Just look at the interior of Per Se. The muted colors and the elegantly simple designs are actually conscious decisions. Thomas Keller, the renowned chef who owns Per Se, wanted an eating establishment where diners focus on the food and not the ambience. There's even none of those annoying pipe-in music. (Somehow, I can't imagine myself eating my light-as-a-feather omelet with truffles while Barry Manilow sings "Mandy" in the background.)
And who wouldn't crave those salmon cornets, which Per Se is most famous for. The cornets are scoops of salmon tartare with chives resting on each cone. The cones are then filled with a red onion crème fraîche. Truly bite-sized pieces of heaven in savory, light pastry.
Anyway, enough about the food and on to the book review. (Notice how I get carried away when I write about food?) Service Included is one wonderfully written memoir. We all know that being part of the service crew isn't at all glamorous. Damrosch goes beyond listing all those brutal truths about being a waiter in a restaurant as well known as Per Se.
In Service Included, Damrosch recounts her training from being a backserver to the only female captain in this restaurant. For those of you not in the know, like myself before I read this book, backservers are people who refill your water glasses, clear plates after every course, and replenish your bread basket. Captains are those who you talk to about the menu and the wine list. Apparently, being a captain is a big deal, as Damrosch recounts in her book. Ultimately, the experience of diners rests heavily on the attention of the captain, other than the food of course.
It's probably Damrosch's background (she has an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence) that makes the descriptions of working in a restaurant so vivid. Damrosch's attention to detail is so remarkable that you can't help but imagine yourself in Per Se and being served those delectable chef tasting menu that can last for more than 3 hours.
There are several funny moments in the book. At one time, the famed New York Times restaurant critic, Frank Bruni, drops by the restaurant and strikes a very lighthearted discussion with Damrosch about scrambled eggs. The discussion is particularly enlightening, as you would read how Per Se takes everything seriously, even in its scrambled eggs.
"You look perplexed, I (Damrosch) observed.Mouth-watering, isn't it? For the meantime, I had to content myself with our usual scrambled eggs at home, which has only two ingredients -- egg and salt.
"I am. What makes these scrambled egs any different from my scrambled eggs? Why would a restaurant of this caliber serve a whole course revolving around eggs?"
I thought about this for a moment. He was right, really. I had never thought to question the custard course. Some of the more virtuosic egg preparations seemed more appropriate: the white truffle-infused custard served in an eggshell or the pickled hen egg with truffle filling made to look like a deviled egg and paired with a tiny truffle "Pop Tart." But a soft-boiled, scrambled, or coddled egg was simply an egg, no matter how much truffle coulis you added. [page 130]
Damrosch writes very interesting information about the restaurant business itself. I never knew that restaurant critics visit a new restaurant three or four times before they write their reviews. Waiters are given seminars on where their ingredients come from, how each dish is prepared, and what wine goes best with each dish. Service Included shows you that, in the end, running a restaurant is analogous to maintaining an art gallery, with the dishes as the artwork to be sold.
And the rules, oh my God, the rules. Damrosch lists very funny points that you should consider every time you eat out:
- Don't try to bribe the host. If there's no table, there's no table.
- Do not pick up your glass when a waiter or sommelier is about to pour something for you. It makes you seem greedy and oblivious.
- Your food is delivered to your table based on where you were sitting when we took your order. When you switch seats, it screws us all up.
- Please don't ask us for cigarettes.
Read this book if:
- You've been a waiter at one point in your life.
- You like eating out.
- You're unfazed when you read a menu in a foreign language.