In an occasional series called “The Dance of Life,” I’ll be turning my dance critic’s eye on the physical theater all around us, spotting the hidden choreography of common tasks and social settings. The first installment launched Thursday, with a story on the elegant, practiced moves of the kitchen staff at CityZen, in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Southwest Washington.
I ‘ve been thinking about gracefulness in restaurants for a long time, ever since I learned that star chef Thomas Keller brought in dancer-choreographer Catherine Turocy to teach French baroque dancing to his waiters at Per Se, his restaurant in New York City. This form of partner dancing is all about offering and receiving, so it’s a fitting model for dinner service.
A short time ago I came upon a book called “Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter” written by one of Per Se’s servers, who helped open the restaurant and was there for Turocy’s dance workshop. I contacted the author, Phoebe Damrosch, and had a long and illuminating conversation with her about the importance of grace in restaurant service, as an aspect of being attentive to the guests. It’s part of what she calls “choosing to be excellent.”
It turns out that CityZen’s executive chef, Eric Ziebold, was Keller’s right-hand man at the French Laundry in California, and helped Keller open Per Se. He absorbed much of Keller’s attention to detail and seriousness of purpose, and it shows in his cooking, and in his kitchen.
But back to the book: After reading “Service Included,” I couldn’t get enough of restaurant lit. While I was researching and writing this story, I devoured a stack of cooks’ memoirs, including Ruth Reichl’s “Tender at the Bone,” Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential,” Bill Buford’s ”Heat” and Gabrielle Hamilton’s “Blood, Bones and Butter.” I also went back to George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London,” his gorgeously written account of his labors as a lowly plongeur, up to his elbows in dishwater but his eyes attuned to the drama around him.
Yet my No. 1 artistic inspiration was “Babette’s Feast,” the 1987 Danish film I watched over and over for its spareness, its grave beauty and its poetic view of what art--in this case, superlative cuisine--can do. It softens us, makes us gentle, opens us up. At the end of the film, after dining at Babette’s table, the stern old general says : “I have learned that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible.”
In real life, it’s rare to experience a moment like the one he’s speaking about. But coming upon one is one of the true delicacies of life.