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Service Included – a memoir of food and love

I received an advance reader’s copy of Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter by Phoebe Damrosch from Harper Collins for review at the end of the summer. Unfortunately, it got put in the wrong stack of books, and I just now rediscovered it. I’m very disappointed I didn’t read it earlier. Update! Service Included is on the NYT list of top 100 books for 2007!

I don’t want to pigeon hole Service Included into one category. It is a story about a woman’s experience as a “Captain”, or one of the main waitresses, in a four star restaurant in NYC. However, she isn’t a waitress to support another artistic career – she’s there because she’s in love with the food It’s also the story of a woman falling in love with a man who joins her in her food love affair, and brings the wine. This is a non-fiction book that reads as smoothly as a novel.

If you wanted a recipe for Service Included, I would say that it’s got a splash of Kitchen Confidential, a few pinches of Cooking for Mr. Latte, and a twist of Garlic and Sapphires. There’s a secret ingredient in there, too – Phoebe Damrosch’s perspective and personality, which makes everything “just right”.

Memoirs in general can be very tricky. Food-based memoirs especially so – you can lose readers if you talk over their head, or if you talk down to them. Some readers will roll their eyes at a page-long discussion about salt types, where others with luxuriate in it. Damrosch’s self-deprecating attitude and obvious love of the topic makes Service Included shine. I was reading quotes to my unsuspecting husband only a few pages into the first chapter. I felt an immediate connection to Damrosch from the beginning when she discussed drooling over The French Laundry Cookbook, and feeling guilty about her love of food porn. Given that I take pictures of my dinners and recipes, I could relate – I love good food porn in cookbooks or food magazines!

I have had a dream of working in a restaurant – I always pictured myself as either a line cook or a sous chef. I’ve spent far too time reading food memoirs, watching Food Network, and reading cookbooks. Unfortunately, with Celiac Disease, it’s unlikely I’d ever be able to work in a restaurant, so it’s great to get a peek inside without having to do the work! Damrosch gives us an in-depth description of the training to be a part of the Thomas Keller restaurant Per Se from the orientation (“I drank the Kool-aid”) and opening. She continues with an intriguing look at what it is like to be the almost invisible server at a restaurant that has a two month wait for reservations, and yet has regulars, including some who come for lunch and dinner in the same day.

I was drooling at the idea of a 7 course tasting menu, with no duplicated ingredients, but I was feeling somewhat disappointed that I couldn’t experience this joy, given the anti-allergy opinions of other chefs. I was overjoyed to read that Per Se will make gluten-free bread, and asks if anyone has any allergies at the beginning of the meal experience. It was once I knew that I could eat there (you know, if money starts growing on our bushes), that I fell in love with Service Included even more. Damrosch’s point of view on allergies is refreshing – she dislikes people saying they are “allergic” to foods simply because they dislike them, but she is happy to help the kitchen accommodate any real allergies, as well as personal tastes.

I was fascinated to see that the book started with the Diner’s Bill of Rights – the things to which each diner is entitled. As we read on, we find parts of the rule book from Per Se, and the rationale behind the rules. While Rule #4 seems pretty obvious: “No cologne, scented lotions, scented soaps, aftershave, or perfume are to be worn during service.” We want to smell the food, not the server! Rule #25 seems excessive:

Hair must be cut above the ears.

  • A. Women’s hair must be neatly arranged off face
  • B. Everyone’s hair must remain as it was when hired (Rule #27 explains that the same goes for facial hair

I was boggled by this apparently obsessive micromanagement until I read Damrosch’s explanation:

Of all the rules, 25(b) was the most fascinating to me. I was beginning to understand what the management meant when they spoke of “image”. They didn’t hire someone with pink hair or a scraggly goatee, so they wanted to make sure they didn’t get stuck with one later.

Damrosch might have drunk the Kool-Aid to become a follower of Thomas Keller, but her attitude remains intact. Her snarkiness is also much appreciated – when describing the dining experience at Per Se, she calls her example couple “Mr. and Mrs. Bichalot”. When discussing a failed relationship, she muses, “He was very sweet and very attractive, but he was also a Republican ex-Marine who watched football on television. That didn’t work for about four reasons.”

Food is always connected to love – starting when our parents and grandparents feed us in childhood. How many people practice a dish before cooking it for a date? Or dither for days about where they want to bring their date. Damrosch discusses her unsuccessful relationships and gently introduces us to, and describes falling in love with, her partner. We can follow their relationship (complete with embarrassing anecdotes of Phoebe reading his email!) from first crush to an ongoing relationship.

After reading Garlic and Sapphires, books by Jeffry Steingarten, reading a Per Se review, and growing up as the daughter of a restaurant reviewer, I was fascinated to see the other side – what does the restaurant do in order to prepare for a review? How much can you coddle a reviewer without him or her knowing? How strained does the tension become waiting for the reviewer to arrive? And yes, they really did post pictures of the New York Times reviewer in the kitchen!

I feel privileged and exultant to have been allowed behind “employees only” door of the restaurant, and invited out to one of the late-night bars after work with the Per Se crew via Service Included. I may never work in a restaurant, but I have a much better understanding of what is going on behind the scenes, and have tips on what to do as a diner and what to absolutely avoid.

I’m so glad that Phoebe Damrosch decided to stop waitressing and write Service Included – its a wonderful love story, a wonderful food story, and simply a wonderful book. If you don’t usually like non-fiction, pick this one up and read it as if it were a novel – it isn’t anything like the dry nonfiction out there – Damrosch has made this food memoir nice and juicy.

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