Now a series on Starz
"Brilliantly written. . . . Outstanding."—The New York Times Book Review
Newly arrived in New York City, twenty-two-year-old Tess lands a job working front of house at a celebrated downtown restaurant. What follows is her education: in champagne and cocaine, love and lust, dive bars and fine dining rooms, as she learns to navigate the chaotic, enchanting, punishing life she has chosen. The story of a young woman’s coming-of-age, set against the glitzy, grimy backdrop of New York’s most elite restaurants, in Sweetbitter Stephanie Danler deftly conjures the nonstop and high-adrenaline world of the food industry and evokes the infinite possibilities, the unbearable beauty, and the fragility and brutality of being young and adrift.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
You will develop a palate.
A palate is a spot on your tongue where you remember. Where you assign words to the textures of taste. Eating becomes a discipline, language-obsessed. You will never simply eat food again.
I don’t know what it is exactly, being a server. It’s a job, certainly, but not exclusively. There’s a transparency to it, an occupation stripped of the usual ambitions. One doesn’t move up or down. One waits. You are a waiter.
It is fast money—loose, slippery bills that inflate and disappear over the course of an evening. It can be a means, to those with concrete ends and unwavering vision. I grasped most of that easily enough when I was hired at the restaurant at twenty-two.
Some of it was a draw: the money, the sense of safety that came from having a place to wait. What I didn’t see was that the time had severe brackets around it. Within those brackets nothing else existed. Outside of them, all you could remember was the blur of a momentary madness. Ninety percent of us wouldn’t even put it on a résumé. We might mention it as a tossed-off reference to our moral rigor, a badge of a certain kind of misery, like enduring earthquakes, or spending time in the army. It was so finite.
I came here in a car like everybody else. In a car filled with shit I thought meant something and shortly thereafter tossed on the street: DVDs, soon to be irrelevant, a box of digital and film cameras for a still-latent photography talent, a copy of On the Road that I couldn’t finish, and a Swedish-modern lamp from Walmart. It was a long, dark drive from a place so small you couldn’t find it on a generous map.
Does anyone come to New York clean? I’m afraid not. But crossing the Hudson I thought of crossing Lethe, milky river of forgetting. I forgot that I had a mother who drove away before I could open my eyes, and a father who moved invisibly through the rooms of our house. I forgot the parade of people in my life as thin as mesh screens, who couldn’t catch whatever it was I wanted to say to them, and I forgot how I drove down dirt roads between desiccated fields, under an oppressive guard of stars, and felt nothing.
Yes, I’d come to escape, but from what? The twin pillars of football and church? The low, faded homes on childless cul-de-sacs? Mornings of the Gazette and boxed doughnuts? The sedated, sentimental middle of it? It didn’t matter. I would never know exactly, for my life, like most, moved only imperceptibly and definitively forward.
Let’s say I was born in late June of 2006 when I came over the George Washington Bridge at seven a.m. with the sun circulating and dawning, the sky full of sharp corners of light, before the exhaust rose, before the heat gridlocked in, windows unrolled, radio turned up to some impossibly hopeful pop song, open, open, open.
SOUR: all the puckering citrus juices, the thin-skinned Meyer lemons, knobbed Kaffirs. Astringent yogurts and vinegars. Lemons resting in pint containers at all the cooks’ sides. Chef yelled, This needs acid!, and they eviscerated lemons, leaving the caressing sting of food that’s alive.
I didn’t know about the tollbooths.
“I didn’t know,” I said to the tollbooth lady. “Can’t I squeeze through this one time?”
The woman in the booth was as unmoved as an obelisk. The driver in the car behind me started honking, and then the driver behind him, until I wanted to duck under the steering wheel. She directed me to the side where I reversed, turned, and found myself facing the direction from which I had just come.
I pulled off into a maze of industrial streets, each one more misleading than the next. It was irrational but I was terrified of not being able to find an ATM and having to go all the way back. I pulled into a Dunkin’ Donuts. I took out twenty dollars and looked at my remaining balance: $146.00. I used the restroom and rinsed off my face. Almost, I said to my strained face in the mirror.
