Sweetbitter

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Sweetbitter, Stephanie Danler, Knopf, 2016

Danny Meyer, the crowned-King of modern hospitality, has a tenet of employee composure, divided into slightly unbalanced halves: to succeed as a restaurant professional (that’s professional of any position, front or back of house), one must first possess the “fifty-one percent,” an innate sense of hospitality, warmth and personality. The other “forty-nine percent,” is the technical ability of the job.

When twenty-two year old Tess arrives alone in New York City, and applies for a position at the “the restaurant,” a hardly-fictionalized  Union Square Cafe, it seems she possesses neither. That’s because the narrator’s character starts out flat, an any-girl from any-where who eludes to a background of literary studies and barista skills, hoping to escape her lifeless existence from nowhere, and make it in New York.

Tess gets a job as backwaiter, and what begins is her life–not just in New York, but in the world, at the center of it. She learns about oysters, regions in Burgundy, the mechanics of service, how to taste. She develops a palate.

I became aware of being on stage. I gave a trail of my fingers as I set down each plate as if performing magic. I became aware of the ballet of it. The choreography never rehearsed, always learned midperformance. The reason you felt like everyone was staring at you when you were new is because they were. You were out of sync.

In tandem rises the other “fifty-one percent” of her personal experience, punctuated with drugs, binge-drinking, lustful desire. The world Tess joins soon swallows her whole. Subconscious at first, then pointedly, she nurtures an infatuation for senior server, “Wine-Woman” Simone, who leads the restaurant’s floor, and the “achingly beautiful” bartender Jake, whose relationship with Simone is mysterious and complex. That they are united is certain, but the boundaries–whether they exist, and what they are–seem to change on Tess as she begins to understand them.

Fuck them, I thought, I’m going to quit. Then I saw that Simone was right. I wasn’t the victim. I hadn’t been led anywhere. I had chosen this overgrown, murky path were I couldn’t see five feet in front of me–the drugs, the drinking until black, the embarrassment, the confusion. But really I had chosen the two of them–they were the difficult terrain. I understood what she meant by “let it go.” I didn’t have to quit my job. There had been another route open to me this entire time–a well-lit, well-laid, honest path. I said to myself, Turn around. You do not have to take every experience on the pulse. It’s just dinner. I saw the silent elevator, just me. Another voice said, But then you’ll just be a backwaiter.

It’s this tangled, triangular relationship with her coworkers that tips Tess’ balance back towards self-discovery.

Danler does two things: builds a coming-of-age story full of grit and relief, and divulges the structure and secrets of the restaurant lifestyle. The writing is rich and vague both; the story, like it’s title, sweet and bitter.

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.

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