When one takes a deeper interest in food than simply asking ‘what’s for dinner?’ ten minutes before it’s served, it’s common to read up on the subject. Cookbooks are an obvious – and popular – first choice. Some of us go on to delve into celebrity chef memoirs, earnest or whimsical histories of various aspects of food history and culture, and the occasional discourse on the ethics of way of eating or another.
But there’s one aspect of food culture that almost never grabs the attention: waiting. By that I do not refer to the amount of time one has to wait before eating the dish. Pierre Franey, Rachel Ray, and a host of other cookbook authors have already covered super-quick meals for super-busy people in detail for decades. Yet more cookbook authors have written hauntingly of the delights of foods that must be prepared over the course of hours or even days. No, what I’m talking about is the work and life stories of professional waitstaff.
Perhaps that’s why my eye was caught a few weeks ago at my Friendly Neighborhood Independent Bookstore by a cover featuring a back view of a woman in waiter’s gear balancing plates in both hands. The title also appealed: Service Included, Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter by Phoebe Damrosch.
Then there was the warning label included. It read:
WARNING: May contain material offensive to vegans, pharmaceutical lobbyists, and those on a low-sodium diet. Animals were harmed during the writing of this book.
While I have no special desire to go out of my way to offend any of the above groups, nor to harm animals, I cannot resist a good, snarky warning label.
The coup de grace, however, was the very first line of the book:
Eventually I had to accept that I wasn’t working in restaurants to support my art like most of my co-workers; I was posing as an artist to justify my work as a waiter.
Damrosch started out waiting tables as an escape from work as a nanny in between stints in grad school and wound up as the first female captain at Thomas Keller’s famous Per Se restaurant in New York City.
Along the way, she discusses her own experiments in cooking, adventures in eating, dealings with co-workers, feelings about life, the universe, and everything…all of it in a breezy, irreverent, brash yet self-deprecating tone so that it feels as though you’re getting it all while sharing a good meal. It’s gossipy without ever sinking into the merely trivializing. In a way, reading her prose is like getting together with that wonderfully crazed college roommate you lost touch with after graduation.
From discovering the importance of making sure you’ve got what you need to cook a gourmet treat, to the panic when the Per Se kitchen caught fire just days before the scheduled opening, to a raucous night on the town hopping from restaurant to restaurant in order to determine which one had the best bone marrow dish, the book is filled with the details that make Damrosch’s world real even if you’ve never been to New York or never worked or eaten in a restaurant likely to be rated by the Michelin guide.
Peppered throughout are wise and witty bits of advice on dealing with waitstaff when you go out to dinner. My personal favorite:
Please do not ask us what else we do. This implies that (a) we shouldn’t aspire to work in the restaurant business even if it makes us happy and financially stable, (b) that we have loads of time on our hands because ours is such an easy job, and (c) that we are not succeeding in another field.
Truly, these are words to live by.
So if you’re interested in learning about the world of the professional dining room, I highly recommend this book.
Oh, and for maximum impact, I suggest reading it the way I did: sitting at the counter of my local waffle house drinking lots of coffee and giggling to myself. Somehow it seemed to add to the experience.