Observer Food Monthly’s book of the year 2016: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
Stephanie Danler doesn’t much like the “creation myth” that’s attached to her debut novel, Sweetbitter, but it’s proving as stubborn to shift as a red wine stain. So here it is: Danler was a waitress at a French restaurant in the West Village in Manhattan; one of her regulars was a heavyweight editor at Penguin Random House, Peter Gethers, a man Vanity Fair has called “the biggest name in publishing you’ve never heard of”. She told him she’d written a novel and within days she had a two-book deal worth in the high six figures. Sweetbitter, set in a New York restaurant, has become a US bestseller, earned its author comparisons with Jay McInerney average price of canada goose jacket and Anthony Bourdain, and been boosted buy canada goose jacket nyc by celebrity admirers (Eva Longoria, Sarah Jessica Parker).
It’s an appealingly dramatic yarn, but can i wash my canada goose jacket a simplification. Danler was working as a waitress – that much is true – but by 2014, when she pitched Gethers, her escape route from restaurants was already plotted best canada goose jacket style out. Sweetbitter was the product of many years work, in part on a post-graduate writers’ programme, and Danler already had an agent. She met 11 publishers in a frenzied week and there were multiple offers before she decided to sign with Gethers and Penguin Random House. She chose them in part because she knew and trusted Gethers, but the bottle of premier cru burgundy she was presented with was, she admits, a winning touch.
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“I always felt something about that story whitewashed my hard work,” says Danler, who is 33, on the phone from Los Angeles, where she grew up and now again lives. “But after the first article appeared in the New York Times vest, I was flooded by 250 emails saying, ‘I’ve been waiting tables for 13 years and hearing this story makes me believe I should keep going.’ Or, ‘You’ve given me so much hope.’ I was like, ‘This is bigger than me. It just is.’ And that’s how fairytales work. That’s how creation myths work. Whether they are tethered to reality or not, they take on a life of their own, because people want to believe that it’s possible.”
Sweetbitter, which was published in the summer, is a gripping, addictive tale that follows Tess, a 22-year-old from Ohio who moves to New York in 2006. She’s hired as a waiter by a high-end restaurant not dissimilar to Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe, where Danler herself worked when she first arrived in the city. Tess falls hard for a bartender, Jake, even harder for the sensuous pleasures of food and wine, and a poetic coming-of-age adventure unravels.
There’s nothing about servers doing cocaine that felt revelatory to me at all
The New York Times review called Sweetbitter “the Kitchen Confidential of our time”, but it’s not a comparison that Danler, who has worked front-of-house in restaurants since she was 15, recognises. “I loved that book, he [Bourdain] is a great writer, but I was consciously working against it, because it came out in 2001 and at the time of writing I really felt that there was no more restaurant subculture to expose,” she says. “We’d seen Kitchen Confidential so many times and there’s something very gendered about that portrait. It’s this testosterone-driven, aggressive, rebellious, knives-and-tattoos culture, whereas I’m focused on the more sensual and quotidian aspects of it. I’d think to myself, ‘How can I show the soft beauty of what it’s like to polish glasses or to taste wine or to work the same night can you wash a canada goose jacket in the washer over and over again.’ They are just such different approaches to the same material.”
Not that Sweetbitter is coy about the darker aspects of the business, including sex and drug use. “There’s nothing about servers doing can you wash a canada goose jacket in the washer cocaine that felt revelatory to me at all,” Danler laughs. “So I didn’t have this nervousness of, ‘I’m showing the warts of the restaurant industry!’ It’s all been done.” A pause, “Maybe I’ve been in New York and around servers too long.”
Danler acknowledges there are elements of autobiography in Sweetbitter. “Oh God, it was an incredibly wild buy canada goose jacket in canada time,” she admits. “But my story of what I was like at 22 – which was bat-shit crazy – is also very different. I didn’t know men like Jake until much later. I spent all of my 20s with the man I would eventually marry. We’re not married any more, but from 22 to 30, I was with my ex-husband. Tess is probably braver and more reckless, because it makes her a more interesting character to watch. And I moved to New York to be a writer. I already had a novel that was heavily inspired by Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis. best canada goose jacket for skiing The groundedness of being a writer never let me buy canada goose jacket toronto fall as far as Tess does.”
There’s a steel to Danler, strength she ascribes to an unconventional upbringing: her father left home when she was three, in hock to a drug dealer, and she fought with her mother. Aged 16, she went to live with her father, unaware that by this point he was using methamphetamine.
“I didn’t know he was a drug addict then, but he was not interested in parenting,” Danler recalls. “I went to high school, had a full-time job and came and went as I pleased. And I stopped being sad about it, because I realised how much freedom it gave me. I’ve always valued that: I know I could move somewhere tomorrow, get a job and take care of myself. That has been the blessing of having… I don’t think they are evil people but I have two very broken parents. Like millions of people do – and you can either be victimised by it or you can work harder.”
Danler has been out of restaurants for 18 months now, but perhaps surprisingly, she insists she misses waitressing. She moved back to LA at canada goose coat 1000 calorie meal plans the start of the year, to write her second book and, after a decade of antisocial hours, it is disorientating now to be free on Saturday nights or to clock in for work at 9am. “It’s not the physical stuff,” she explains. “There were times I was like, ‘This is the hardest job in the world!’ But I had a very safe space to be extroverted in, where I could try all these different personas and be flirtatious and funny and I’d spend whole nights laughing.”
But surely the end goal was always writing – doesn’t Danler feel more content and happy? “Content and happy,” she muses, “I don’t know about those existing really. I still wake up with tons of anxiety and I feel like a failure all the time. I’ve had this on-paper incredible success, but I think most artists work in a slightly dissatisfied state. That’s what pushes them. So not necessarily happier or more content, but I feel like I’m doing the work I’m supposed to be doing right now.”
Sweetbitter (One World, £12.99) is out now. Click here to buy from the Guardian Bookshop for £10.65