Former Restaurant Worker Serves Up Industry-Inspired Fiction In 'Sweetbitter'
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. If you eat in high-end restaurants regularly or rarely, you expect exceptional food and friendly, attentive service. Our guest today Stephanie Danler peels the current back on what it takes to deliver that food and service in her new novel, "Sweetbitter." Danler's worked years in the restaurant business. And the story's told through the eyes of a 22-year-old woman who comes to New York to start a new life and is quickly immersed in the frenzied workplace culture of the restaurant and the equally frenzied after-hours social life of restaurant workers. In a New York Times review, chef Gabrielle Hamilton called "Sweetbitter" true and beautifully written and said she actually missed a plane she was waiting to board because she was so engrossed in Danler's description of an unannounced inspection by the health department. Stephanie Danler holds a master's in fine arts and creative writing from The New School. "Sweetbitter" is her first novel.
STEPHANIE DANLER: (Reading) 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 and 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, the best seat if I needed to run.
Pre-shift 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 sections six and Mr. blah 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.
DAVIES: And that's Stephanie Danler reading from her new novel, "Sweetbitter." Well, Stephanie Danler, welcome to FRESH AIR. We've all had this experience of starting a new job and not knowing the ropes, right? That's normal. And I'd assume you had started many new jobs by the time you got into the restaurant business. But I wonder, was there something different about these people? Are restaurant people different?
DANLER: Restaurant people in New York are different. So my first restaurant job was when I was 16 years old. I started as a hostess. And I've never worked another industry. But when I got to New York, the level of professionalism and the seriousness of the industry totally blew me away. Here you have people that aren't just holding server jobs while they pursue something else. These aren't temporary placeholders in their lives. This is actually giving them the life they want. They're professional servers. They have health benefits and vacations, they own homes, they have children, there is growth. It is a viable industry. And in 2006, it was not quite as common as it is now that we've seen the explosion in food culture to have these professional servers. But I fell into that world and fell absolutely head-over-heels in love with it, much like my character in the novel.
DAVIES: Right, and when you're coming into people who are expecting a certain standard and you're a complete newbie and don't know much, it must be pretty intimidating.
DANLER: It's incredibly intimidating. It - restaurant culture has its own version of hazing and initiation. And you get a uniform and you get a nickname and you learn a new language and everything is over your head initially. And I think the first part of the book, which takes place during summer while she's training, she barely speaks. She has no voice yet, and that is very true to what I experienced and I think what most people experience when they enter a new field and they have to learn the ropes very quickly on the fly.
DAVIES: Yeah. Her nickname's - what? - New Girl Fluffy - was it, Fluffer? (Laughter).
DANLER: Fluffer (laughter).
DAVIES: Not the most flattering thing to be called. Yeah.
DANLER: An assistant of sorts. No...
DAVIES: What kind of nickname...
DANLER: ...They call her Skipper, they call her Pop-Tart, Baby Monster - she - there a lot of diminutive nicknames throughout the novel. And restaurants are a nickname culture. Everyone has one.
DAVIES: What nicknames did you have when you started?
DANLER: I don't think I can share that.
DANLER: Let's say they were similar to her's.
DAVIES: OK. OK. Just tell us a little bit about the hierarchy in the restaurant. What were the different jobs and kind of the social structure that emerged from them?
DANLER: So this is particular of a Danny Meyer restaurant in which there are no busboys. There is instead a back waiter or a back server. And what that means is that everyone is expected to be at the same level as the servers, but you are assisting them. You're clearing their plates, you're opening wine for them, you're setting the tables up while the servers are kind of the showmen who are talking about the specials and explaining the different bottles of wine.
Above the servers, generally you have the bartenders, who have been there the longest. The bars are kind of the emotional center. It's the emotional center of this novel and this restaurant. But most restaurants, I find, I gravitate towards the bar. It's - the bartenders seem to be the keeper of the wisdom of the place. And they also know how to make a great drink quickly. Above them you have your managers. And then above that you have the general manager, who in the novel I've envisioned as a sort of puppet master.
