Anyone who's ever waited tables will love Phoebe Damrosch's memoir, Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Watier (William Morrow, 228 pages, $22.95). Anyone who dines out a lot will love it, too.
Damrosch set out to be a writer, but like a lot of struggling artists found herself working at a restaurant to pay the bills. Having never done any restaurant work before, she started as a busboy in a little place in Brooklyn that ran on a shoestring.
"I was the only busboy not named Mohammed," she writes. "Here, as in many restaurants around the city, any deviation from the distinct class/race hierarchy makes everyone uneasy. In most New York restaurants, the chef is Caucasian, the waiters are starving artists, the busboys are from Bangladesh, and the kitchen workers and dishwashers are from Latin America...
"I honestly think I was promoted so quickly from busboy to waiter because the chef and the waiters felt uncomfortable asking me to mop up their spills, take out the trash, and clean the windows. I certainly wasn't promoted for my skill or knowledge."
It's these kinds of insights that will keep you reading as she eventually, through determination and luck, lands a job at Per Se in Manhattan, working for famed chef Thomas Keller (the French Laundry in Napa Valley). Just to give you an idea of what Per Se is all about: dinner for two begins at $500, not including wine.
Here are some of the rules for Keller's waitstaff:
Rule #4: No cologne, scented lotions, scented soaps, aftershave, or perfume are to be work during service.
(That one makes sense, as any of those smells would distract from the food.)
Rule #20: When asked, guide guests to the bathroom instead of pointing.
(A nice touch, though could be a little unnerving for guests who don't like a lot of waitstaff attention.)
Rule #32: If you're going to be more than five minutes late for your shift, you must call — even if it means getting off the subway to do so.
(Seems nit-picky, but I bet it gets folks to plan better, so I'm all for it.)
Damrosch writes her own "Tips" at the end of each chapter as well. Some of them are common-sense suggestions, like "Don't send something back after eating most of it." Others are confusing: "Don't try to bribe the host. If there's no table, there's no table." You mean every time I see some rich guy buy off the maitre'd on TV or in a movie, it's wrong? It's considered crass? I love it.
Here's a tip written just for me: "If you want to change the majority of the components in a dish, you might consider choosing something else."
Damrosch does not wait tables anymore. She lives in Harlem with the sommelier she met and fell in love with at Per Se. She apparently now "fills her days writing, wandering city streets, and sneaking into matinees." How do I get that job?