James’s story shows how precarious life on the knife-edge of survival in the restaurant industry really is. Almost unbelievably, she retained an abiding love for wine. She is now a partner and beverage director at the Korean steakhouse Cote in New York, which was awarded a Michelin star in 2018.
The sentiment is real, even if James does have a habit of pointing out the obvious: “Alcohol wasn’t inherently evil, just like food wasn’t inherently bad. Yet there were those who suffered from eating disorders and those who suffered from drinking disorders.” Clumsy prose peppers the book. She describes her boyfriend’s voice as “like adding fresh cream to a cup of coffee, the richness fleshing out the acidic and bitter drink,” which sounds good, but actually makes little sense. The narrative is also fuzzy; the family story with which it begins is pushed to the side, leaving loose threads hanging.
This memoir is more than a #MeToo exposé: there are juicy insights into the A-list land of $25,000 bottles of red and $100 bowls of pasta. Customers are branded “PITA” (pain in the ass), “whales” (big spenders), “HWC” (handle with care) and “PPX” (personne plus extraordinaire). High-end restaurants trade information about guests — if you have pinched the mother-of-pearl caviar spoons, tipped poorly or outstayed your welcome, it will have been recorded. Dining rooms are “dressed” so that the loveliest looking diners are placed in the window seats while “people who were slovenly, chubby, or had had botched plastic surgery went far in the back”.