Saturday, January 29, 2011

Review: Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter, by Phoebe Damrosch (2008)

Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter by Phoebe Damrosch:
The gentleman on table twenty-three plans to propose and has arranged for us to deliver a Faberge egg at the end of their meal. Proposals are nerve-racking for everyone involved. While terrified lovers contemplate eternity in sickness, poverty, death, or worse, equally anxious servers imagine ruining what might be the high point of these people's lives together, before the bankruptcy, the Botox, and his affair with the life coach.

Synopsis: Vermont foodie girl in NYC discovers joy of restaurant work, four-star food. Falls in love. Writes good book.

At the start of the book, Damrosch is living in the Williamsburg section of NYC, working at a cafe, pining for her downstairs neighbor and making fun of hipsters. In other words, she's a hipster. This does not make her immediately likeable, but it makes for a vivid and wholistic setting, during which you can settle in and discover that Damrosch really knows how to write.

Then she quits her job (and her downstairs neighbor quits her), moves to a different part of NYC and applies for a job at a new four-star restaurant. But this is no ordinary restaurant. In order to successfully keep her job, Damrosch has to attend all-day courses given by the various chefs and sommeliers, memorize long lists of information about not just food but silverware, table linens and Central Park, and then pass tests on those things, just to serve on the floor.

But here's where it gets interesting: in describing this whole process, Damrosch demonstrates she's the perfect candidate for the job because she's batshit insane for food. All food. Any kind of food. She loves the research, she loves the learning, she loves the eating. And that made the book for me.

It was just like if someone came up to me tomorrow and offered me a job whose requirements were that I had to help people read books, and in order to do that, I had to study books intensely: font-faces, paper weight, binding techniques, ink colors, the Dewey Decimal System, biographies, fiction, genre fiction, new releases, reprints and everything in between. I'd be perfect for that job because I am batshit insane on this one particular subject. That's pretty much what happened to Damrosch with food.

The inner workings of Per Se, the restaurant in question, weren't terribly exciting, but Damrosch is a good writer and keeps you briskly moving with how tightly focused she is on food and oh yeah, there's a love story, which I didn't think I'd like nearly as much as I did, considering I have a cold, black cynical heart. But I really enjoyed it.

It's not a perfect book, by any stretch of the imagination--there's a little too much But What About Me navel-gazing where I was sorely tempted to think, "Oh, look. It's Sex and the Kitchy...en." But I didn't, partly because things never get that bad in the story, but mostly because that pun doesn't work. There's a sort of First World privileged gaze going on that was a little hard to stomach, but that's part and parcel of the sort of dining you start talking about with four-star restaurants. Besides, as Damrosch puts it:
We spent money on two things: food and something we soon named 'everyday luxury'. Under this heading fell things like eight-dollar toothpaste. Yes, toothpaste can be had for a quarter of that, but we decided that if it increased our love of life at least twice a day, it was worth it.

It's a hard attitude to swallow during some portions of the book, but Damrosch at least owns up to her privilege and defends it: this is her crazy. This is who she is. This is equivalent to having a house with more than 5,000 books in it. Everyone has their own priorities.

Overall, it's a better memoir than most, but will really only excite people with a serious bent for food and restaurant reading.

And I'm sure I have a couple books like that around here somewhere.

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