Stephanie Danler’s restaurant bildungsroman SweetBitter hit at exactly the right time to garner big buzz (Vogue, Vanity Fair, The Paris Review!) and accolades from the in-the-know literati. SweetBitter, the cautionary tale of a star-struck dreamer who comes to New York City to live her dream by — working as a back server in a fancy restaurant. Yes. Really. Tess, our protagonist, doesn’t want to be an actor or a singer or America’s next top model. She doesn’t really know what she wants to be. Just “SOMETHING” and “IN NEW YORK.” So, she sets out to interview for a busboy position at Famous NY Restaurant in Union Square, the best in the city, and after she’s hired, learns how to flirt with the bad boy, reject the good boy, drink till dawn, do drugs, be a pawn in someone else’s game of chess, get taken advantage of, take advantage of, and brown nose the important guests, among other things.
According to author Gabrielle Hamilton, owner of Prune Restaurant in New York, who reviewed SweetBitter for the New York Times “This is the dead-on collective mind matter of the current youth of our tribe. Restaurant is and always will be a young person’s game, but the busboys these days have more in common with the class they serve than ever before.” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/29/books/review/sweetbitter-by-stephanie-danler.html?_r=0
“Picking up,” I said, harder, hands outstretched, ready.
It was all one motion. The roasted half duck had been in the window for going on five minutes while it waited for the risotto, the plate baking. At first, as with all burns, I felt nothing. I reacted in anticipation. When the plate shattered and the duck thudded clumsily on the mats, I cried out, pulling my hand to my chest, caving.
Chef looked at me. He had never really seen me before.
“Are you kidding me?” he asked. Quiet. All the line cooks, butchers, prep guys, pastry girls watched me.
“I burned myself.” I held out my palm, already streaked with red, as proof.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Louder. A rumbling, then quiet. Even the tickets stopped printing. “Where do you come from? What kind of bullshit TGI Fridays waitresses are they bringing in now? You think that’s a burn? Do you want me to call your mommy?”
“The plates are too hot,” I said. And then I couldn’t take it back.
I stared at his feet, at the mess on the floor. I bent over to pick up the beautifully burnished duck. I thought he might hit me. I flinched, but held it out to him by its leg.
“Are you retarded? Get out of my kitchen. Don’t even think about setting foot in here again. This is a church.” He slammed his hands on the stainless steel in front of him. “A fucking church!”
Stephanie Danler traverses the seasons of one year in Tess’s life, just as the kitchen turns to focus on flavors, foods, and menus. I enjoyed SweetBitter’s backstage insight into the kitchen life, the sharing of family meal for staff before the guests arrive, the surreptitious tasting of oysters, truffles, champagne, the late night after work complimentary shift drink for all, the one holiday a year party on New Year’s Day. This was information Anthony Bourdain didn’t reveal in Kitchen Confidential. And Danler has the credentials. I reached out to literary agent Melissa Flashman (a Lexington, KY girl making it good in the Big Apple) of Trident Media, Danler’s agent, who told me Stephanie “worked at Union Square Cafe as well as many other NYT restaurants, bars and a wine shop.”
Danler answered several questions for Vanity Fair, one of which was why use the setting of the very famous Union Square Cafe.
I set it in Union Square not just because that was my first job and my first entryway, but [also because] that restaurant has an ethic and a level of professionalism that is unmatched in New York City. Danny Meyer is a genius and that was his first place.
I could have set it at a more Balthazar-style place, or a more Blue Water Grill–style place, but I wasn’t really looking for that kind of atmosphere. What I found when I went to Union Square Cafe was this group of super-educated, highly creative, ultra-professional servers.
There are places where you clock in, you clock out, and then there are places where you invest emotionally, and I needed a setting where people were investing.
What I didn’t enjoy? Now I know rats are standard residents of every New York City restaurant.
SweetBitter is another in the New York-food genre I’ve been reading lately, perhaps a bit cheekier, younger, hipper than The Nest and Modern Lovers, but somewhere on the spectrum. Danler has an MFA from The New School, according to her book jacket, and the prose is clean, tight, clear, well-ordered. Much like a well-run kitchen.
My recommendation: SweetBitter will make a good basis for discussion at your book club. There are men-women issues, generational issues, employer-employee issues, and food. Oh, also, just in passing, did I mention there is wine? Like on every page? Wine, Wine, Wine, Wine, Wine. And the occasional glass of whine.
*Note: I did reach out to Stephanie Danler, hoping for a recipe, a music recommendation, or a private thought. Melissa Flashman sent my email on to her publicist. But seriously, the woman is being interviewed by Vanity Fair, Vogue and Paris Review. Unsurprisingly, she hasn’t responded yet. If she does, I’ll let you know.
I think we might as well go with the one that dropped on the floor. I don’t know if I can roast a duck, but it sounds like it would be fun to try.
Good, Italian bread
Oysters on the half shell
Roasted Duck. Here’s a good looking recipe from Epicurious.com, one of my go-to websites for cooking. http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/crisp-roast-duck-235744
Agent Flashman followed up with me to suggest that Stephanie would suggest Campari Soda as a read-with. Sounds delicious.
There’s music throughout SweetBitter but not much of it is familiar to me. I do however love the soundtrack from the movie Chef, downloadable at Amazon and iTunes. That’s what I would play.
Tess — Kiernan Shipke (perfect big budget vehicle for her movie coming out)
Jake — Chris Pine
Simone — Keri Russell
Howard — Matthew McConaughey
Will — Skylar Astin