I Liked It, Per Se
Since I gave up the word for Lent, I won't say that I'm a foodie. Culinary voyeur is more like it. While my only F&B experience was a summer spent serving Rotary Clubs lukewarm chicken and nearly prosthetic "vegetable medleys" at a hotel in Eastern, Washington, I like to think of myself as a fine dining appreciator. My folks spent years training my sister and me in the art of table manners. Family vacations were planned around dinner reservations and trips to places such as Seattle's Canlis, New Orleans Antoine's, and Berkley's Chez Panisse served as final exams. Unfortunately, we passed. My parents would probably argue we did too well. Inevitably they raised two artsy daughters with tastebuds pricier than their pocketbooks and today my personal version of Charleston Restaurant Week is my folks twice-yearly visits to the city.
I mention all this because my appetite for culinary intrigue extends beyond a dinner at say Husk or FIG. I love to learn about purveyors and farmers, listen to NPR's The Splendid Table, and of course read about food and restaurants. I may be a disaster in the kitchen, but I can’t get enough of the stories behind how a dish got onto a plate. So it was with that in mind that I picked up Phoebe Damrosch's 2007 memoir, Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter. Sure, any waiter could write a book about working in a restaurant, but not Damrosch. She writes about opening and working at Thomas Keller's New York Times four-star restaurant, Per Se.
As Damrosch explains, Per Se opened in 2004 as the sister property to Keller’s The French Laundry. Thanks to Keller’s exacting standards and near mythic reputation as an incomparable chef, prior to opening, staff had to be trained in the true art of service. Damrosch entertains with accounts of memorizing dozens of varieties of salts, taking dance lessons from a famed ballerina to learn to move ones body while waiting tables, and studying the variable types of silverware needed for each magnificent dish. (At the hotel where I worked, we were given a bowtie and told not to spill anything.) Preparation for Per Se’s opening night reminded me of preparing for a play. As Damrosch recounts in the book, menus instead of lines had to be memorized, proper reactions and responses to guests' trying questions rehearsed, and staging determined. Damrosch does an excellent job of narrating the anxiety in preparing to work at the acclaimed restaurant.
“During the course of menu training, we had guest speakers discuss heritage birds and wild mushrooms, the difference between Iranian and Russian caviar, and the ideal brewing techniques for black, green, and white tea.”
The sheer level of training the staff at Per Se receives serves as entertaining fodder in this tell-all.
Alas, the book segues between service and romance as the author details her falling in love with Per Se’s sommelier. And that’s where she lost me. Pheobs! Give me more dirt on the dishing and dining. I don’t care about your twisted romance. Now others may disagree and say a culinary fling speaks more about life in the food and beverage industry than anything else, but for me, her anecdotes about checking her boyfriend’s email and going with him on road trips to Vermont dairies only served to distract me from the real story, like the fact that she waited on New York Times food critic Frank Bruni five times!
So to break it down…(and because I like to keep my book reviews short and sweet)...
High points: Damrosch offers readers a rarely seen glimpse into life behind the menu at one of the world’s best restaurants.
Low points: The storyline takes a turn for As the World Turns when she gets caught up in diary-esque documentation of her torrid Per Se affair.
Bottom line: If you’re like me and the closest you’ll get to eating at Per Se is obsessively browsing their website photo gallery, give this book a go.