“Can I get a large iced hazelnut coffee?” I asked. The man wheezing behind the counter masticated me with his eyes.
“You’re back?” He handed me the change.
“You were in here yesterday. You got that same coffee.”
“No. I. Did. Not.” I shook my head for emphasis. I imagined myself getting out of the car yesterday, tomorrow, and every day of my new life, pulling into the Dunkin’ Donuts in motherfucking New Jersey, and ordering that coffee. I felt sick. “I didn’t,” I said again, still shaking my head.
“I’m back, it’s me,” I said to the tollbooth woman, rolling the window down triumphantly. She raised one eyebrow and hooked her thumb into her belt loop. I handed her money like it was nothing. “Can I get in now?”
SALT: your mouth waters itself. Flakes from Brittany, liquescent on contact. Blocks of pink salt from the Himalayas, matte gray clumps from Japan. An endless stream of kosher salt, falling from Chef’s hand. Salting the most nuanced of enterprises, the food always requesting more, but the tipping point fatal.
A friend of a friend of a friend, his name was Jesse. A spare bedroom for $700 a month. A neighborhood called Williamsburg. The city was in the grips of a tyrannical heat wave, the daily papers headlined with news of people dying in Queens and the outer boroughs where there were blackouts. The cops were passing out bags of ice, an evaporating consolation.
The streets were wide and vacant and I parked my car on Roebling. It was midafternoon, there wasn’t enough shade, and every business seemed closed. I walked over to Bedford Avenue to look for signs of life. I saw a coffee shop and thought about asking if they needed a barista. When I looked through the window the kids on laptops were thin lipped, pierced, gaunt, so much older than me. I had promised myself to find work swiftly and unthinkingly—as a waitress, a barista, a whatever-the-fuck-job so I could feel planted. But when I told myself to open the door my hand objected.
The waterfront skyline was plastered with skeletons of high-rises, escalating out of the low buildings. They looked like mistakes that had been rubbed out with an eraser. Creaking above an overgrown, abandoned lot was a rusted-out Mobil gas sign—all around me ambivalent evidence of extinction.
This new roommate had left the keys at a bar near the apartment. He worked in an office in Midtown during the day and couldn’t meet me.
Clem’s was a dark spot on a bright corner, the air conditioner rumbling like a diesel motor. It anointed me with a drip when I walked in, and I stood blinking in the airstream while my eyes adjusted.
There was a bartender leaning heavily against the back counter with his boots up on the bar in front of him. He wore a patched and studded denim vest with no shirt underneath. Two women sat in front of him in yellow print dresses, twirling straws in big drinks. No one said anything to me.
“Keys, keys, keys,” he said when I asked. In addition to his body odor, which hit me in the face on my approach, this man was covered in terrifying—demonic—tattoos. The skin of his ribs seemed glued on. A mustache as defined as pigtails. He pulled out the register, threw it on the bar, and rummaged through the drawer underneath. Stacks of credit cards, foreign change, envelopes, receipts. The bills fluttered against the clamps.
“You Jesse’s girl?”
“Ha,” one of the women said from down the bar. She pressed her drink onto her forehead and rolled it back and forth. “That was funny.”
“It’s South Second and Roebling,” I said.
“Am I a fucking real estate agent?” He threw a handful of keys with plastic colored tags at me.
“Aw, don’t scare her,” the second woman said. They didn’t look like sisters exactly, but they were both fleshy, rising out of their halter necklines like figureheads on the prow of a ship. One was blond, the other brunette—and now that I was looking, their dresses were definitely identical. They murmured inside jokes to each other.
How am I going to live here? I wondered. Someone is going to have to change, them or me. I found the keys marked 220 Roebling. The bartender ducked down.
“Thank you very much, sir,” I said to the air.
“Oh, no problem, madame,” he said, popping up and batting his eyes at me. He opened a can of beer, pushed his mustache up, and ran his tongue around it while looking at me.
“Okay,” I said, backing away. “Well, maybe I’ll come in again. For like . . . a drink.”
“I’ll be here with bells on,” he said, turning his back on me. His stench lingered.
Just before I stepped out into the heat I heard one of the women say, “Oh god,” and then from that bartender: “There goes the fucking neighborhood.”
