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.
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;
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.”
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:
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.