Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler: Dangerous liasons in the kitchen

Cover image Sweetbitter is one of those books that turned out to be very much better than I expected. Its blurb reminded me a little of Merrit Tierce’s viscerally intense, short, sharp Love Me Back with its restaurant backdrop,  the location changed from Texas to New York. I knew I’d probably read it but Tierce’s book had so impressed me that I expected Stephane Danler’s debut to fall short, going as far as to describe it as ‘fluff’ in my June preview. That’ll teach me to judge before reading. It follows twenty-two-year-old Tess who turns her back on smalltown Ohio and talks her way into working at a top New York restaurant.

In late June 2006 Tess drives to New York, finds herself a place to live in a ratty Williamsburg apartment and heads off to what her roommate calls the best restaurant in New York, determined to work there. She’s interviewed, somewhat eccentrically, by the general manager and is convinced she’s failed to get the job but Howard spots a ‘fifty-one percenter’, someone prepared to dedicate herself to the constant demands of the restaurant. Tess begins her training, subjected to endless snipey backchat, shouted at, given the dirtiest jobs and expected to know everything without being told. As she proves her mettle, she’s pulled into after-work trips to the Park Bar,  joining in the excesses, sometimes a little too enthusiastically. Eventually she gains the attention of Simone, so accomplished with guests that her tips are a steady twenty-seven per cent. Tess is entranced, thrilled to be singled out and inducted into Simone’s esoteric knowledge and expertise. She also has her eye on Jake, aloof and well-known for his promiscuity. Tess is drawn further and further into the orbit of these two who are, it seems, more than close.

Danler has a keen eye for characterisation. Tess’s gaucheness, occasional flashes of brash confidence and her aching obsessive yearning for both Jake and Simone’s attention are sharply drawn. There’s a touch of Les Liaisons Dangereuses about these two, both magnetic but damaged personalities locked into a deeply dysfunctional relationship in which Tess becomes entangled. Small, subtle touches mark the passage of her year – she becomes ‘Tess’ when she passes her training, no longer the generic ‘new girl. Danler writes beautifully about food and delivers some neatly turned out phrases: Jake takes Tess on ‘a rough pantomime of a date’; staff are ‘fluent in rich people’. The sheer hard physicality of restaurant work coupled with maintaining the appearance of polished urbanity despite the controlled chaos of a working kitchen behind the scenes is vividly conveyed. It’s a thoroughly engrossing novel, hard to put down, and an acutely perceptive portrait of a young woman whose idealism is stripped from her. Sweetbitter comes complete with a paean of praise from Mr Bright Lights, Big City himself, Jay McInerney, and more than lives up to it. In other words, not fluffy at all…

11 thoughts on “Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler: Dangerous liasons in the kitchen”

    1. Delighted to hear that, Annabel, and if I can persuade you to take a gander at Merrill Tierce’s Love Me Back I’ll be a happy woman!

  1. I’d assumed this would be a bit of a fluff read too when I first read about it. Very glad to hear it’s not! I’m going through a bit of a foodie/cooking phase right now, so I’ll add it to my list.

    1. Must be something about the blurb that suggests fluff, then. I hope you’ll give the Tierce a try, too.

  2. Pingback: A Life In Books | Another Brooklyn by Jaqueline Woodson

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