DAVIES: Right, referred to as the owner. I don't even know if we ever learn his name.
DANLER: No. His name isn't important. At that point, the owner is not actually making the restaurant run. But he's informed the ethic of it.
DAVIES: There was a lot to learn in the job. And it was also physically taxing, at times painful, injurious, wasn't it?
DANLER: Punishing is how I always think about it. I personally, in my life, went back to waiting tables when I was 30 and I was in graduate school working on the novel. Before that, I had been managing restaurants and the beverage director for a restaurant group. And that is a terrible job in its own way. It's 70 hours a week. It takes all of your brain.
But I had forgotten about how the joints in your wrist just ache all night and the heels of your feet. It's so physically punishing to be running for 10 hours, bumping into people, carrying bus tubs down the stairs and trying to maintain a sense of elegance while doing it all - incredibly taxing.
DAVIES: There's a moment when you say there's a ballet among all of these people that are carrying things, occupying the same space, you know, performing different tasks. And they just somehow know to work it like a choreographed dance group.
DANLER: Absolutely. And Tess, the protagonist, is so aware of it because she's trying to fit into it. She's trying to understand how to anticipate movement. At a certain point in the novel, she stops observing it because it's become automatic to her. She's been absorbed by the ballet. But I think about how if one person is moving in the wrong way, it will throw off the entire flow of the restaurant.
I still see that when I walk into restaurants. I'll see a bartender who's way behind on drinks, and tickets are printing. And I know that if the drinks aren't being delivered, the table's not going to get their appetizers until afterwards. It's so precise, the choreography, and it's so necessary to make the machinery run well, that when one little part of it is off, you can feel it everywhere.
DAVIES: Which makes for a real intensity for everybody on every shift.
DANLER: Absolutely. The novel is about intensity. It's intensity of taste, intensity of smells and noises, but also an intense presence of the movements going on around you.
DAVIES: Stephanie Danler's new novel is "Sweetbitter." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Stephanie Danler. Her first novel is called "Sweetbitter." You said that bartenders are above the serving staff. And how did you put it - they're the - hold the wisdom of the restaurant? What do we mean by that?
DANLER: Bartenders - the bartenders that I've worked with tend to have been there for many, many years. They're often the most senior servers. When you're behind the bar, it's as if you're up on a stage, and you're protected from the guests in a way. A lot of servers don't want to be bartenders because you're being watched all the time. You can't disappear into the kitchen.
You can't disappear into a hutch. But that job typically - you make the most money. You've been there the longest, and you have these really beautiful interactions with the guests. It's very casual. People come and go. People also linger.
And I think that bartenders are often the people that the servers will look to to help maintain control in the restaurant or the managers will look to them as well to help kind of police or manage what's going on.
DAVIES: The jobs are physically demanding. But it's interesting that you describe that an important part of what goes on, maybe one of the most important parts, is the way the waitstaff, the servers, all deal with the guests. And there's a kind of, I don't know - what would you call it? - animacy or affected animacy? Do you want to talk a bit about people who do that well and what it's like?
DANLER: Yeah, and I'm going to borrow a little bit from Danny Meyer, actually, because in the novel, I've used his concept of the 51-percenter, the idea being that 49 percent of the job of serving is the mechanics. It's the ability to three-plate carry and drop the plates at the table number and to show up on time and work the Micros Terminal. But 51 percent of the job is what he's hiring for. And he has these skills that he says compose a 51-percenter.
But what I've narrowed it down to over the years is empathy. It's this ability to deeply empathize. Once you're doing that, you can anticipate needs, which is what the next level of serving is, to know that you would like another Manhattan before you've even registered that you're finishing your first one, to overhear that it's someone's birthday and put the writing on the plate or put a candle in the desert, to see that it's raining and bring out a stash of umbrellas.
