Newcomer Stephanie Danler Breaks Through With 'Sweetbitter'
From Hollywood to New York, restaurants have long represented a sort of halfway home for creatives waiting for a breakthrough moment in their career. Perhaps the most successful waitress to come through Buvette, chef Jody Williams’ lauded West Village café—or through any major Manhattan institution in recent memory, for that matter—Stephanie Danler became the word on the street in publishing when she garnered a six-figure two-book deal with Alfred A. Knopf.
In her debut novel Sweetbitter, Danler harnesses her own experience of moving to New York and joining the restaurant industry at 22. Though the story’s setting in the world of “Industry People” is so specific that it’s almost alienating, Danler’s portrait of moving to a big city and growing up too fast feels so truthful and precise that it resonates powerfully even with those she refers to as “Nine-to-Fivers” in the novel—that is, everyone else outside the restaurant industry.
The book cover of Sweetbitter, whose premise revolves around Tess and her life in New York's restaurant industry.
When Tess drives into New York from her native small town, the nuances of fine dining are completely foreign to her. We don’t know much about this character, except that she used to be a barista and has come to the big city for a fresh start. Her father is mentioned briefly, but the rest of the details from her past are withheld. Asked about her drinking preferences during her interview at the restaurant—which also remains unnamed throughout the novel—Tess struggles to name a single appellation in Burgundy. That slowly changes in the course of a year, after she encounters the worldly, older Simone, a senior server, and Jake, a beautiful, brooding bartender, and is drawn into a complicated love triangle that serves to accelerate her transition into adulthood.
There’s a wide range of dining references in Danler’s novel, from authentic places in Queens—“Everybody knows the best Chinese in New York is in Flushing,” a character responds after being asked if he’s tried David Chang’s Ssam Bar—to East Village dive bars and more critically acclaimed restaurants such as Thomas Keller’s Per Se. But to label Sweetbitter as simply a book about food would be a mistake, as it is ultimately as much about growing up as it is a love letter to food and drink.
Author of Sweetbitter, Stephanie Danler
Sweetbitter chronicles Tess’ metamorphosis into a full-fledged adult. Where did the idea of the love triangle come from?
The idea for a female coming-of-age novel came to me early—I was in my 20s, working in restaurants, and I was fascinated by this cycle of young women who moved to New York City to “become” themselves. They would get a job at a restaurant that they thought was temporary, but then be swallowed up by the lifestyle—the food, wine, sex, and drugs. I knew it would be a story of Tess’s sentimental education, and focused on one year in her life. Though I had the voice of Simone and visions of Jake, I didn’t fully understand the plot until I spent a summer rereading Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassadors and realized how drawn I was to this figure of a slightly maternal, slightly toxic female mentor, and the unattainable, erotic interest that serves as the collateral damage.
Were you Tess at any point in your life?
Tess inherited a few facts from my biography: she moves to New York at 22 and in 2006, at the same age and year that I did. She gets my first apartment in Williamsburg. She also gets a job at a prestigious landmark restaurant that looks a lot like my first job at Union Square Café. But the most autobiographical aspect of the novel is that she falls recklessly in love with restaurants—with the work, the food, wine, people, and with the city. However, the characters and the plot are fiction. I never had a Jake or a Simone in my youth, so I had to invent how she would react to them. Tess’s voice is far from mine. Honestly, I identify more with Simone. I was born world-weary. I aspire to have Tess’s optimism. She’s brave in a way I never was.
Are there specific moments from your own experience that stick in your mind and that you wanted to capture for Tess in the novel?
Of course there are a few firsts that I thought were important from my years in the city—the first heirloom tomato, the first visit to the Met by herself, learning to dine alone, learning to talk back and say No. That enchantment when you begin to understand the wine you’re drinking. The constant humiliations that occur when you’re new. That pride when you become good at your job. That mix of joy and despair that comes from staying up all night and seeing the sun come up. Those moments are all close to me, but a lot of them are from various points in my life. That’s the best part of writing a novel—total freedom to bring together all these disparate events.
Is Sweetbitter based on one place?
I’ve worked in restaurants since I was 15 years old, so the restaurant of my book is a composite of all those places—all the chefs I’ve known, all the weird regulars, and the late nights. But when I moved to New York I was lucky enough to get a job at Union Square Café, Danny Meyer’s landmark restaurant formerly in Union Square. That was my first time working in a place where the level of professionalism was elevated, where there were career servers leading fulfilling and creative lives. It’s also a restaurant with an ethic behind it the focus is on becoming a more compassionate human. That’s the kind of place I wanted to write about.
What do you think it is about the restaurant industry that can be so captivating?
As Tess finds out quickly, it’s an incredibly sensual world. There is so much attention to detail, and once you slow down and focus on the way things taste and feel, you find you’re living your entire life like that, with a heightened awareness. Don’t forget that it’s also great money. I don’t know many jobs with the time-to-money ratio that lets you have your freedom— whether to travel, or make art, or be in school. That’s incredibly seductive as well.
There’s a love triangle in your book revolving around the mysterious bartender, Jake. Was Jake someone who had been in your life? What do you think it is about men like him that draws women in?
I never had a Jake in my 20s. I was the opposite of Tess, always attracted to very kind, stable men. But I do understand the allure of emotionally unavailable, intelligent, sensitive men. It’s not merely a case of wanting what you can’t have, but of wanting to fix them or save them. Some of us create an unconscious narrative that if we can cure someone else’s pain, we can cure our own. And while experience has told me that it’s not true, the drive is not necessarily simply self-destructive—I think there’s something pure in it as well.
What story did you want to tell with the novel?
The title is taken from an Anne Carson translation of Sappho, who was the first poet to call love “bittersweet.” Carson mentions that the actual Greek word translates to “sweetbitter,” which is also the order in which we experience love—first the sweet episodes, then comes the bitterness. Tess’s appetite is not just for food, but for experience. I didn’t want her to undergo a grand transformation—that’s not how life works—but instead she can begin to tell apart what’s good for her and what’s bad for her, to differentiate between the sweet and bitter.
How has your time in restaurants figured in your current success? What do you consider your greatest lesson from it?
I consider my years in restaurants my Ph.D.—I could have never written the novel, or gone through the whirlwind of publication without the lessons I took from that time. And there isn’t a better environment if you’re at all interested in observing humanity. But the reason I did well at serving, at managing, and at writing comes down to work ethic. Restaurant people are hard workers— there isn’t a lazy one that makes it. I worked 60-, 70-hour weeks for years. So when I went back to school, I treated it very seriously. When I sat down to write, I worked like a shift. It’s still very calming for me to know I have that in me, that I could clock in tomorrow at Buvette, where I worked while writing Sweetbitter, and go home with money in my pocket.
The way the story of your book deal has been told sounds like a fairy tale. What was that time like for you?
I wrote the first draft while in an MFA program at the New School. I had applied with the novel in mind, and I was really desperate to finish a manuscript. That summer I revised the entire thing in four weeks at an artist residency, Byrdcliffe, in the Catskills. In October my agent and I sent it out, and we took 11 meetings with different publishing houses—I had no idea what was happening, I would go straight from meetings to work at Buvette, and I still didn’t understand that I was going to publish the book. It happened so quickly, and when we met with Knopf and Peter Gethers—who was a regular at Buvette—I knew instantly. I tend to honor my instincts. And I already knew his taste in wine, so I trusted him. Listen, was it a fairy tale? No. Any artist will tell you about the compromise and ugly sacrifice it takes to write a novel. But it still feels like a miracle when I look back on it.
Sweetbitter is available at National Book Store.