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Service Included: Book Review

January 10, 2011

Service Included: Four Star Secrets of An Eavesdropping Waiter
Phoebe Damrosch
William Morrow 2008 227 pages.

I love good foodie lit, whether fiction or nonfiction. Caressing descriptions of really good food, written by the obsessed yet articulate. I love the gossip of the kitchen and the restaurant behind the scenes (though Anthony Bourdain’s description of brunch was so raunchy and disturbing it put me off brunch buffets permanently.)

Even so… Phoebe Damrosch’s chronicle of being a waiter at Per Se, Thomas Keller’s very swanky restaurant, was hard to get my head around in spots. Not Damrosch’s fault. Her writing is clear and conversational. Every food she described was evoked almost well enough to taste… without making me feel forlorn that I didn’t get to eat it.
Part of that was the food itself. Per Se and Thomas Keller’s West Coast restaurant are in the stratosphere of food culture. The kind of place where dinner could run to a tab of thousands of dollars, with fancy foie gras and wine and truffle oil. Working there required a several weeks’ long training course, after which there was still more to learn, as the complex menu changed nearly every day.
That’s a level of commitment I admire even as I am not sure I can quite get my head around committing to dinner at that level. It seems cultish to participate in such an experience, as either a waiter or an eater. Unforgettable, sure, but… cultish. And overwhelming.

As much as I enjoyed the level of description, the way Damrosch evoked her learning curve and her experiences waiting tables at Keller’s restaurant, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with it until one of the later chapters in the book, where she acknowledged:

Sometimes, when I had a moment’s pause, I looked out over the dining room at the sculptural desserts, the woven silver breadbaskets, the elaborate napkin fold, and wondered how something as simple as eating had come to this… I often thought of the contrast, and the absurdity, of rattling off the names of the cows that produced the milk used to make the butter while standing in the concrete jungle of New York City.

Until she acknowledged the sheer strangeness of such meticulous and performative cuisine, I’m not sure I had bought into her story completely. Although her prose is friendly, clear, her images easily visualized, the level of food culture she’s part of seemed more alien than foreign. The jacket copy gives a nod to Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, but that seems like an overly facile comparison. The moods of the two books differ wildly. Damrosch seems like straight reporting, an unadorned memoir. By contrast, Bourdain seems like a likable delinquent kid, raising hell just to shock. Both are fun, of course, but they tell their stories for different reasons.

For every book I read in 2011, I’m donating $1 to the New York Public Library.

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