One of my 2019 New Year's resolutions is to read two books per month, 24 for the year. I'm really excited about my progress; I just started book 21!
#20 was Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter by Phoebe Damrosch. I learned about the book in a magazine and quickly added it to my Goodreads app. I went into Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA to pick up a copy and though they didn't have it, they were happy to order it for me.
The book is Damrosch's account of being a member of the opening team at Chef Thomas Keller's restaurant Per Se in New York City. As someone who dines out almost every night of the week, I was fascinated by how the staff was trained. Everything from napkin placement to when to bring the check is carefully choreographed.
My favorite excerpt is on page 74, "The secret to service is not servitude, but anticipating desire. This occurred to me in the plenty of time I had to eavesdrop, while marking tables and refilling water glasses. If I overheard something important - that the guests were getting full, that they had a babysitter at home, or that he preferred fruit desserts to chocolate - I reported it to the captain. The captain might then ask whether they still wanted the cheese course, box up some macaroons for the babysitter, or switch the guest's dessert without his having to ask. This had nothing to do with obeying commands of the sort of demanding customer who snaps fingers from across the room. Garcon! Miss! This was about the art of careful observation and the intimacy of knowing what someone wants before he does."
Isn't that so true? The best dining out experiences always involve an attentive server who seems like a mind reader.
My favorite chapter in the book was called "I can hear you" about the most outrageous (or famous) guests Damrosch interacted with during her time at the restaurant. She also details the experience of hosting The New York Times food critic, Frank Bruni, and the friendship they formed during that song and dance.
To add even more intrigue, Damrosch falls in love at work. She and one of the sommeliers, André, navigate working together and eventually, living together. Some of the funniest lines in the book come from their flirtatious exchanges.
Each chapter closes with a pro tip for diners. One of her recommendations is, "If you want to change the majority of the components in a dish, you might consider ordering something else." This made me laugh out loud (on a plane) because this is my mother.
If you love the experience of a great meal in a restaurant, you will devour this book. It feels like being a fly on the wall in one of the top kitchens in America. Damrosch describes the salmon cornets, one of the signature courses at Per Se, in such delicious detail it made me want to eat fish again.