BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Secrets, yes ... not so much eavesdropping, though ...

This is another of those culinary-themed books that I lucked into at the Dollar Store down by my daughter's college in Urbana. As I've noted before (and, I suppose, it's just part of the mystery of books coming into that particular after-market), I have no idea why there were a half a dozen appealing food-industry books there on that day, but there they were, and I was not going to pass up walking out of there with something around $150 worth of reading for a measly five bucks!

Aside from the cookbooks obtained in that haul, this was the last of these that I've gotten around to reading … not that I was avoiding it or anything (this ain't G.E.B. for instance), it just took a bit longer to “fit into” what was appealing for me to read. Frankly, this may have gotten moved up the to-be-read queue due to a slight oddity that I found over on Amazon regarding it. I will, on occasion, take a peek at the ratings over there to see what I might be getting myself into (after all, the purchase decision process at the Dollar Store is a very basic “does this look like it's worth a buck?”). Typically, there will be something of a consensus, at least as to what end of the five star scale a book ends up, but this … this was different. At first glance, it looks like the 96 people who had rated it fell evenly across the star options … and even in specifics, it's pretty close, ranging from a low of 17% giving it 2 stars, to a high of 23% giving it 5. I have been known to go to a movie “just to see what a Tribune 5-star rating looks like” (as they rarely grant more than 3), and I was fascinated to see what might have created this very odd even distribution of ratings.

That said, Phoebe Damrosch's Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter was a quite enjoyable read. I don't typically do star ratings on books (as, in non-fiction, there are so many variables … a book might be highly informative but written horribly, or be engaging yet poorly designed, etc., etc., etc. … that it makes it difficult for me to come up with a single number), but I'd guess I'd be pretty much like the Tribune's movie reviews – unless it has totally blown me away, it's not getting five stars – so I'm guessing this would have been in my rankings somewhere in the 3-4 star range.

The longer I'm exposed to the publishing biz, the more I'm aware of how the title/subtitle of a work is more likely in the hands of the marketing department than the author/editors … which goes a long way to explaining how aggravated I often get in expecting one thing from a book, yet ending up with something, in the words of Monty Python, “completely different” {kindly indulge me in a bit of a more wandering aside than I'm given to … I recently had feedback from an author, whose book – which I'd complained about not reading for years because of its title – had originally been called "Propinquity" (the name I'd have given it), but had been re-titled with a 20-word title/subtitle which had “sales in the title for SEO reasons” … sheesh!}. Frankly, in that spread of star ratings over on Amazon (yes, I peeked at some of the reviews), many of the folks giving it lower ratings were evidently really anticipating some juicy “Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter” as promised in the subtitle.

Honestly, aside from some a handful of restaurant reviewers, chefs, and restaurateurs, I don't recall any name-dropping here, which seems to have been a deliberate choice, as she notes that she only “altered a few names and incriminating details” amid “the truth according to my memory”, so this is hardly a “plate and tell” (to possibly coin a phrase) tale. The book is both more mundane, and ultimately informative than that … it is a none-too-uncommon tale of somebody coming out of school with an English major and looking for a means of surviving in the world. Damrosch admits:
I suppose I could have found a job in publishing like a good English major, but as far as I was concerned, offices were dusty, stagnant, and badly lit.
She had several jobs, including an awesome-sounding one as a nanny for a very wealthy family, but wasn't inspired to stay with any of them for an extended length of time. When out of a job at one point, her ex-boyfriend suggested she apply at the small neighborhood cafe where he worked … which she did, initially for a busboy position, but quickly (she goes into details on the ethnic sorting of restaurant staff), as a college-educated white female, ended up in other places on the organizational chart.

