“It wasn’t like they were the only fascinating people at the restaurant. But they were an island if the rest of us were the continent—distant, inaccessible, picking up stray light.” So intones Tess, the heroine of Sweetbitter (Knopf), Stephanie Danler’s poetic, sensual, and immensely addictive coming of age debut. An intelligent young woman from a nameless place, Tess moves to New York City to become someone and soon forms “a certain connoisseurship of taste” thanks to her new job as a back waiter at a fancy restaurant. (The eatery in question is based on the Union Square Café, where Danler also got her start in the industry.) At work, Tess meets Simone, an alluring, well-read senior server, and Jake, a sexy, emotionally unavailable bartender. Their relationship, and Tess’s intense connection to the two of them, becomes pivotal to her awakening.
Tess makes a choice very early on that she wants to speak the language of the restaurant industry, despite not fully understanding the consequences.
That’s exactly what I wanted to write about. The book is about the restaurant industry, but that’s the microcosm Tess falls into. Whether you get into publishing, fashion, finance—that becomes your way of experiencing New York City. Who you were before is stripped away, and you come back with a new set of clothes, a new identity—which, in her case is “New Girl”—and a new language. But Tess is not completely blank. She does have this desire for experience, and that’s what drives her into the restaurant to begin with.
How did you decide on the novel’s structure of short vignettes grouped by the seasons of the year?
That structure unlocked the book for me. As soon as I hit upon this kind of quickness, the velocity that I was able to achieve with vignettes of moving through time and space and moving through the story, I realized it was exactly like dinner service. You blink and you’re in an entirely new scene. You blink again, you’re in bed. You blink again, you’re being yelled at. This is the lifestyle. It moves like that.
Sweetbitter features a lot of repetition of certain types of food, as well as inside jokes and rituals among the wait staff.
It creates what I hope is a kind of claustrophobia. That’s also very true of the restaurant industry, where suddenly your life has been reduced to these five people, these five blocks, this one bar, and your days are on this endless cycle. There are slight variations—you notice that the seasons are changing—but it’s the same day, over and over again.
There’s a hilariously tragic scene about halfway through the book, where Tess is approached by someone she went to college with who is shocked to find her working in a restaurant. Was any of that based on your own experiences?
That scene is straight out of my life. [Laughs.] I was working at Union Square Café at the time. I was falling in love with this world, and I was living in Williamsburg. All of a sudden someone walks in who knows me, and I look at myself from the outside. I was like, “Oh, wait, this isn’t cool?” [Laughs.]
Tess falls in love with food and wine slowly, and her sense of taste develops alongside her relationship with Jake and with Simone.
When Tess starts to taste things, she realizes that if you pay attention, under Simone’s teaching, everything can be that intense. If you pay attention to your walk over the bridge the way that you pay attention to a Chenin Blanc from the Loire, the world gives you back more sensation. And really the first line is the entire arc of a book: “You will develop a palate.” For sex, for drugs, for oysters, for champagne.