Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter

Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter
Phoebe Damrosch
© 2007
226 pages (hardcover)

I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: I love good food.  I love it so much that I have a special section on my bucket list reserved for restaurants.  I’ve been to some (Le Bernardin, Blue Hill at Stone Barns), but there are many left to visit (like Sukiyabashi Jiro and The French Laundry).

Last week, I got to cross another restaurant off that list.  My brother and I were lucky enough to get a reservation at Per Se.

Per Se is Chef Thomas Keller’s fancy-schmancy Manhattan restaurant.  Keller is also known for the highly-acclaimed French Laundry in Yountville, California (as well as Ad Hoc in Yountville, Bouchon in Vegas, and Bouchon Bakery in NYC).  And he is the author of some of my favorite cookbooks:

bouchon-bakery-cookbook-coverBouchon Bakery

ad-hoc-at-home-cookbook-coverAd Hoc at Home

They are GORGEOUS cookbooks that could double as coffee-table books, and the recipes, although extravagant and time-consuming, are surprisingly easy to execute . . . and the results are always beautiful and over-the-top delicious.  It’s safe to say that I’m big a fan of Chef Keller’s.

Keller opened Per Se in 2004, and it is one of the few restaurants that former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni spent a significant amount of time discussing in his memoir, Born Round (which I reviewed here). He gave Per Se a rare four-star review, and described it in part as follows:

To get a reservation may well require a degree of planning and effort that verge on masochistic, and a multicourse, mini-portion extravaganza may well require four hours, which is more time than many diners have or want to spend.

But here is the thing: the return on that patience and that investment is more than a few mouthfuls of food that instantaneously bring a crazy smile to your face and lodge in your memory for days and even weeks to come.

Needless to say, when we got the reservation a month ago (you have to call right when the reservation lines open, at 10:00 a.m., exactly one month before the day you want to dine and keep your fingers crossed that you’ll get through), I was giddy with excitement about our upcoming dinner.

My brother, who had been to Per Se once before, recommended I read Service Included before our visit. It’s written by a former Per Se captain (head waiter) and gives a lot of inside information about the restaurant.  The book was the perfect introduction to everything about the restaurant–the space, the service, and the food.

The restaurant is located on the fourth floor of the Time Warner Center and has floor-to-ceiling windows with views of Columbus Circle, Central Park, and the buildings beyond. It’s a large space, but there are only photo-11 copysixteen tables (John and I were seated at a little two-person banquette with fluffy cushions; both seats faced the massive windows, so we could both enjoy the view). Before walking into the gorgeous space, I knew there would be no art on the walls or music in the room or smelly perfumes on the waiters (“The point of this rule, of course, was to make sure that nothing interfered with the guests’ enjoyment of their food and wine.”).

And I knew that Per Se’s service would be impeccable, because they take it very seriously. I waited tables for about five years (and my experience ranges from a sushi bar to fine dining), so I thought I knew a thing or two about the industry. But my experience waiting tables looks like child’s play compared to service at Per Se.  Damrosch describes the training the staff underwent at length.  Here’s a taste:

In the months of training for this restaurant’s opening, we not only learned glassware series and the names of the cows that produced the milk from which our butter was made, but were coached by an eighteenth-century dance specialist. One afternoon, at the Hudson Hotel, we learned to walk, to stand, and to bow like ladies and gentlemen. 

The waiters are expected to know the food as well as the chefs.  They know the ingredients of each dish and their specific preparations (“We learned the difference between forced infusion done in the kitchen for something like the thyme oil often paired with lamb and oils infused with, say lemon zest, at the press.”).   They must know all of this from memory, and they must follow a strict handbook of rules (Rule #25B: “Everyone’s hair must remain as it was when they were hired.”).

Per Se waiters are the best of the best–for which they are handsomely rewarded.  From this book, I learned that Per Se waiters are provided Armani uniforms and Mont Blanc pens . . . and six-figure salaries.

