The inspiration for Stephanie Danler's 2016 novel, which is now a TV show premiering May 6, comes from her experience working in NYC restaurants.
The bars and restaurants in the hit novel Sweetbitter are fictional. But the bars and restaurants that shaped author Stephanie Danler's understanding—and ultimate portrayal—of the industry? Very real.
On Sunday, the novel takes shape as a six-episode Showtime series of the same name, following the misadventures of Tess, a recent college grad who stumbles her way into a job as a backwaiter at one of NYC's most prestigious restaurants. Tess's experience is loosely based on Danler's own: the novel was inspired by her stint working at Danny Meyer's Union Square Cafe.
"I set it in Union Square not just because that was my first job and my first entryway, but [also because] that restaurant has an ethic and a level of professionalism that is unmatched in New York City," she told Vanity Fair in an interview. "Danny Meyer is a genius and that was his first place. I could have set it at a more Balthazar-style place, or a more Blue Water Grill–style place, but I wasn’t really looking for that kind of atmosphere. What I found when I went to Union Square Cafe was this group of super-educated, highly creative, ultra-professional servers."
It wouldn't be until years after working there, however, that she would get the idea for the book. She says she first realized there was a larger story to tell while working as the beverage director at Tià Pol, a tapas restaurant in Chelsea. She was having shift drink with servers and found herself inspired by the way they described the wine they were tasting.
"It’s very similar to the [poetry in the novel]: 'It’s dirty,' 'It’s off,' 'Kind of oaky,' 'Maybe burgundy . . .,'" she told Vanity Fair. "I thought it was a poem first, and then when I was walking home, I thought that it was a story—that this way of speaking about the world, and this way of thinking about the world, was a story."
Another celebrated New York restaurant, the French bistro Buvette, played an important role in the book's genesis, too. In fact, while she was working there as a server, she met the man who would ultimately publish the novel. He had been one of her regulars for about a year and a half.
"For some reason, that day the conversation turned. And he said I heard you're a writer," Danler told NPR. "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."
He sent her a text a few days later saying that the book was fantastic, and the rest, of course, is history.
For the Showtime series, Justine Slattery, the woman who trained Danler when she worked at Union Square Cafe, trained the cast how to act like actual restaurant servers. Because of her experience in the industry, working at real restaurants with real people, Danler insisted upon making the show's representation of the industry as true-to-life as possible. This representation, of course, had to include the harassment and uncomfortable sexual politics that have become so routine in restaurant kitchens. While Sweetbitter was written before the "#MeToo era," its portrayal of thee issues feels topical and relevant.
"In the book and in this season of the show that we’ve given you, consensual flirtation, to drunken sex that you regret the next day, to microaggressions of misogyny, to full-on abuse of power are on display,” she told Food & Wine. “That is very real to this industry, which has needed an overhaul for decades.”