I don't have many of my little bookmarks in here, but two are up front in her description of her early years in food service, which I felt stood out as bright red flags pointing out that “this is an English major's story”, this describing a co-worker:
This guy was a rare case: an actor who loved the restaurant business and was taking a break from performing to devote himself to waiting tables. Unfortunately, you can take the actor out of the performance, but you can't take the performance out of the actor, and watching this guy explain the menu as if he were Henry V on St. Crispin's Day sent me fleeing from the dining room on many an occasion.
Trust me, if you're an English major (or theater junky) that's hilarious. Equally so, in a bit about her trying to do some highly complicated recipes out of her eventual employer's cookbook (The French Laundry Cookbook by Chef Thomas Keller, creator of The French Laundry restaurant in California, and Per Se in New York), there's this:
The book recommends working on the open door of your oven, to keep the batter warm enough to work with. So I knelt before the open oven, realizing that despite years of English classes, I could not recall a single poem by Sylvia Plath.
It does seem to be something of a stroke of luck that the author managed to land a gig as part of the pre-launch staff for Keller's new Per Se, as it sounds that this was “well beyond her pay grade” in terms of her experience. She had, however, developed a fixation on Chef Keller and his cuisine, and had, at a restaurant she'd worked at after a return from France (yes, I am skipping quite a bit of detail), waited on him at one point, only to have been flummoxed by the query of one of the party as to what kind of persimmons were being featured in one dish on the menu … Keller was very driven to have quite specifically sourced ingredients, and it probably helped to have Damrosch aware of that when she boned up for he interview (a process which included getting, and poring over, the aforementioned cookbook, which came in handy when she was able to recite details about the Chef's California flagship).

The meat of the book, however, is the intimate details of the operation of a four-star top-tier restaurant … from the “rules” (of which there were dozens, with such minutia covered as #4 - “no scented products” or #20 “guide guests to the washrooms”) … an interesting aspect here is that many of these are reproduced as blockquotes throughout the text. Another design element that I found engaging was the “A TIP” sections that come at the ends of chapters, which basically address the dining public with suggestions of what to do or not do at a restaurant … one of these got a bookmark from me: “If you want to change the majority of the components in a dish, you might consider choosing something else.”,, which just screams arising from much frustration. Of course, this material comes from the function of Per Se, which had dinner checks that were in the hundreds if not thousands of dollars, which is certainly not “everywhere” … but the details, and attention to detail are pretty remarkable. What's also remarkable, is that they end up with that maximum review right off the bat.

One of the sub-themes here (there are several that I'm not going into, including an on-going relationship with one of the author's co-workers, and the emotional complications involved in that) is the process of getting that rating from The New York Times and their new restaurant critic, Frank Bruni. It is amazing how important those stars are for these upper echelon eateries, and so the whole cat-and-mouse game (the reviewers really want to be as anonymous as possible to be able to get a “fair reading” of the dining experience – with some going to great, and sometimes ridiculous, lengths to avoid being recognized) is very much a “blood sport” in the industry.

I had really hoped to have peppered this review with snippets of the details, but there is so much in here (both in terms of the workings of a super-deluxe restaurant and on the food stories interwoven through the book, from the specifics of some of the suppliers to the meals had by the author in other contexts) that I found it impractical. Also, as mentioned, I've skipped a lot of the “personal” story with the author's background, and relationships. This is not an inconsequential aspect to the book (which ends with the telling of a dinner that she and her beau “André” had at Per Se some time after both of them had left there to pursue other opportunities, including four pages of the menus that each of them had on that occasion).

Again, I was quite engaged with Service Included, but I'm a “foodie” who was fortunate in the early years of my career to be in a position where I got to eat in places like Per Se (although it came along much later), so it was a fascinated look “behind the curtain”. Needless to say, if you are uninterested in food, and the upper reaches of the culinary world particularly, this is likely to be less an entertaining read for you. Without the “food porn” (or “voyeuristic” peeks into the restaurant) aspects, this does devolve into a fairly mundane story: “English major works as waiter in New York”, so if you're not viscerally responsive to the description of dishes with a hundred bucks of truffles in them, you might not get as much enjoyment out of reading this as I did.

This is still in print in a paperback edition, so could be obtained from your local brick & mortar book vendor. As noted, I got a copy of the hardcover in the Dollar Store (not terribly long ago, so it is possible that some copies might still be kicking around that channel), but the on-line big boys have “like new” used copies for as little as a penny plus shipping … if you're into the high-end restaurant world (even if just vicariously), you'll probably like this.

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Tags: book review
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