With all the hype about celebrity chefs these days, we tend to overlook one very important component of any restaurant crew – the server. While cheffing is most definitely hard work, it can pay off in cookbooks, endorsement deals, TV shows or at the very least, chef groupies.
No fame and fortune awaits the humble server – the front line contact for any restaurant meal. Yes, servers generally get paid better than kitchen staff, but they’re also the ones who are forced to navigate the choppy waters of unruly customers and egotistical chefs.
Phoebe Damrosch’s Service Included tells the tale of a server at Thomas Keller’s New York restaurant Per Se, dishing the dirt on the goings on front of house where so many others have written about what goes on behind the pass.
While this is Damrosch’s own story, based on her experiences as a server, it is actually the personal bits that drag the book down.
Any foodie will be fascinated by the myriad dishes on Keller’s menu, explained minutely, complete with necessary silverware. The endless testing Damrosch endures in the lead up to Per Se’s opening makes it clear just how professional Keller’s servers are expected to be. Even the slightly gossipy stories about various guests (names omitted) add a note of fun. The book gets draggy when Damrosch begins an affair with a sommelier at the restaurant, delving into relationship quirks and details that have little to do with her job. The pair spend a lot of time eating out and trying new foods, and those details are the only thing that kept me reading through the more personal bits.
What keeps the book fun and light-hearted is the commonsense tips” that come with each chapter, such as “please do not steal your waiter’s pen”, “please do not send back your meal after eating most of it”, etc. The stories that undoubtedly provoked such tips would make the book far more amusing, yet for the most part, they are left out in favour of Damrosch’s retelling of how she regularly read her boyfriend’s email when she thought he was cheating.
An ongoing theme throughout the book, set predominantly during the opening months of Per Se, is the many encounters with New York Times food critic Frank Bruni. Damrosch ended up serving him on four of his six visits to Per Se, and watching the tension melt away into friendly repartee is the only real plotline here.
The book concludes with Damrosch’s decision to leave Per Se, and the restaurant industry as a whole, in favour of a writing career. And although Damrosch says that her decision to leave was not about the restaurant’s policy change regarding tips (management decided tips were to be split more evenly with kitchen staff, who are often underpaid), the timing seems more than co-incidental.
Recommended for foodies and fans of Thomas Keller in particular, but don’t expect to be mesmerized.