That's the 51-percenter mentality. But what it takes is this empathy and compassion that Danny says you can't train people for. They have to be born that way.
DAVIES: Yeah, it's interesting. And you write that in this restaurant, there are regulars who come in. And people get to know the regulars and sometimes a lot about their lives. And I'm wondering after you develop this empathy with the guests and deal with them so expertly, that then after the shift, do people talk about their guests in mocking ways?
Or do you feel a real identity with them?
DANLER: The regulars do become a part of the family, the restaurant family. And in that way, they get teased or mocked like anyone else within the restaurant family. But it's typically with love. That's been my experience because these people are coming back. They're part of the landscape of your evening. And you're spending your time with them. But definitely, to be totally candid, there is mockery, occasionally.
DAVIES: (Laughter) Tess, the one who comes to New York and is at the center of this novel, you know, discovers a whole new world - she learns - of food. I mean, she learns to distinguish the tastes of different kinds of oysters or a rare sea urchin that is served at a point. And she learns all about wine.
When you came to this business, was it an aspiration for you to develop a palate and learn all this stuff? Or did this come to you by experience?
DANLER: It was definitely an aspiration. I was so far behind. And I thought that I was fairly sophisticated like most of us do when we're 22. And then you walk into Union Square Cafe and even the back waiters know all the different appellations in Burgundy, whereas I was drinking Yellow Tail still, which has animals on the label (laughter).
So I definitely took to it and studied in the off hours and wanted to reach their level and become a professional in the industry. That experience is very personal, the experience I describe in the book. And at this point, it's the way that I live my life. But I had to go back to accessing all of those firsts, all of the first tastes when I first moved to the city.
DAVIES: Was there a moment when you were new to this that kind of taught you, wow, I really don't know very much?
DANLER: When I moved to New York City, it was in the summer of 2006. And I loved tomatoes. I was one of those kids that had always loved tomatoes and thought that I knew what tomatoes were all about. And I had my first heirloom tomato in the restaurant in a dish that Chef Carmen Quagliata prepared at Union Square Cafe. And it's a fruit at the height of its season.
And it's two weeks when the tomatoes are absolutely perfect. And I come from Southern California. I can get tomatoes all year round. But I had never tasted anything like it. And I just thought, oh, this is what a tomato tastes like. I've been so lost my entire life.
DANLER: It's moments like that that I try to get - really explore in the novel.
DAVIES: Right. And you can multiply that by dozens of other things, truffles and wines and everything.
DANLER: Right, and I think the most important thing to me when I was writing those scenes was that they be essential to Tess's transformation. I think that food is so easy to write about in a way. The adjectives just start flowing, and you're like, oh, this is gorgeous. Let's keep going. But if it's not essential to the journey that the protagonist is on, it's throwaway.
There's so much food writing on the cutting room floor. So the things like the oysters, the truffles, the tomatoes, those are all moments when Tess is transforming. And you can't take the food out of those scenes.
DAVIES: It's a high-quality place. The Union Square Cafe was a well-known place when you worked there. These are, on the other hand, restaurants in New York City. And there are issues of rodents and insects and the like. What did you see when you were working there - and that restaurant or others?
DANLER: Yeah, let's say all restaurants...
DANLER: ...Because I've been very blessed to work in some of the cleanest restaurants in New York City. And when I managed restaurants, for the proverbial record, I always received an A at everywhere I worked. That's an A in the health code grading system of New York City.
But when I got to New York and saw that there were insects or rodents or that there was trash on the street or that the park that I loved to nap in during the day was covered with rats at night, these are facts of the city. And I think the people - no one around me was concerned.
And so even though I didn't have a context for it yet - I hadn't lived in the city for 10 years - I could see that everyone else wasn't fazed. So I thought, oh, this must be normal.
DANLER: And it is normal. It's just - so much of it is out of your control. If they're doing construction next door to you, if the place next door to you isn't particularly clean, if you're close to a park, there's really so little you can do about it.
