Service Included is another insider’s view of the restaurant industry, this time from the wait staffs’ perspective. A co-worker recommended it to me after I mentioned that I loved Kitchen Confidential. Phoebe Damrosch took a job as a busboy and worked her way up to captain at Per Se, one of Thomas Keller‘s New York restaurant.
This book is essentially a collection of Damrosch’s musings about life in the restaurant business: why there are so few women waiters and the challenges of being a female waiter, learning how to serve at a Keller restaurant and how to deal with food critics, and her deepening relationship with a sommelier named “Andre.” Part of Damrosch’s attraction to being a waiter comes from a love of food and experimenting with food, and a lack of motivation to become a writer or work in publishing.
Service Included is an interesting read, but it has convinced me that I don’t want to eat at Per Se or any of Keller’s other restaurants, for two reasons. In spite of the fact that the serving style–generally invisible while anticipating the diner’s needs–would be really off putting for me. Sure, the waiters, especially the captains, are allowed to banter with the customers (which I like), but overall it sounds really fussy to have backservers (less visible wait staff) whisking your used cutlery and plates off after every course and bringing you far too much silverware for the next. (Those of you who know me, know that I prefer to go for the simplest options when it comes for food. If I can use a regular knife to slice up my fish, I’m not going to muck around with a fish knife.) The other thing is the food itself. I like simplicity when it comes to food. I like the natural flavors and textures. Basil and lemon and a bit of salt and pepper is about as far as I feel I need to go with seasonings, most of the time. I want food that’s recognizable for what it’s made of (except for sausage, obviously). I much prefer ethnic foods to foodie experiments. If I ever ate at Per Se or El Bulli, I’d probably spend half of my time laughing and the rest trying to figure out what the hell was on my plate.
And then there’s the cost…Yikes. In one of the middle chapters, Damrosch wonders why some people who are fairly wealthy think that a dinner at Per Se is too expensive. They’d rather buy art or take a trip. I think I know the answer to this one: because the art or the trip lasts longer. A dinner at Per Se will last a few hours, and then it’s over. Granted, you are paying mostly for the experience, but at least the trip will last a couple of days, and the art will stay with you much longer. It’s a bang for your buck thing, I think. When Damrosch wrote that sometimes a meal at Per Se, depending on what you order, can cost up to $20,000, all I could think was that that amount is a significant portion of my yearly income. I expect that Per Se and other luxury restaurants are really taking a hit right now. Yowza. It’s been more than twenty-four hours since I read that, and the amount is still staggering. I realize that a significant portion of the cost is the wine, but still. It’s just staggering.