And, of course, the book provided some background information on some of the restaurant’s signature dishes–info that I otherwise never would have known.  One of the first canapés we were served was the salmon cornet, about which Damrosch had given me the inside scoop (no pun intended):

photo-12The dish is made to look exactly like an ice cream cone. The difference is that the three-inch cone or cornet, named for its horn shape, retains a touch of sweetness, but is definitely savory. Black sesame seeds add a texture to its buttery crunch. [. . .] A scoop of salmon tartare with flecks of chive rests on each cone, which is filled with a red onion crème fraîche. [. . .] After serving the cornet at the French Laundry for years, introducing it at Per Se became especially important to Chef Keller. The idea for the cornet had been conceived in New York. [. . .] Before he left New York, he met a few friends for a farewell dinner in Chinatown, followed by an ice cream cone at Baskin-Robbins, as was their tradition. When the man behind the counter placed the cone in a little holder, the idea came to him. 

Book Rating: 3/5

This was the perfect book to read before my dinner at Per Se.  I didn’t think it was possible, but it got me even more excited about my dinner.  I loved all the inside information, from finding out about the servers’ extensive training to learning about the ridiculous attention-to-detail afforded to every aspect of the restaurant and dining experience.  Having read this book made me much more aware of and appreciative of my meal and the service while I was at Per Se.

But, as a standalone experience, I can’t be quite as glowing.  This is not a particularly good or well-written book . . . but it is definitely a fun book.  At just over 200 pages (many of which include lists and bullet points), it is a very quick read.  At the end of each chapter Damrosch includes “A Tip” (some more helpful than others), like: “Most white wine should be served at about 55 degrees and red wine at 67 degrees. We are happy to further chill a white or decant the red to bring up the temperature, but please do not ask us to microwave your wine.” These tips reflect the tone of the book.  It is very light and conversational (and includes stories about celebrities and quirky regulars), and it is set up to be devoured quickly and easily.

The book is about Damrosch’s experience at Per Se, and most of that information is engrossing.  Unfortunately, part of her experience there included her love-affair-turned-relationship with one of the restaurant’s sommeliers.  This side story added nothing to the book.  It felt like she was going for gossipy and girly, but it fell flat.  Frankly, I just didn’t care (with one exception: her description of the dinner she and the sommelier had at Per Se after she stopped working there—complete with a reprinting of their separate, personalized, VIP eighteen-course menus).

Who should read it: Stephen (i.e., people who have first-hand experience in the service industry—especially fine dining); Bryan (i.e., people who love good food and fine dining . . . and who find short, easily digestible—and skimmable—books appealing).

Restaurant rating: 5/5

If you have the opportunity to go to Per Se, GO!!! Everything about the experience is over-the-top.

The food was incredible (the foie gras with the warm brioche rolls that just kept coming and coming and coming and coming was unbelievable and the adorable “coffee and doughnuts”–decadent coffee ice cream covered in foam and served in an espresso cup with ridiculously delicious little doughnut holes–was the perfect end to an amazing meal, the atmosphere was lovely, and the service was great.  And, after courses and courses of delicious food, they sent us away with adorable “mignardises” (macarons and truffles and candies and cookies) to enjoy for days.  What a delight!

photo-11

Thank you, John, for a fabulous (early) birthday dinner!

Want to read along with me?  Reviews of these books are coming soon:

  • All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu (Mengestu is the recipient of National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award, The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 award, and a 2012 MacArthur Foundation genius grant; this, his third book, was named an Amazon Best Book of the Month for March 2014)
  • This One Is Mine by Maria Semple (this is the first novel from the former Ellen and Arrested Development writer and author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette)

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6 thoughts on “Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter

  1. I have thought for a while that you should start a sister blog called “I Know What You Should Eat.”

    • Ah, yes. I have heard variations on this before: I Know What You Should Watch (movies/TV), I Know What You Should Hear (music), etc. But this food/restaurant idea is the best I’ve heard thus far!

      Alas, this blog is already ridiculously time-consuming . . .

  2. I mean, I only bought the booze and told them your birthday was close to the reservation, but you’re welcome!

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