DAVIES: So despite all the best efforts, there will be insects, there will be rodents in restaurant, in the kitchen, in the storage places?
DANLER: I think that is true of most places. Can I leave it at that?
DAVIES: OK. Before we leave the subject of cleanliness, I want you to read this section. This is late in the book where a health inspector shows up at the fancy restaurant on Union Square.
DANLER: Yeah. There's a scene late in the novel when the health inspector does come to the restaurant. And it was a very traumatic scene to write but people seem to enjoy reading it. So I'll read a little bit from it now. (Reading) Scott, drained of color, said the health department's here. Chef set down his knife and in the quietest and most controlled of voices said nobody touch the fridges. The kitchen detonated. People ran. Chef flew up the stairs. From all over the kitchen, things went soaring into the garbage - half a leg of prosciutto and the ropes of sausages hanging by the butcher station. Bar mops dropped into the trash like streamers. Anything that had been out in the process of being chopped or even salted went into the trash - potatoes that were being sliced for fries, breakfast radishes that were being cleaned, sauces that were being divided into labeled quarts.
Interns ran up from the basement with brooms and swept madly from the corners. Porters tied off trash bags. The line cooks pulled down pint containers from the shelves above their stations. Inside were kits with bandannas, thermometers, pencil-thin flashlights. I had never seen such precise chaos in my life, the fear animating everyone.
So we talked about a two-minute drill, but nobody had trained me on it. I assumed it was above my pay grade. Ariel pulled all the cutting boards off the table and I grabbed her. What on earth do I do? She looked me up and down and pulled the bar mops hanging from my apron string and threw them away. She held my hands and said you're going to run the food just like you were doing a minute ago. And when you get into the dining room, you smile extra hard. And when you see a man holding a flashlight and a clipboard, you make sure he sees how pretty and happy you are. Don't open the fridges. We need stable temperatures. Don't touch any food, not even a lemon or a straw at the bar. That's it.
DAVIES: (Laughter) That is Stephanie Danler, reading from her new novel, "Sweetbitter." So did you see this happen?
DANLER: I've been through a dozen health inspections and they are always organized - barely organized chaos.
DAVIES: Doesn't the inspector catch on to all the scurry - no?
DANLER: He walks in the front door. The hostess usually stops him. And that's why we call it the two-minute drill. You have about two minutes until he gets into the kitchen. And it's better safe than sorry. That's why everything goes into the trash.
DAVIES: Stephanie Danler's debut novel is called "Sweetbitter." After a break, she'll talk about what restaurant workers do to wind down after a shift. Ken Tucker will tell us about singer-songwriter Margaret Glaspy's debut album. And John Powers reviews a new documentary about the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with writer Stephanie Danler. Her debut novel "Sweetbitter" is about a 22-year-old woman who moves to New York and becomes immersed in the workplace culture and social life of an upscale restaurant.
We've been talking about how intense, you know, life on a shift in a restaurant can be, especially a really highly-professional place like this. What do you feel like when a shift ends?
DANLER: Oh, utterly brain-dead. I get asked a lot whether I was taking notes while I was working in the restaurant industry. And I would think to myself at the end of the night as I'm having my shift drink - a glass of very nice Chardonnay - I would think someone said funny, and I can't remember it. And it will be gone forever. Then later when I was writing, I was able to access things, but you're so exhausted. But also, you have all this leftover adrenaline, which is what creates this kind of nocturnal culture where everyone leaves to go to the bar at 2 a.m.
DANLER: You've been working all night. There's no wind down.
DAVIES: Right. And the place that folks congregate in this book is called the Park Bar. Tell us why it has that name and a little bit about what happens there.
