Saturday, February 13, 2010

a review of "Service Included" [12]

Service Included- Four Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter by Phobe Damrosch
(Harper, ISBN 978-0-06-122814-8)

I must say, I had great hopes for this book. I watch the Food Channel, I watch Top Chef. I find all that behind the scene restaurant stuff of great interest..not to mention I love good food. Restaurants, and kitchens in particular, seem places fraught with conflict and drama...not to mention great food. So when the author, Ms. Damrosch, promises to reveal to the reader the "sometimes shocking experiences in the fascinating, frenetic, highly competitive world of fine dining", the hook was set. Add to that the silver label on the cover, from the NY Times, calling it "A Notable Book of the Year" and I was all ready to love it. Sadly, for me, these promises were not really fulfilled.

Ms. Damrosch, a graduate of Barnard College, with an MFA from Sarah Lawrence, finds she hates working in an office and gets a job working in a neighborhood coffee place and then a few restaurants, working her way up to the job of waiter. Finally, after a relatively brief time, she snags a job at the very famous and very expensive, four star Per Se restaurant, that the famous chef Thomas Keller was opening in NYC. For me, that was the most interesting part of the book. The training of the staff, the classes, the tests, was all much more than I every would have expected. Some of the few glimpses we get at the steps to designing and setting up such a restaurant were entertaining, if presented in a rather dry and even detached way.
But when the author diverts off to long and involved discussions about her love life, including her romance with a sommelier from the restaurant, I am afraid she lost whatever interest I had. The fact that he was living with another woman during most of their relationship did not give me great hope for their future either.

One always hear that restaurants, behind the scenes, are high pressure places, full of a lot of passion and drama, but we see very little of that in this book. Everyone seems to get along just fine, the conflicts are few, problems all nicely worked out. She has only great things to say about the owner, Mr. Keller, the training is wonderful, most of the people she worked with are helpful professionals. Sure, there are a few problem customers, but it seems she is very unwilling to name names..or even give any hints...about their often very rich and very famous customers. It seems Ms. Damrosch did not want to burn any bridges or upset anyone she had worked with or worked for, which I guess is understandable. But then don't promise "shocking" behind the scene details. In fact, maybe you shouldn't decide to write a book at all.

Per Se sounds like quite the restaurant, very beautiful, with a level of cuisine that might just be beyond something I, or most people, can appreciate. Paying in the range of maybe $500-$1000 for a meal, per person, just seems a bit too much. Meals for four that go as high as $20,000...yes, $20,000, as Damrosch mentions several times, is just more than I can take in. Does that come with a car or something? Actually, it strikes me a rather obscene, no matter how wonderful the food is and how well trained the waiters are.

Parts of this book were rather interesting. The description of the training, the various jobs that employees and wait staff in a restaurant of this level hold and how they all interact was something I had no idea was so complicated. The chapter about all the preparation and concerns over the expected visits to the new restaurant from the NY Times restaurant reviewer were sometimes amusing. But the nice description of the review and his visits did make me wonder about a possible connection to that "Most Notable" label on the cover that the NY Times provided. Am I too cynical?

The descriptions of the menu and some of the dishes were at times intriguing. But they also became at times rather bizarre. Is it really necessary to know the breed of cow the cheese was made from and what grasses and grains the cows eat or the range of the "free-range" chicken? Do customers really ask this sort of thing? Well, maybe for $20,000 they do. But I am afraid they lost me along the way. And when she move on to great detail about her personal life and loves in the second half, she lost me all together.

If Damrosch had delivered on the story she promised, an amusing, eye-opening, and sometimes shocking behind the scene view of a major four-star restaurant, it could have been a great book. As it is, "Service Included" is at best a quick read that gives a fairly interesting story of the training of the staff of a very high end restaurant and a glimpse of a world I certainly do not live in.

This is my contribution this to this week's Weekend Cooking.
"Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend."
Be sure to check out the other entries this week. As always, hosted by Beth Fish Reads.


  1. Drat! I really was hoping this book would live up to the hype. I loved Kitchen Confidential and thought this would be along those lines. Still, I may borrow it from the library and skim though. I'd love to read about the training.

    I don't think I'll be eating there any time soon; $20,000 for four is a bit much -- but imagine the tips!

  2. wonderfully honest review!!

    I had not heard of this book before, but I think I will see if it is available from my local library. It sounds like it is at least worth a quick skim.

    As a side note - I think $20,000 for a meal is ludicrous! That equates to a very nice down payment on a home where I live.

  3. Hi!
    Great review with lots of info. Thanks for sharing. $20,00 is totally too much money even for the best food!!

    Just Books

  4. Well, dang. I was hoping this would be another Kitchen Confidential, too. (I loved that book.) I suspect your review is a lot more interesting than the book. You gave us a hint of intrigue here with your suspicions about the NY Times. Thanks for sparing me the cost of the book.

  5. yes, I think it is worth a skim, if just for the parts about the training, which is comprehensive to say the least.
    but then if I am paying thousands of $$, they darn well better give me the right spoon and keep that water glass filled!

    Yes, the tips. actually, they were included...hence the title... and I believe Keller was starting something to share them with all the staff, including the kitchen staff, to equalize the pay of the front and back of the house. But still....

  6. I was hoping this book would be better too. The concept is certainly intersting!

  7. I love food memoirs, but sounds like this one is no Kitchen Confidential. That's disappointing...!

  8. as is my habit, I read some reviews over at Amazon after I finished writing mine and a lot of them mentioned that this is not Kitchen Confidential.

    Now, I have not read Kitchen Confidential but I thing I should!

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  10. Well I had high hopes for that book, too. You really should try Kitchen Confidential!

  11. Wow-that is a rather extravagant for a meal.

    here is my entry. (Italian Mushroom Pockets)

  12. sounds like fun but yeah- those prices! I'm assuming that includes alcohol and I wouldn't be surprised if the really high prices are for really expensive wine. but still. i remember a restaurant I looked into going to in Las Vegas was like $300 a person-without wine! We found a more affordable- but still nice- place that night! Oy. I can't believe that sometimes! :-)

  13. What a wonderfully written review. If you came to visit, I would feed you the molten volcano cakes with icecream and coffee or tea at no charge.

  14. Mr. Jenners read this book (he loves books in this genre) and wasn't too impressed with it either. If you haven't read it yet, a better book of this ilk is "The Fourth Star: Dispatches from Inside Daniel Boulud's Celebrated New York Restaurant" by Leslie Brenner.

    And it is OBSCENE to spend $500 for a meal ... let alone $20,000.

  15. thanks, I will have to check that book out.

    I can't get that $20,000 out of my

  16. Maria, yes, I am sure that included some very expensive wine...but that does not make me feel better.

    Heather, now where do you live? lol

  17. It's a bummer the book doesn't live up to the expectation. I am a fan of the Food Network and it's from there I heard about this book. I do understand people's feeling passionate about the love life but when it gets the better of the original subject then it becomes just unbearable.

    As to expensive restaurants, I have dined at places where a meal would cost $400 (that was Las Vegas, a Japanese restaurant), but no matter how incredible the chef's skill is and how precious the ingredients are, $2000 is just ridiculous!


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