Must-read writing by Sarah Lawrence alumnae/i, faculty, and students.
This issue: An excerpt from Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter by Phoebe Damrosch MFA ’06.
Illustration by Ana Mo Shoshin
While a graduate writing student at Sarah Lawrence, Phoebe Damrosch MFA ’06 waited tables at Per Se, one of the finest of the fine dining restaurants in New York City (where, according to custom, all of the workers call each other “chef”). In this excerpt, she gets a promotion—and a gift from a handsome sommelier.
The secret to service is not servitude, but anticipating desire. This occurred to me in the plenty of time I had to eavesdrop, while marking tables and refilling water glasses. If I overheard something important—that the guests were getting full, that they had a babysitter at home, or that he preferred fruit desserts to chocolate—I reported it to the captain. The captain might then ask whether they still wanted the cheese course, box up some macaroons for the babysitter, or switch the guest’s dessert without his having to ask. This had nothing to do with obeying the commands of the sort of demanding customer who snaps his fingers from across the room. Garçon! Miss! This was about the art of careful observation and the intimacy of knowing what someone wants before he does.
When we lost our first captain, I was given the opportunity to practice this art full-time. The captain in question was a wry but reserved Frenchman in his late forties who had worked in some of the finest restaurants in the city.
He wore gray sweater cardigans and pleated khaki pants. One day, we were all huddled around large round tables in the windowless private dining room taking another one of our cippolini/cipolini/cipollini/cipolinni kind of tests when he stumbled in, wild-haired, decked out in a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses, and drunk. Upon entering, he began a highly amusing monologue, asking questions in a painfully slow slur as the rest of us tried to remain focused on the test.
“I am having trouble with number eighteen. Can someone define ‘sense of urgency’?” The phrase probably took a good twenty seconds to get out.
Managers rushed in. Ever calm, Laura locked eyes with the director of operations and silently ran her forefinger across her neck. He excused us immediately for an early lunch, and when we returned, we were down one captain.
Whenever possible, the company promoted from within, so it was from the pool of backservers that the next captain was to be selected. Since they were looking for presence and charm, I knew Patrick would be the first pick. But as it turned out, they also wanted a woman. I was surprised when the director of operations took me aside and told me that Patrick and I were both on the “fast track” to being captains and that our training would commence immediately.
It would be a relief to talk about something other than the bread, butter, and water selections. As a backserver, from the moment the first table entered my section to the time I had changed all the tablecloths at the end of the night, I moved nonstop. Pouring, marking, clearing, surviving the wrath of the captain who had barely survived the wrath of a chef or mâitre d’ and needed someone to blame. It was an exhausting job, but at least the time went by quickly. Being a captain, on the other hand, would carry more responsibility, but it would also be a hell of a lot more fun. No longer would I feel like a marking machine. I could make real connections with the guests, get to know the chefs better, and become even more familiar with the food.
During my training, I trailed other captains, learning how to translate a guest’s request into something the kitchen could do, and not hate me for. For example, at Per Se, meat was cooked au point, which translates as “to the point of perfection.” Every cut of meat had its own point of perfection. Tougher cuts like shoulders should be braised for hours, but venison or a wild game bird would be tough and livery if overcooked. If guests asked, we would tell them how the chef preferred to cook the dish, but the decision was ultimately theirs. Say Mr. Bichalot, for example, has ordered the nine-course chef’s tasting menu on which we are serving duck breast as the first meat course. He requests that his duck be cooked “to a crisp.” When the captain goes to the kitchen to make the request, the chef will say that he is perfectly happy to cook the quack out of it, but we both know that it does the duck no justice. Might the guest like a braised pork shoulder? Mr. Bichalot loves the pork, the chef feels good about serving a dish he is proud of, and the captain has made no enemies.
Customizing people’s menus took skill and patience, but pairing wines for the picky guest—or any guest for that matter—I still found challenging. No matter how many seminars I attended, books I read, and wines I tasted, I retained only a fraction of the knowledge. At restaurant tastings, the other captains discussed winemakers and soil variation while I was still trying to figure out what region we were talking about. And when it comes to vintages, I am still convinced that a mind that can recall the difference between 1981 and 1982 Petrus is very similar to the mind that knows, not only who won the World Series in 1981 and 1982, but also who pitched and in how many innings.
Because of my weakness in wine knowledge, André began to spend a lot of time in my section. We didn’t have a wine pairing per se, but we often put together a program for guests who wanted to leave it up to us. In situations like these, we might use half bottles, and even beers, sakes, juices, teas, or spirits. I would have gone down flailing if it hadn’t been for André. When a guest asked about different vintages or my recommendations for old Riesling from Alsace, André always just happened to be walking by. Soon I had the sense that he was watching my every move. And as time went by, I began to watch his.
“I have something for you,” he whispered one day at the beginning of service and motioned for me to follow him off the floor. It was a wine key, exactly like the standard-issue key we all had. I looked down at it, unimpressed.
“Turn it over.” A tiny white label stretched along the side with “Diva” in black lettering. The label told me he had, indeed, been watching me closely.
“So you don’t lose it. It’s left-handed, but don’t advertise that—I had to buy a whole box of them.”
“How did you know I was left-handed?”
“Chef,” he answered, shaking his head as if disappointed in me. “I noticed. Plus, lefties seem to be my lot in life.”
All potential lovers encounter a moment when the harbored crush becomes possible.
In the movies, it is a look; in the theatre, a subtle innuendo; in pastoral poetry, a stolen embrace followed by a blush of the pretty innocent’s lily white breast. In reality, it’s often chemically induced and somewhat predatory, though no less exciting when reciprocated. There are romantic exceptions, of course, as in the case of a chef I know who met a woman at a farmer’s market and wrote his phone number on a squash. Or the sommelier who ordered an entire case of useless wine keys for the left-handed object of his affection. I can’t be sure, but I have a feeling she blushed and smiled, like the shepherdesses and milkmaids, starlets and ingénues before her.
Phoebe Damrosch lives, writes, and eats in Harlem with André and her dog, Guinness, both of whom have resigned themselves to being story fodder.
From Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter by Phoebe Damrosch. Copyright © 2007 by Phoebe Damrosch. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.