DANLER: Park Bar is a real bar. And it is one street over from Union Square Cafe - where Union Square Cafe used to be. But there are a lot of restaurants in the Union Square area, and I find this is true of everywhere I worked. There is one bar where all the servers tend to congregate at 2 a.m., kind of a stopping point between the end of the night and when they're going to go home. That also happens to be a time of night when people get into trouble. So there's lots of bad behavior at Park Bar. There's lots of hooking up. There's lots of sloppiness. And still to this day, I don't think anything good has ever happened between the hours of 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. I try to avoid them at all costs. But when you're young, it's a very exciting time to be awake when the rest of the world is asleep.
DAVIES: Yeah, this is not a crowd that has, you know, one glass of wine and then heads home.
DAVIES: How much sex is there among restaurant staff?
DANLER: Oh my God, so much more than is in this book. I didn't have enough space for all the sex. Sexuality is so important to this novel, and not just because it's authentic to the culture but because it's part of the journey that Tess is on is understanding her sexuality and becoming a sexual creature and understanding real desire. But it also's distracting. So it can take over a narrative or a novel really quickly.
And again, like with the food writing, the sex had to be essential to her development. And so there were times in which I would think maybe she should walk into the walk-in refrigerator and see someone having sex, something I have seen before. And I thought, you know, that's just an anecdote. It's not just actually adding anything to the story. The book isn't an expose of the restaurant industry. We've seen that a thousand times. It's really focused on her journey. But there's sex all over restaurants everywhere.
DAVIES: All right, well, I just have to ask, so what are some of the stranger things you have come upon in that way in restaurants?
DANLER: Oh, I mean, I did walk in on a chef having sex in a walk-in refrigerator. I've also - to be, like, perfectly frank, the guests are just as bad as the servers. There are certain restaurants where two people will go into the bathroom, and it's so clear and obvious. And you're thinking, really? You couldn't have waited 20 more minutes until you got home? I'm dropping the check right now.
DAVIES: (Laughter) The character here, Tess, has an infatuation with Jake the bartender. I have a daughter who has worked in restaurants, and I'm reading this and I'm thinking so what is appealing about Jake? Stay away from this guy.
DANLER: It's so obvious, right?
DAVIES: Yeah. So tell us why she can't resist Jake.
DANLER: I think that for some women, the idea of just rescuing kind of a damaged, tormented, almost romantic - and I mean like a Byron romantic hero - it's irresistible. She thinks that she will be the one to break through. She just has to work harder than the women that have come before her. And men like Jake are awful. They lie and they're never where they're supposed to be. And they torture you mentally and are totally unstable. But there's moments of sensitivity and lucidity and innocence. And every time she sees one of those moments with Jake, it keeps her holding on. A lot of women want to rescue men like Jake and be the one to fix them.
DAVIES: Were you like that?
DANLER: No, I wasn't. I've always been attracted to very stable men. But I know a little bit about this.
DAVIES: You wrote a piece in Vogue magazine about your father. I don't know if you're comfortable talking about this. But, you know, he had suffered with addiction and was out of your life most of the time. And then you write that for a period of time when you were in high school and not getting along with your mom, you went to live with him. Do you want to share a bit about what that was like in your relationship with him?
DANLER: What's interesting about the period of time you mention is that I had no contact with him for most of my childhood, maybe once a year. And when things went badly between my mother and I and I went to live with him in Colorado, it would have been obvious to say he's a terrible father. But the opposite happened. I came to adore him. I loved spending time with him. I thought we had the most incredible friendship. And things with my mother were so fraught, I was so excited to have someone that I could sit with in the evenings and just chat with.
I think looking back on it, I thought I was a lot more adult than I was, and I didn't need a friend. I needed a parent. And looking back on it, his irresponsibility is a little hard to stomach. But I was totally enamored. And I think that the two of us out of - he has three children and he's had a dozen women in his life, and I think that I'm probably the closest relationship he's ever had in his life. And it's very sad, right? This is a very sad story about loving someone very much but not being able to have them close to you because they're toxic.
