“Sweetbitter,” Stephanie Danler’s best-selling, coming-of-age novel set amongst Manhattan’s high-end restaurant scene tops many “must-read” lists. Modern Restaurant Management magazine quizzed Danler about her experiences, acquiring a palate and the ever-evolving restaurant industry.
Why did you feel there was enough fodder for a novel in a job that “Ninety percent of us won’t even put on a resume?”
Perhaps because I was in the 10 percent where it was their entire resume. I have only ever worked in the restaurant industry. When I was writing the book, one of my main concerns was how to show that “real life” was happening behind the curtain that guests drop around themselves. A hundred humiliations and triumphs going on behind the scenes – and that it’s fun. You have a job where one of your goals every evening is to entertain your friends and your guests.
Managing restaurants, with all their moving parts, teaches you to honor your instincts and draw a hard line.
What life lessons did you learn from the restaurant industry?
I get my work ethic from restaurants, or I maybe I’m drawn to them because I was born to work ten-hour shifts on my feet, with fifteen different emergencies. I have confidence in my composure. I have also learned – and this was the most difficult – how to say No. Managing restaurants, with all their moving parts, teaches you to honor your instincts and draw a hard line.
What does the title mean to you?
The title is from Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho, the ancient Greek poet who is thought to be the first person to call love “bittersweet”- Anne Carson was the first person to say, No, the actual translation is “sweetbitter” – and it’s also the order in which we experience love, the sweeter parts, and eventually the bitter. Tess’s journey is really just learning to distinguish between types of experiences – initially she just wants them all, regardless of their taste or consequences. Her growth comes when she can say, this is good for me, this is bad for me.
How would you describe the differences in having an appetite and acquiring a palate?
Developing a palate means developing a heightened awareness and appreciation for the way that you taste things. It’s often includes learning a language for these tastes and sensations, learning a philosophy and jargon – all of which Tess goes through in the book. Having an appetite doesn’t necessarily affect the way you see things – acquiring a palate forces you to slow down and pay attention to your senses.
You include vivid descriptions about the inner workings of a restaurant that are familiar to many and foreign to some, what do you hope each segment takes away from reading the novel?
I strived for accuracy for those inside the industry – but you can’t really hope for that, every space is different. I really wanted to do justice to the people I worked with – all my restaurant families – and represent what it felt like to us, but also give them a better story than whatever unfolded in our lives. For those that have and haven’t worked in restaurants, I hoped to give them a feeling of immersion in a sensuous and punishing world.
What do you seek out in restaurants now that you’re aware of all that goes into making them operate on a daily basis?
I tend towards restaurants with an ethic behind them, where the owners and chefs are tied personally to the projects. I need servers that know their food and wine – after that I’m happy to hand myself over to them. An uneducated staff – and you see it occasionally in the most celebrated places – is such a waste. They are what take a meal into an experience.
How do you feel the New York City restaurant scene has changed since the time of the novel?
Obviously we’ve all seen restaurant scene explode. In 2006 we were seeing effects of Kitchen Confidential (2000), the exposure of this subculture, and the industry slowly becoming visible.
You have the servers all over world who have reached out to say that I’ve written their story.
Then April Bloomfield and David Chang opened their respective restaurants in 2003, and they brought more attention to chef culture, and changed the rules of service – it could be fast and casual but with high quality food.
In 2006 there was still a stigma about restaurant work, it came with a whiff of failure, but that has completely disappeared. Now, working in the restaurant industry in New York City is likely a resume builder for business school. Ivy League graduates wants to learn mixology. With that sort of mainstream visibility come all the policy changes that we’ve seen over the years – new health code requirements and a new grading system, questions about gratuity and wage disparity. For a long time, restaurants could do whatever they wanted because nobody paid attention. Now you’re more than likely to have a television camera in the kitchen, and everyone is accountable.
Did you read “Setting the Table” or other restaurant industry research and did that influence anything in the novel?
I read “Setting the Table” when it came out in 2008 – I wasn’t working at Union Square Café anymore, but I was very attached to my family there. Beyond that, I didn’t need to research the industry – I lived it for fifteen years, that was the easy part to write. I did have to research 2006. I lived that as well, but my notebooks proved a little thin on culture, and a little thick on my feelings, like a typical twenty-two-year-old. I keep everything – menus, old New Yorkers and New York magazines, I have a crazy collection of Gourmet magazines. Those were useful research tools for remember the moments of food and music and art, the things that tie the novel to that moment in New York City.
How would you compare the journeys of Tess and the restaurant?
Tess is at the beginning of her journey – in many ways, she’s just been born – and she enters into a already established world. The restaurant is in middle-age, and she notes that it’s not a particularly edgy or exciting restaurant. It’s performing its job smoothly, in the same vein that it has since the 80s. There’s a sub-plot in which Scott (the young Sous Chef) is chafing against the established rules of the restaurant, that the style of food and décor and service is becoming irrelevant. There is a question of whether restaurants like that can survive. Whereas Tess is the new wave of food professionals – I see her (after the novel ends) helping to open something like Roberta’s in Bushwick. She’s in her moment of extreme relevancy.
What reaction have you had from people in the industry?
It’s been supportive since day one – from Danny Meyer to Jody Williams and the staff at Buvette who sent me off with glasses of champagne into this whirlwind. At every reading there is someone I worked with over the years, from one of my restaurant families. And then you have the servers all over world who have reached out to say that I’ve written their story. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but I wanted to write a love letter to our lives, to that moment in New York City.