Saturday, June 4, 2016

Book Review: "Sweetbitter" by Stephanie Danler

"I wanted to say, My life is full. I chose this life because it's a constant assault of color and taste and light and it's raw and ugly and fast and it's mine. And you'll never understand. Until you live it, you don't know."

When we first meet Tess in the summer of 2006, she has just left home and driven to New York without any real plans, just a rented room in an apartment in Williamsburg. She somehow manages to find a job as a "backwaiter" at a famous New York restaurant, and it changes her life in ways she cannot even imagine.

Sweetbitter chronicles a frenetic year of Tess' life—one of excess, exhaustion, enthusiasm, emotion, and education (not necessarily in that order). Those who have never waited tables or worked in a restaurant don't really understand that it's a far more difficult job than you could imagine, and when you work at an exclusive restaurant, the pressure on everyone, from the dishwashers and the food runners and the bartenders to the servers, managers, and hostesses, is brutal. Tess finds herself in the middle of a sea of employees, many of whom have been at the restaurant for a number of years, and have fought battles with each other and the customers over and over again.

It's not easy being the newbie in a pressure-filled sea. Tess gets screamed at by the chef, tasked with cleaning out drains no one has touched in perhaps forever, falls down stairs, but starts to realize she is tougher than she thought and enjoys the job more than she could imagine. She builds a relationship with Simone, a senior server at the restaurant whose tip totals are legendary, someone whose section regulars request to be in. Simone becomes a sort of sensei for Tess, teaching her about wine, taste, the beauty of using all of your senses, and, of course, about life in the process.

"You're only beginning to learn what you don't know. First you must relearn your senses. Your senses are never inaccurate—it's your ideas that can be false."

Tess also becomes infatuated with Jake, one of the restaurant's bartenders. He is enigmatic and elusive, simultaneously flirting with her and keeping her at arm's length, and Tess is warned by many of her colleagues that Jake's demeanor isn't artfully sullen, but rather hides a great deal of emotional complexity. Yet her attraction to Jake makes her both vulnerable and courageous.

I thought this was a pretty fascinating and well-written book. I worked as a server at a few restaurants during my college days, and while none were as high-end as this one, I certainly recognized some of the situations and the personalities that Stephanie Danler described. At times pretentious, at times emotional, Tess is a really interesting and flawed character. She annoyed me at times, but I can only imagine what someone so young might experience in a world populated by late-night drinking, drugs, food, and the hotbed that the pressure cooker-like environment of the restaurant world can be.

Danler is a really talented writer. There were sentences and paragraphs that wowed me, even as the characters frustrated me, and that was one of the aspects of this book that definitely elevated it. Some people have likened it to Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, which I don't quite see, but I think this is a book that is compelling in its own right. If you've ever wondered what it's like behind the scenes of a well-known restaurant, you'll enjoy Sweetbitter. But don't read it on an empty stomach if you're a foodie!

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