SWEET: granular, powdered, brown, slow like honey or molasses. The mouth-coating sugars in milk. Once, when we were wild, sugar intoxicated us, the first narcotic we craved and languished in. We’ve tamed, refined it, but the juice from a peach still runs like a flash flood.
I don’t remember why I went to that restaurant first.
I do remember—in perfect detail—that stretch of Sixteenth Street that gave away so little: the impersonal, midcentury teal of Coffee Shop, the battalion of dumpsters between us and Blue Water Grill, the bodega with two small card tables where they let you drink beer. Always uniformed servers buying Altoids and energy drinks.
The alley where the cooks lined up to smoke cigarettes between services, the recesses of the alley where they smoked pot and kicked at the rats tearing through the trash. And just beyond our line of vision we could sense the outlines of the scrawny park.
What did the Owner gaze at when he built it? The future.
When I got there they told me a lot of stories. Nobody went to Union Square in the eighties, they said. Only a few of the publishing houses had moved down there. That city has been replaced by another city. The Whole Foods, the Barnes & Noble, the Best Buy—they got stacked right on top of it. In Rome, they dig for a subway and find whole civilizations. With all the artists, the politicians, the tailors, the hairdressers, the bartenders. If you dug right here on Sixteenth Street you’d find us, younger, and all the stale haunts, and all the old bums in the park younger too.
What did those original servers see when they went to the first interviews in 1985? A tavern, a grill, a bistro? A mess of Italy, France, and some burgeoning American cuisine that nobody really believed in yet? A hodgepodge that shouldn’t have worked? When I asked them what they saw, they said he’d built a kind of restaurant that hadn’t been there before. They all said that when they walked in, it felt like coming home.
BITTER: always a bit unanticipated. Coffee, chocolate, rosemary, citrus rinds, wine. Once, when we were wild, it told us about poison. The mouth still hesitates at each new encounter. We urge it forward, say, Adapt. Now, enjoy it.
I smiled too much. At the end of the interview the corners of my mouth ached like stakes in a tent. I wore a black sundress and a pilled cardigan, which was the most conservative and professional thing I owned. I had a handful of résumés folded up in my purse, and my loose plan—if that’s even the right word for the hesitant brand of instinct I forced myself to follow with a sense of doom—was to walk into restaurants until I got hired. When I asked my roommate where I should look for a job, he said the best restaurant in New York City was in Union Square. Within a minute of getting off the train I developed giant wet half-moons of sweat in the cardigan, but the top of my dress was too revealing to remove it.
“Why did you choose New York?” asked Howard, the general manager.
“I thought you were going to ask me why I chose this restaurant,” I said.
“Let’s start with New York.”
I knew from books, movies, and Sex and the City how I was supposed to answer. I’ve always dreamed of living here, they say. They stress the word dreamed, lengthen it, to make it sound true.
I knew so many said: I came here to be a singer/dancer/actress/photographer/painter. In finance/fashion/publishing. I came here to be powerful/beautiful/wealthy. This always seemed to mean: I’m stopping here to become someone else.
I said, “It really didn’t feel like a choice. Where else is there to go?”
“Ah,” he said. “It’s a bit of a calling isn’t it?”
That’s all. Ah. And I felt like he understood that I didn’t have endless options, that there was only one place large enough to hold so much unbridled, unfocused desire. Ah. Maybe he knew how I fantasized about living a twenty-four-hour life. Maybe he knew how bored I had been up until now.
Howard was in his late forties with a cultivated, square face. His hair receded finely, emphasizing bulging eyes that told me he didn’t need much sleep. He stood squarely on athletic legs, balancing a prominent belly. Judicious eyes, I thought, as he tapped his fingers on the white tablecloth and assessed me.
“You have nice nails,” I said, looking at his hands.
“It’s part of the job,” he said, unswayed. “Tell me what you know about wine.”
“Oh, the basics. I’m competent in the basics.” As in I knew the difference between white and red wine and it couldn’t get more basic than that.
“For example,” he said, looking around the room as if plucking a question from the air, “what are the five noble grapes of Bordeaux?”
