Inspired by Alice in Wonderland
NATIONAL BESTSELLER A lush, raw, thrilling novel of the senses about a year in the life of a uniquely beguiling young woman, set in the wild, seductive world of a famous New York City restaurant. "A restaurant is and always will be a young person’s game, but the busboys these...
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A lush, raw, thrilling novel of the senses about a year in the life of a uniquely beguiling young woman, set in the wild, seductive world of a famous New York City restaurant.
"Brilliantly written... Sweetbitter is the Kitchen Confidential of our time." —Gabrielle Hamilton, author of Blood, Bones & Butter, New York Times Book Review
Sweetbitter…[is] an unpretentious, truth-dealing, summer-weight novel…that reads like a letter home from a self-deprecating friend…Ms. Danler is a sensitive observer of the almost wartime camaraderie among workers at a restaurant that's humming at full capacity, of the exhaustion, of the postshift drinking in dive bars until dawn, of the sex and other stimulants—the biggest one simply being young and alive and open to the animal and intellectual possibilities that New York offers…Ms. Danler is a gifted commenter…on many things, class especially…Sweetbitter grows darker than you might expect, in terms of where Tess's desires lead her. It's a book about hunger of every variety, even the sort that can disturb you and make you sometimes ask yourself, as does Tess, "Was I a monster or was this what it felt like to be a person?" -The New York Times - Dwight Garner
The following is an excerpt from Sweetbitter, a new novel from Stephanie Danler out May 24.
The Owner told me at orientation, “There are many endeavors to bring pleasure to people. Every artist assumes that challenge. But what we do here is the most intimate. We are making something you take inside you. Not the food, the experience.”
Two areas of the restaurant were flawless: first, three café-style tables in the front framed by a large window at the entrance. The tables were set in the day’s changing light. Some people—I mean guests—hated to be next to the entrance, to be sectioned off from the main dining rooms. But some of them wouldn’t sit anywhere else. These tables were often held for the most poised guests—rarely a sloucher or anyone in denim.
The Owner said, “Running a restaurant means setting a stage. The believability hinges on the details. We control how they experience the world: sight, sound, taste, smell, touch. That starts at the door, with the host and the flowers.”
And then, the bar. Timeless: long, dark mahogany, with stools high enough to make you feel like you were afloat. The bar had soft music, dim lighting, tinkling layers of noise, the bumps of a neighbor’s knee, the reach of someone’s arm by your face to take a glittering martini, the tap of a hostess as she escorted guests behind your back, the blur of plates being passed, the rattle of drinks, the virtuoso performance of bartenders slapping bottles into the back bar while also delivering bread, while also taking an order with the requisite substitutions and complications. All the best regulars came in and greeted the hostess saying, “Any space at the bar tonight?”
“Our goal,” he said, “is to make the guests feel that we are on their side. Any business transaction—actually any life transaction—is negotiated by how you are making the other person feel.” The Owner looked and spoke like a deity. Sometimes the New York Post referred to him as the mayor. Tall, tan, handsome with perfect white teeth, effortless articulation, and gorgeous gesticulation. I listened to him accordingly, with my hands in my lap.
Yet there was a tension I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Something false about making guests “feel” that we were on their side. I looked around the room and suddenly everything looked like currency to me: the silver, the wooden beams, the regal floral arrangement crowning the bar. Jesus, I thought, you can get rich by making people feel good about spending their money. We weren’t on their side; we were on the Owner’s side. All the emphasis on details, all the jargon—it was still just a business, right?
When orientation had finished, I wanted to catch his eye and let him know that I got it. I wanted to ask someone how much of that money I would be taking home. Then I approached him at the exit and he looked me in the eyes. I stopped. He said my name though I hadn’t told him. He shook my hand and nodded like he had already forgiven me for all my shortcomings and would remember my face forever.
He said, “We are creating the world as it should be. We don’t have to pay any attention to how it is.”
When I got the job, I didn’t actually get the job. I got to train for the job. And the position was “backwaiter,” which wasn’t the same as being a server. Howard, the general manager, led me up a narrow spiral staircase in the back of the kitchen and deposited me in the locker room. He said, “You’re the new girl now. You have a certain responsibility.”
He left without clarifying what that responsibility was. In the corner of the windowless room sat two older Latino men and a woman. They had been speaking in Spanish but were now staring at me. A small electric fan shuddered behind them. I tried a smile.
“Is there somewhere I can change?”
“Right here, mami,” the woman said.
“Okay,” I said. I opened my locker and stuck my face into it, blocking them from my sight. Howard had told me to buy a white button-down shirt, and I put it on over my tank top to avoid undressing.
The door burst open and a man said, “Are you not hungry? Are you coming?”
I looked at the three in the corner to make sure he was talking to me.