DAVIES: Right. And, you know, when you were talking about how this character Tess looked at Jake - I mean, in the essay, I think you talk about - there's a point at which you might think that you can - and I don't know whether you're talking about your father or someone else - you know, you can...
DANLER: I see.
DAVIES: You have more empathy. You get him. You can provide that missing ingredient, which is - no one else has been able to supply all those years. And I'm wondering if...
DAVIES: Yeah. Yeah.
DANLER: Yeah, there's something - and that is definitely in Jake, though I did not realize it at the time in the writing of Jake, this person that you want so desperately to change, but they're never going to change. And the thing about Tess in the novel is she's 22. And I'm 32, and you would think that in those 10 years, I had learned something or that we all have the ability to learn how to protect ourselves. And the point of the essay less about my father and what kind of father he was is that I'm still negotiating that, that it's an ongoing struggle to make boundaries and make good choices for yourself and protect the good things in your life.
DAVIES: In the book, you describe these relationships among the staff at this restaurant. I mean, they're engaged in this intense work of providing quality service and food all day, and then they're exhausted and then go to a bar at night and have all kinds of drink and drugs and they mock each other and flirt and have sex and all kinds of things. I'm going to quote a little piece here when you describe the relationships among the folks. You say (reading) we were mean, our tones short. We developed strategies against one another, plotted downfalls, worked ourselves up over small triumphs. You could have safely assumed we hated each other.
It is interesting to hear that because I think a lot of the banter among the staff here - and they're very clever, but they're also very cutting. But it doesn't seem that I - it's hard for me to think of any of them who have healthy trusting relationships with people. And it made me wonder if this pattern of intense service and kind of heavy drinking to come down is going to be appealing to people who don't - aren't ready for intimacy, aren't ready for trusting relationships. What do you think?
DANLER: Absolutely. I think that's a great observation. There is this extended adolescence quality to the world that Tess finds herself in. It's very regressive in a way. And a lot of these people are emotionally stunted and stuck. Restaurants are great places for people that are stuck because they can actually just wait there. They're waiters - I put that somewhere in the book.
There's also something about New York City where you don't have to grow up immediately. You can live this lifestyle that Tess finds when she's 22, the lifestyle you just described at Park Bar. You can do that till your 40. You can do that till you're 50 and not realize that years and decades have passed you by. And there's something really sad in that. And I've seen it happen, and I've also seen the opposite, people that are able to have really fulfilling lives from the restaurant industry. But they are often not the ones at Park Bar. There's something about that behavior and that not taking care - there's no self-care yet. That feels very adolescent to me.
DAVIES: There's been a lot of buzz in the literary world about this book. There's a story that you were waiting at a restaurant and handed a manuscript to an editor at a big publishing house. This is exaggerated, right? But is there something to it?
DANLER: There is something to it, but it's a fairytale version of what happened. I had an agent, Mel Flashman at Trident Media, who I adore. And we were about to send the book out. And when you're sending a book out, you make a list of editors at different publishing houses. And we had crafted that list together. You know, you spend, like, a month of doing that.
And two days before the list was going out, I was waiting on one of my regulars at a restaurant in the West Village called Buvette. And we had - I had been waiting on him for, like, a year and a half. And for some reason, that day the conversation turned. And he said I heard you're a writer. And I said oh, yeah, aren't you an editor? It was, like, very slow. I was not - because when I was in my server mode, I wasn't thinking about writing. I was fully present just trying to keep up with my tables.
And he was gracious enough to say that he would read it. And he sent me a text a few days later, and he said that nothing bad would happen, that the book was fantastic. And he hoped that he could get a meeting with me. And then I was in his offices at Kenoff (ph), and that is history.
DAVIES: Well, Stephanie Danler, congratulations on the book. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
DANLER: Oh, thank you so much for having me.
DAVIES: Stephanie Danler's debut novel is "Sweetbitter." Coming up, Ken Tucker views singer-songwriter Margaret Glaspy's first album. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.