I pictured cartoon grapes wearing crowns on their heads, welcoming me to their châteaux—Hello, we are the noble grapes of Bordeaux, they said. I debated lying. It was impossible to know how much honesty about my ignorance would be valued.
“Mer . . . lot?”
“Yes,” he said. “That’s one.”
“Cabernet? I’m sorry, I don’t really drink Bordeaux.”
He seemed sympathetic. “Of course, it’s a bit above the average price point.”
“Yep.” I nodded. “That’s totally it.”
“What do you drink?”
My first instinct was to list the different beverages I drank on a daily basis. The noble grapes were back in my head, dancing, telling him all about my Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee.
“What do I drink when?”
“When you purchase a bottle of wine, what do you tend toward?”
I imagined myself purchasing a bottle of wine, not based on price or proximity to the checkout line, not based on what animal was on the label, but by an internal matrix of my own taste. That image was as laughable as my noble grapes, even if I was wearing a cardigan.
“Beaujolais? Is that a wine?”
“It is. Beaujolais, c’est un vin fainéant et radin.”
“Which cru do you prefer?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, batting my eyelashes forcibly, falsely.
“Do you have any experience as a server?”
“Yes. I’ve been working at that coffee shop for years. It’s on my résumé.”
“I mean in a restaurant. Do you know what it means to be a server?”
“Yes. When the plates are ready I bring them out and serve them to customers.”
“You mean guests.”
“Yes, that’s what I meant.” He scribbled on the top of my résumé. Server? Guests? What was the difference between a guest and a customer?
“It says here you were an English major.”
“Yes. I know. It’s generic.”
“What are you reading?”
“What are you reading right now?”
“Is that a job question?”
“Perhaps.” He smiled. His eyes made an unabashed, slow circle around my face.
“Um. Nothing. For the first time in my life, I’m reading nothing.” I paused and looked out the window. I don’t think anyone, even my professors, had once asked me what I was reading. He was digging, and though I had no idea what he was looking for, I decided it was better to play. “You know, Howard, if I can call you that, when I was leaving for here I packed a few boxes of books. But then I really started looking at them. These books were . . . I don’t know . . . totems of who I was. . . . I . . .”
My words had a point, I had just felt the point coming, I was trying to tell him the truth. “I left them behind. That’s what I mean.”
He rested his cheek on an aristocratic hand. He listened. No, he perceived. I felt perceived. “Yes. It’s startling to look back on the passionate epiphanies of our youth. But a good sign perhaps. That our minds have changed, that we’ve evolved.”
“Or maybe it means we’ve forgotten ourselves. And we keep forgetting ourselves. And that’s the big grown-up secret to survival.”
I stared out the window. The city passed on, obliviously. If this went badly I would forget it too.
“Are you a writer?”
“No,” I said. The table came back into focus. He was looking at me. “I like books. And everything else.”
“You like everything else?”
“You know what I mean, I like it all. I like being moved.”
He made another note on my résumé.
“What do you dislike?”
“What?” I thought I’d misheard him.
“If you like being moved, what do you dislike?”
“Are these normal questions?”
“This isn’t a normal restaurant.” He smiled and crossed his hands.
“Okay.” I looked back out the window. Enough. “I don’t like that question.”
My palms were damp. That was the moment I realized I wanted the job. That job, at that restaurant specifically. I looked at my hands and said, “It feels a little personal.”
“All right.” He didn’t skip a beat, a quick glance at my résumé and he was on track. “Can you tell me about a problem at one of your last jobs? At that coffee shop, I suppose. Tell me about a problem there and how you solved it.”
As if I had dreamed it, the interior of the coffee shop dissolved when I tried to recall it directly. And when I tried to remember punching in there, tried to remember the sink, the register, the coffee grinds, the objects faded. And then her fat, gloating, vindictive face appeared.
“There was this awful woman, Mrs. Pound. I mean it, she was insufferable. We called her The Hammer. From the second she walked in everything was wrong, the coffee scalded her or it tasted like dirt, the music was too loud, or her blueberry muffin had poisoned her the night before. She was always threatening to shut us down, telling us to get our lawyer ready each time she bumped into a table. She wanted scrambled eggs for her dog. Never tipped us a cent. She was dreaded. But then, this was a little over a year ago, she had her foot amputated. She was diabetic. None of us ever knew, I mean, why would we know? And she would wheel by in her wheelchair and everyone was like, Finally, The Hammer is done.”