“No, I’m hungry,” I said. I wasn’t, I just wanted something to do.
There were tables in the back dining room set with stainless-steel sheet trays and bowls so big I could bathe in them. Macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, potato salad, biscuits, an oily green salad with shredded carrots. Pitchers of iced tea. It looked like food for a large catered event, but my trailer handed me a white plate and started helping himself to family meal. He went and sat at a table in the corner without inviting me to follow. The staff had taken over the back dining room. They came from every department: the servers in aprons, people in white coats, women removing headsets, men in suits, tugging at ties. I sat near the servers, in the very last chair—it was the best seat in case I needed to run.
Preshift turned out to be a turbulent affair. A frazzled, skittish manager named Zoe was looking at me like it was my fault. She kept calling out numbers or names—things like “Section 6” and “Mr. Blah-blah at 8 p.m.,” but the servers talked right through her. I nodded deafly. I couldn’t touch my food.
The servers looked like actors—each perfectly idiosyncratic but rehearsed. It all felt staged for my benefit. They wore striped shirts of every color. They were performing, snapping, clapping, kissing, cutting each other off, layers of noise colluding while I sank into my seat.
Howard walked up with wineglasses hanging like spokes from his hand. A young man in a suit trailed behind him with a bottle of wine wrapped in brown paper. The servers passed around the glasses with tastes of wine, but one never made it to me.
When Howard clapped his hands everyone went silent. “Who would like to begin?”
Someone called out, “Pinot, obviously.”
“New World or Old?” Howard asked, scanning the room. His eyes fell on me for a second and I dropped my face to my plate. I remembered every time a teacher had called on me and I didn’t know the answer. I remembered wetting my pants in the fourth grade and thought that if he called on me I would again now.
“Old World,” a voice called out.
“Obviously,” someone else said.
“It’s old. I mean, it’s got age—look, it’s beginning to pale.”
“So we’re talking Burgundy.”
“It’s just a matter of deduction now, HR.” This man lifted his glass and pointed it to Howard. “I’m on to you.”
“A little austere to be Côte de Beaune.”
“Is it off?”
“I was thinking it might be off!”
“No, it’s perfect.”
They stopped talking. I leaned forward to see who had said that. She was in the same row as me, behind too many people. I saw the bowl of her glass as she pulled it away from her nose and then brought it back. Her voice, low, ponderous, continued:
“Côte de Nuits…hmm, Howard, this is a treat. Gevrey-Chambertin, of course. The Harmand-Geoffroy.” She put the glass down in front of her. From what I saw, she hadn’t taken a sip. The wine caught the light rebelliously. “The 2000. It’s actually showing really well.”
“I agree, Simone. Thank you.” Howard clapped his hands together. “Friends, this wine is a steal, and don’t let the difficult 2000 vintage put you off. Côte de Nuits was able to pull off some stunning wines and they are drinking well, today, right now, this minute. As far as this gift goes, pass it on to your guests tonight.”
Everyone stood up together. The people around me stacked their plates on top of my full one and left. I held them to my chest and pushed through the swinging doors in the kitchen. Two servers walked by on my right and I heard one of them say in a false singsong, “Oh, the Harmand‑Geoffroy, of course,” and the other girl rolled her eyes. Someone walked by on my left and said to me, “Seriously? You don’t know what a dishwasher looks like?”
I moved toward a trough laden with dirty dishes that ran the length of the room. I set my stack down apologetically. A tiny gray-haired man on the other side of the trough huffed and took my stack, scraping the food off of each one and into a trash can.
“Pinche idiota,” he said, and spat into the trough in front of him.
“Thank you,” I said. Maybe I had never actually made a mistake before in my life and this is what it felt like. Like your hands were slipping off of every facet, like you didn’t have the words or directions and even gravity wasn’t reliable. I felt my trailer behind me and spun around to grab him.
“Where do I—” I reached out for an arm and noticed too late that it wasn’t striped. It was bare. There was a static shock when I touched it.
“Oh. You’re not my person.” I looked up. Black jeans and a white T-shirt with a backpack on one shoulder. Eyes so pale, a weatherworn, spectral blue. He was covered in sweat and slightly out of breath. I inhaled sharply. “My trailer person, I mean. You’re not him.”
His eyes were a vise. “Are you sure?”
I nodded. He looked me up and down, indiscreetly.
“What are you?”
“Jake.” We both turned. The woman who had known the wine stood in the doorway. She didn’t see me. Her gaze distilled the kitchen light to its purest element.
“Good morning. What time does your shift start again?”
“Oh, f*#% off, Simone.”
She smiled, pleased.
“I have your plate,” she said, and turned into the dining room. The doors swung back violently. And then all I could see was his feet pounding the last few stairs.