Sweetbitter, Stephanie Danler’s debut novel, is the literary equivalent of spiked chocolate mousse: the lightest of confections, but with a powerful kick. Danler, a former waitress, has fashioned a breezy piece of fiction that dramatizes the behind-the-scenes activities of a posh Manhattan restaurant in exact and unsparing detail. This episodic novel’s depiction of staff members who bandy profanities and snort the harshest drugs is so precise and vividly rendered that, the next time you patronize a fancy eatery, you may wonder what those smiling greeters are up to behind the swinging door.
In June 2006, a 22-year-old English major named Tess arrives in New York from her Midwestern hometown and gets a job as a back waiter at Union Square’s most popular restaurant. Tess is such a novice about food that, when she’s asked during her interview to name “the five noble grapes of Bordeaux,” she “pictured cartoon grapes wearing crowns on their heads, welcoming me to their châteaux.”
The owner hires Tess, however, because he sees her as a “fifty-one percenter,” a person who has the empathy and work ethic lacking in many restaurant employees. Soon, Tess is part of a crew that includes a chef who demands that no one speak to him while he cooks, a food runner who writes screenplays and the bartender with whom Tess is smitten.
Occasionally, Danler tries too hard to be literary, but for the most part, Sweetbitter is a feast of coarse dialogue and industry insight. “You will stumble on secrets,” Tess says early in the novel. So will readers of this entertaining debut.