“Finally, what?” Howard asked.
“Oh, I forgot that part. We didn’t have a ramp. And there were stairs. So she was finished, more or less.”
“More or less,” he said.
“But, the real part of the story. We met eyes one day when she was wheeling by, and she was glaring, I mean, hateful. And I don’t know why, but I missed her. I missed her face. So I made her coffee and I ran after her. I wheeled her across the street to the park and she complained about everything from the weather to indigestion. From then on it was our thing. Every day. I even brought the scrambled eggs in a to-go container for her dog. My coworkers made so much fun of me.”
The Hammer’s swollen, varicosed legs. Flashing her stump at me from under her housedress. Her purple fingers.
“Does that answer your question? The problem was not having a ramp, I guess. The solution was to bring out the coffee. I’m sorry, I didn’t explain it very well.”
“I think you explained it perfectly. That was a kind thing to do.”
I shrugged. “I really liked her actually.”
The Hammer was the only impolite person I knew. She put me in that restaurant. I felt it then but didn’t understand it. It was her niece’s daughter who was a friend of a friend of my new roommate in Williamsburg. Our goodbye had been tearful—on my end, not hers. I promised to write her letters, but the weeks were eclipsing our small relationship. And as I looked at Howard and the perfectly set table and the tasteful hydrangea arrangement between us, I understood what he meant by guest, and I also knew that I would never see her again.
“Did you move here with anyone? Girlfriends? A boyfriend?”
“That’s very brave.”
“Is it? It’s been two days and I feel pretty foolish.”
“It’s brave if you make it, foolish if you fail.”
I wanted to ask him how I would be able to tell the difference and when.
“If you’re hired here, what do you want the next year to bring you?”
I forgot that I was being interviewed. I forgot about my negative bank account, my pit stains, and the noble grapes. I said something about wanting to learn. About my work ethic.
I was never good at the future. I grew up with girls whose chief occupation was the future—designing it, instigating it. They could talk about it with so much confidence that it sounded like the past. During those talks, I had contributed nothing.
I had visions, too abstract and flat for me to hang on to. For years I saw a generic city lit up at night. I would use those remote, artificial lights to soothe myself to sleep. One day I was quitting my job with no sense of exhilaration, one day I was leaving a note for my father, pulling out of his driveway, slightly bewildered, and two days later I was sitting in front of Howard. That was the way the future came to me.
The vision that accompanied me on my drive was a girl, a lady actually. We had the same hair but she didn’t look like me. She was in a camel coat and ankle boots. A dress under the coat was belted high on her waist. She carried various shopping bags from specialty stores and as she was walking, pausing at certain windows, her coat would fly back in the wind. Her boot heels tapped on the cobblestones. She had lovers and breakups, an analyst, a library, acquaintances she ran into on the street whose names she couldn’t call to mind. She belonged to herself only. She had edges, boundaries, tastes, definition down to her eyelashes. And when she walked it was clear she knew where she was going.
As I thanked him and we reviewed my contact information, I didn’t know what had transpired, whether it was good or bad. It took me a moment to even remember the name of the restaurant. He held my hand too long and as I stood, his eyes traveled down my body, not like an employer’s, but like a man’s.
“I dislike mopping. And lying,” I said. I don’t know why. “Those are the two that come to mind.”
He nodded and smiled—what I wanted to call a private smile. The backs of my legs were damp with sweat and as I walked away I felt his eyes unabashedly on my ass. At the door, I rolled my cardigan off my shoulders, and arched as if stretching. No one knows how I got the job, but it’s better to be honest about these things.
TASTE, Chef said, is all about balance. The sour, the salty, the sweet, the bitter. Now your tongue is coded. A certain connoisseurship of taste, a mark of how you deal with the world, is the ability to relish the bitter, to crave it even, the way you do the sweet.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Sweetbitter, the dazzling, eagerly awaited debut novel by Stephanie Danler.
