out. The original young lady wasn't there and I was directed to take it through the regular check out line.

I proceeded to tell them I have 62 boxes. I was ask to put all the boxes on the conveyor belt where she scanned each box and more. They had charged me for 65 boxes. I told them to take 3 boxes off. No, they credited the whole thing and the supervisor with one box kept going by the scanner 62 times. What a chore and what an inane situation. Later that day I went to Shoppers where I picked up the 38 boxes. The checker counted the boxes and enter 38 times the price. Simple. Meantime Shoppers was having a sale at $2.50 and I paid $4.19 at Giant. If this is tedious reading you should have lived it. Now getting everything in my car and out of my little Corolla.

Out the door at 6:15 a.m to meet the truck at the Farmers Market. They ask him to move from the Saratoga street entrance to the Fallways entrance where he couldn't go because the truck was too tall. So everyone was staring at each other and I finally said, let's go back to Saratoga Street. Then once there to back in and then to move because the motor of the truck was driving the flower vendor crazy.

As Kenneth, the driver, and I tore down the wall of Cheez Its we had to store them and then load the 100 boxes. Kenneth and I both worked on gluing the boxes. When Kenneth had everything under control I went home for a bit and then off to meet the truck at the Bowie Walmart and then on to the Glen Burnie Walmart.

Pour Abe Lincoln's face was melting, or let's say compressing...he actually reminded me of a friend of mine.

We went through 1/2 the samples in no time flat but Kenneth had found some extra in storage. It was fun interacting with most the people, money was earned and I picked up some steamed crabs as my reward. Always a foodie ending.

You can see a picture of the Cheese Mt. Rushmore at this link


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