Sunday, July 11, 2010

Would you be having the specials, today?

For an amateur foodie such as myself, I look forward to reading about restaurants, seventeen-course meals, foie gras, leather-bound wine lists, and Valrhona chocolates. Phoebe Damrosch's memoir, entitled Service Included, about her days as captain of the service crew of Per Se, therefore, was a natural reading choice. I've always been curious about this restaurant; Per Se has been touted as one of the world's best restaurants, earning 4 stars in the New York Times restaurant reviews and 3 stars in the Michelin guide.

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.

"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]
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.

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.
Damrosch has decided to leave the restaurant industry and concentrate more on being a writer. I can't wait as to what kind of book she comes up with next. For now, let's just be content to see the menu at Per Se.

Read this book if:
  1. You've been a waiter at one point in your life.
  2. You like eating out.
  3. You're unfazed when you read a menu in a foreign language.


fantaghiro23 said...

Sounds scrumptious, Peter. Hubby tells me stories about their service trainings at the hotel, and they do sound fascinating and complex.

Love the warning against switching seats, by the way.:)

Peter S. said...

Hi, Honey! I can just imagine how those salmon cornets taste!

C.B. James said...

I'm more an eggs-over-easy kind of guy, but I loved this review. Charming and funny. Thanks.

josbookshelf said...

An inside story of the food service industry---a very different read from what I'm used to. But your review makes this book so interesting. Not only that, it makes me aware now that I am in the mood for a little midnight snacking. :)

Peter S. said...

@C.B. James: Thanks! It was a charming read too!

@josbookshelf: Midnight snacks are good!

Lightheaded said...

Oh goodness, a food book! Those salmon cornets sure look too fancy :) Glad that the writer was able to paint the view from inside the resto. Must be an engrossing read.

Oh you don't add Ajinomoto on scrambled eggs? Hahaha!

Peter S. said...

Lightheaded, good idea on the Ajinomoto thing! We can definitely use more umami!

Stepford Mum said...

Peter, I got hungry just reading this review! And I have Waiter Rant waiting to be read, as well as Nigel Slater's Toast. :)

Peter S. said...

Hi, Stepford Mum! I really enjoyed Waiter Rant! But this book is different. It's more specific to a restaurant. I'm sure you'll love this book too!

Diane said...

Okay....this sounds terrific...I've been a waitress and we love eating out...LOL Thanks Peter

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

I will have the butter poached Nova Scotia Lobster....

Oh sorry..... caught up in the review - I must read this book!

Peter S. said...

Hi, Sheila! It's a fun read!

victor said...

"Read this book if:

1. You've been a waiter at one point in your life.
2. You like eating out.
3. You're unfazed when you read a menu in a foreign language."

I don't qualify as any of the three. But I'm still grabbing a copy. :D

Chachic said...

Hi! Sorry for the totally random comment but I saw your blog in Honey's list of Filipino book bloggers and I was wondering if you'd like to join a directory of sorts that I created? You can learn more about it here: Filipino Book Bloggers :) I'm trying to come up with a comprehensive list of Filipino book bloggers and encourage discussion by posting a topic related to blogging every Friday, where everyone can leave comments.

aloi said...

Yummy! And I wouldn't mind someone waiting hand and foot on me while i scarf it all down.

I just gave your blog an award! Got get it at:

Tina said...

This one looks perfect for our seniors reading group- they love to read non-fiction, good memoirs, and always want unfamiliar settings. Of course, I'LL be drooling over the food. Thanks for a great discovery.

pachuvachuva said...

Peter, write ka naman ulit. I miss your posts.
By the way, for being such a cool blogger, you get this award:

Fickle Cattle said...

Not my type of restaurant, but the book sounds cool.