Anyone considering a career in a busy restaurant might want to read this first. Tess, a newcomer to New York joins a team of other outsiders when she gets a job as a back-waiter in a celebrated eaterie. These are people searching for a means of belonging and what they get is a hell-hole of rules, regulations, hard work and restrictions which consumes their lives and gets them searching for survival through alcohol and drugs. These people work hard and party harder. This way of life intoxicates them and few ever leave their positions making it a workplace of little mobility and a lot of demands. Stephanie Danler conveys this beautifully. Theirs is an intense, raw existence, a conveyor belt of smiling whilst sweating and where the customer is not just always right but is to be treated like a demanding demi-god. Who said it’s just dinner?
And then there’s the food. There’s a lot of it in this novel. We are offered gastronomic ecstasy. Food is to be tasted, wine to be experienced unless it is after hours when it is quaffed in vast quantities. Selfish qualities are needed to remain in post and certainly to jockey for any promotion. It’s best never to let one’s guard down, Tess discovers, but then the distraction of sex, lust and excess get in the way. Nobody is especially likeable and that just might be Danler’s intention as these are characters whose identities have been devoured by their workplace.
This intensity rarely lets up. Danler takes us through the four seasons of the restaurant, beginning with the searing heat of a New York summer and the author is very good at illustrating each season’s effect on the character of the restaurant, its food and its staff. This is a fairly exhausting read but an impressive one. Danler remains in total control of her location and the lives of those who find themselves selected to devote their every working second to this insane existence of service and taste.
Sweetbitter is published by Oneworld today – 2nd June 2016