It's kind of hard to know what to read after a powerful book such as What Is the What. I wanted to read something with a similar substantial tone, but I wasn’t quite ready for another heady book. One Sunday morning, when the boys woke me up early to watch cartoons with them, I took an opportunity to sample a few pages from each of the books piled on my coffee table. It didn’t take long to get totally hooked by Phoebe Damrosch's Service Included, an account of the author’s time spent as a captain at Thomas Keller's New York restaurant, Per Se.
I had the great fortune to celebrate my most recent birthday at Thomas Keller’s Napa restaurant, The French Laundry. In addition to the outstanding meal, I noticed that the service was different from that which we are accustomed to receiving at higher-end restaurants. Unlike the excellent NYC restaurant, Jean-Georges, where a squadron of servers descends upon your table for every single course, administering sauces, cracking pepper, and applying other touches to your plate that, quite frankly, should have been done in the kitchen, the French Laundry’s service is designed so as not to be noticed. Servers are out of your way, but are also attentive to your needs, trying to anticipate what you might want before you have to ask.
In Service Included, Damrosch writes about taking a position as backserver—serving bread, replacing silverware, refilling water glasses—at Per Se, before the restaurant opens to the public. She details the lengthy training she and the staff receive. Her aptitude earns her a quick promotion to captain, presenting the menu and managing the multitude of servers assigned to a number of tables.
The training is intense. Keller is exacting—always described as a perfectionist—and the stakes are high for his new restaurant’s success. In addition to knowing which silver or crystal to set with particular food, the servers can tell any inquiring diner where the tiles covering the floor came from or who sculpted the statue in Central Park marking their view. And Keller has many rules, such as “No cologne, scented lotions, scented soaps, aftershave, or perfume are to be worn during service,” and “If you’re going to be more than five minutes late for your shift, you must call—even if it means getting off the subway to do so.”
Damrosch is smart and has a great sense of humor, and both qualities clearly come through in her writing. She leaves tips for diners at the end of most chapters, such as “Please do not ask us what else we do. This implies that (a) we shouldn’t aspire to work in the restaurant business even if it makes us happy and financially stable, (b) that we have loads of time on our hand because ours is such an easy job, and (c) that we are not succeeding in another field.”
And, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that there’s a lovely little romance. Damrosch finds herself drawn to a wine captain who has come from The French Laundry to help with the training. The attraction is mutual, even though he’s come to New York with his girlfriend, who also happens to work for Keller. A messy, forbidden affair ensues, and I found myself rooting for Damrosch, who gets the guy in the end.
Service Included is a great read for anyone who dines in restaurants as well as for anyone who enjoys culinary essays, such as Bill Buford’s Heat or Tony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.