1. The title appears within one of the novel’s epigraphs, a quote from a poem by Sappho: “Eros once again limb-loosener whirls me / Sweetbitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up.” How does this fit into Tess’s story?
2. On page 4, Tess likens the Hudson River to Lethe. According to Greek mythology, the dead drink from Lethe to forget their previous lives. On page 13, in her interview with Howard, Tess says, “Or maybe it means we’ve forgotten ourselves. And we keep forgetting ourselves. And that’s the big grown-up secret to survival.” What is Tess trying to forget?
3. Throughout the novel, Tess considers the idea that she is a “fifty-one percenter,” whose optimistic warmth, intelligence, work ethic, empathy, and self-awareness and integrity made her uniquely qualified to work at the restaurant. How does this concept figure into her developing sense of herself, and her coworkers? Does it prove to be a good thing?
4. Simone is prone to lecturing Tess philosophically. (Appetite “cannot be cured. It’s a state of being, and like most, has its attendant moral consequences.” [page 62] “Your senses are never inaccurate—it’s your ideas that can be false.” [page 78]) What do these proclamations tell us about Simone’s character? And what do we learn about Tess?
5. “The sharing of secrets is a ceremony, marking kinship. You have no secrets yet, so you don’t know what you don’t know” (page 89). What secrets does Tess develop? Do they help her, or hurt her?
6. What does Simone mean when she tells Tess, “And you want to take every experience on the pulse” (page 95)? And when Tess repeats that phrase to Jake on page 145, why does he say, “You’re too malleable to be around [Simone]”?
7. The concept of “terroir” appears several times in the novel. On page 133, Tess wonders if people can have it. Which characters do you think have terroir? Can a book have it?
8. At what point does it become clear to the reader that Tess has developed a problem with drugs and alcohol? When does she realize it?
9. Simone and Jake each influence Tess greatly. Whose influence proves more beneficial, and whose is more damaging? What does she want from each of them? What does she get?
10. On page 196, Tess tells Jake, “You’re all terrified of young people. We remind you of what it was like to have ideals, faith, freedom. We remind you of the losses you’ve taken as you’ve grown cynical, numb, disenchanted, compromising the life you imagined. I don’t have to compromise yet. I don’t have to do a single thing I don’t want to do. That’s why you hate me.” What do you think of her assessment?
11. Several of Tess’s coworkers assign to her nicknames of their own devising—“new girl,” “Skipper,” “Fluffer,” “little one.” The reader doesn’t even learn her real name until page 216. What do these names have in common? Are they terms of endearment, or belittling?
12. What role does Howard play in Tess’s coming of age? What does he see in her that she hasn’t yet seen in herself?
13. Tess and Simone each came to New York at twenty-two. How were their paths similar, and how were they different?
14. Tess and Jake both grew up motherless. Simone becomes a mother figure for each. Which of them gets the most out of the relationship: Tess, Jake, or Simone?
15. Why does Samantha’s appearance at the restaurant affect Simone so deeply?
16. Why does discovering Simone’s key tattoo affect Tess so deeply?
17. When examining the photographs pinned to Jake’s wall, Tess thinks, “It reminded me, the way he skirted around those photos, of something Simone had told me during one of our lessons: try not to have ideas about things, always aim for the thing itself. I still did not understand these four photographs, the why of them” (page 291). What does this passage mean? What does she want to know?
18. Why does Tess feel so betrayed when she learns about Jake and Simone’s planned sabbatical? How does the timing, coinciding with the restaurant’s closing, affect her response?
19. Over the course of the novel, Tess devotes herself to studying wine—but after she shares her thoughts on Beaujolais, Mrs. Neely says, “Child, what is wrong with you? There’s no roses in the damn wine. Wine is wine and it makes you loose and helps you dance. That’s it. The way you kids talk, like everything is life or death” (page 335). What does this exchange do for Tess? What does Mrs. Neely represent?
20. When Sasha tells Tess about the reality of Jake and Simone’s relationship, why is she surprised?
21. Why does Tess have sex with Howard?
22. Regularly throughout the novel, the author interrupts Tess’s storytelling with collections of overheard fragments of conversation. What purpose do these poetic interludes serve? What does the final one represent?