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Phoebe Damrosch, Formerly of Per Se, Apologizes for Spilling a Martini on You

Phoebe and her boyfriend, André, indulge in the occasional blind tasting.
Phoebe and her boyfriend, André, indulge in the occasional blind tasting.haha Photo: Melissa Hom

As a waiter in Brooklyn, Phoebe Damrosch had the opportunity to serve one of her heroes, Thomas Keller. She parlayed that encounter into a job helping to open Per Se where, after a crash course in Gewurztraminer jelly (and even dancing lessons to improve her moves on the floor), she eventually became a captain. The result is her memoir, Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter, out today. We asked her about vomiting patrons, fancy pens, and recent speculation that Chef Keller is spreading himself too thin.

The book isn’t the scathing exposé that, say, Kitchen Confidential is. Is that because there wasn’t much to expose?
Anyone can find those kinds of stories in their workplace. But I had to spend a year with the book in my head and the rest of life with book in print. I didn’t want to spend it with a snarky book. I enjoyed being a waiter.

One of the more memorable lines of the book is that “more people throw up in the dining room of Per Se than your average college bar.”
People come for really important moments in their life. When you’re paying $250 per person, there’s a heightened level of emotion. Maybe people aren’t entirely prepared — they either starve themselves before going or they’re eating or drinking more than they’re used to.

What was your biggest pet peeve about Per Se diners?
It always bothered me when people weren’t food people and they came in just because it was a hot table. If you’re spending $250 on a meal, the whole sauce-on-the-side thing isn’t going to fly.

You talk about discussing with an older diner your mutual love of “pot,” when he actually said “pie.” Did you make other embarrassing faux pas?
Frequently. A concierge from the Four Seasons had a martini. I didn’t screw the top on right so the whole thing went all over the table.

We revealed that Chef Keller uses frozen French fries at Bouchon Bakery. Was there anything else about how the food was prepared or how Per Se was run that would surprise people?
The only thing is, when they first started at restaurant, we used really expensive Mont Blanc pens. They kept getting stolen, so in the end we had to use our own.

A recent Bloomberg article pondered whether Keller is stretching himself too thin. Do you think he’s opening too many restaurants?
Well, I would think if anyone can do it, he can. He’s so careful about detail, and he puts so much of himself into every restaurant.

You met your boyfriend, André, when he was Per Se’s sommelier. What’s he doing these days?
He has much better hours. He works for the Fireman Hospitality group. We still call each other Chef.

Phoebe Damrosch [Official site]

Phoebe Damrosch, Formerly of Per Se, Apologizes for Spilling a Martini on You