Monday, October 22, 2007

Author Phoebe Damrosch writes about life and work at legndary restaraunt Per Se in Service Included

Portraits of the author's many moods (courtesy of Phoebe Damrosch)

Foodie and recently graduated Phoebe Damrosch was not sure what to do with her life. She managed to casually pursue some avenues in her life such as applying to a handful of graduate programs. Mostly, however, she waited for inspiration if not an epiphany about what course to pursue. Her interest in food led to a job in bussing tables where she found the energy of restaraunt life suited her. Then, the epiphany came in a fateful meeting with superstar chef Thomas Keller of the famed Napa Valley eatery French Laundry. Keller's restaraunt Per Se would soon be an instantly legendary New York establashment. Ms. Damrosch would find herself as one of the waitstaff of the most talked about new restaraunt in the US. The result of this is her first book, Service Included (William Morrow), a work reminiscent of fizzy classics such as Breakfast at Tiffany's. Ms. Damrosch was nice enough to speak to MLF about her book. (On a personal note, I have been lucky as a journalist to mostly have good co-operation from individuals I have interviewed. Ms. Damrosch, however, has been the best and most co-operative individual I have ever interviewed0.

MLF: At what point did you think your work as a waiter
would make a good book?

PD: "I was working toward my MFA in creative nonfiction
writing while at Per Se and I had been writing short
pieces about restaurant culture, mainly because it was
all I was thinking about. It actually came as a
surprise that my classmates were interested. So I
decided to go for it � and to write the kind of book I
wanted to read."

MLF: Did other people support this idea? Did anyone think
your experiences would not make a good book?

PD :"I was surprised at how much interest in the book there
was when my agent shopped it around. And I have been
thrilled with the great reviews and slew of emails
from eaters and waiters around the country. Of
course, I�ve also encountered people�s negative,
preconceived notions about this book. Hard-core
foodies claim to skim the love story and non-eaters
get a little bogged down with the food trivia. I read
a blog comment from a chef saying he wouldn�t read the
book because he hates all waiters (and we wonder why
we get bad service in restaurants?). The
gossip-hungry think the book is too nice and the
overly sensitive cringe at the three lines of dirt in
the whole book. You can�t please everyone."

MLF: Do you think that restaurants are especially neurotic
or just as neurotic as any other workplace?

PD "My professional experience has included nannying and
dog-walking, so I�m questioning my qualifications
here. I do think the workplace most similar to the
neurotic restaurant would be the neurotic theater: an
intense team of people performing every night,
decompressing afterwards with food, booze and lovin�,
and doing it all over the next day."

MLF: Did any editors have concerns about your book as you
were working on the final draft?

PD: "My editor, Carolyn Marino, was a dream. She welcomed
my process, whether that included checking in with her
after every chapter or disappearing until I had
finished. I did the latter and was relieved when she
didn�t ask for a complete rewrite. We made a few
alterations, but I think we were basically on the same

MLF: What about the cover image? Was that how you imagined
it to be when you were writing the book?

PD: "Fellow writers told me that holding the book in my
hand and seeing it in stores would be a profound
experience. In fact, seeing the cover moved me even
more. I wasn�t prepared for how it would feel to have
an image assigned to something that had, until that
point, occurred in my head. It is also a little odd
to have a complete stranger on the cover of my book
but the design department knows what they are doing."

MLF: A lot of your observations in your book have to do
with gender issues-What do you think the big
differences between being a male and female waiter?

PD: "I will speak for myself so that I don�t get in trouble.
I found that I was much less concerned with the amount
guests were spending than my male peers who used to
compete with each other on wine sales and tips. I
think that I was conditioned from birth to care more
about pleasing people than making money. On the other
hand, I think I had an advantage in fine dining
because guests feel more nurtured and less intimidated
with a woman. It's sexist, but true."

MLF: What is the difference (if any) between regular
tipping and "palming?"

PD: "Guests tip out of a sense of duty and appreciation and
most leave the same percentage everywhere they go,
unless the service is miraculous or really, really
terrible. Palming is about power. It is a way for
someone who just relinquished control - to the maitre
d who told him where to sit; to the sommelier who
chose a wine; to the waiter who handled his food; to
the bellhop who disappeared with his luggage - to then
reestablish his hierarchy. This is why women palm
less. Our sense of power comes less directly from
money and more from our appearance and sexuality.
Women are more likely to bat their eyelashes at a
maitre d or complement their waiter than slip him a

MLF: Did your training at the Hudson help you when you went
to Per Se?

PD: "Immensely. If all restaurants would put as much into
their service staff as Per Se did we would see a huge
improvement in dining across the country. The most
creative and hard-working chef will fail if an
untrained and uninspired staff alienates the guest."

MLF: Do you think that working at a supremely high-end
restaurant is very different from working at a
mid-level place?

PD: "The interactions between guests and servers are
similar in all restaurants. Hospitality is about
anticipating desire and putting people at ease, no
matter where one works. But shaving white truffles
during elaborate tasting menus, maintaining famously
high standards, and working with millions of dollars
worth of food, wine, tableware in a twelve million
dollar restaurant � that was a little different than
working at TGI Fridays."

MLF: You mentioned a place you went out to after work
called Blue Ribbon-What are you looking for in a place
to eat when you get off work?

PD: "Late-night hours are very important. You don�t want
to haul yourself there only to be glared at my cooks
hoping to go home early. Other than that, you are
looking for straight-forward, comforting foods and
cheap booze. And it has to have a good vibe � working
in restaurants depletes one�s emotional electrolytes
and it helps to be well taken care of."

MLF: Finally, my wife (Lynn) wants to know what the secret
is to getting the sequence of "tastes" that the
kitchen sometimes sends out? Can you reveal this info

PD: "Nope! It does pay to become a regular or to dine with
a chef, food writer, or a friend of a restaurant
employee, though."

Check out the author's musings about life and work at

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I (Mark) have written for The Christian Science Monitor, Clear Magazine, Picture Magazine, Film Score Monthly, Dan's Papers, Rue Morgue, In Flight USA and a lot more publications that I can't remember.... My wife Lynn was a model with the Ford Agency and her photography has been featured in most of the publications I have written for...


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