Like many writers, Stephanie Danler has also held more than a few restaurant gigs, working in well-regarded places like Tía Pol, Buvette, and Union Square Cafe. But unlike other authors, who treat their day jobs as nothing more than a way to pay the bills, Danler channeled her experience into a debut novel, Sweetbitter, which is out next week. In fact, Danler’s protagonist Tess works in a restaurant that bears an uncanny resemblance to Union Square Cafe. “It was really important to me that her experiences be as authentic as possible,” the author explains, “and that it never went into being a fairy tale.” The book explores the partying and drug use that can happen after a late-night shift, sexism in the food industry, and the immense pride that front-of-the-house staffers take in their work. Grub sat down with Danler to learn a little more.
When did you start writing this?
I had the idea for it when I was a general manager at Tía Pol. I worked for Mani Dawes for a long time. I was the beverage director, and then I was the GM, but I was always a writer. I’ve never wanted to be anything else. When I moved to New York, I wanted to write a novel, and fell into the restaurant industry kind of headfirst — head over heels in love with it.
I had an idea for a book I wanted to write that was a female coming-of-age story, which is underrepresented in general. We see the story of a young man coming to New York and becoming himself, actualizing himself, but less so with women.
You more often see young women write books of essays …
Yeah, absolutely. People often have asked me why I don’t write nonfiction, and I really had no interest in it. I do write essays, but as far as this experience, I was looking to craft something … I wanted more freedom than that. And I was looking to craft something more in a novel like Portrait of a Lady or Bright Lights, Big City, but something to fit into literature in that way. That’s what everyone wants.
So I had the idea for a female coming-of-age novel, and I had this experience and this knowledge base in food and wine and restaurants that I knew was rare. Even within New York City, the level of expertise and the niche focus of my life was rare. And so when I hit upon the palette, the two combined, because I could tell the story about learning to taste, but I could also tell a story about learning to distinguish between good and bad experiences. The palette could apply to cocaine, and it could apply to friendship and intimacy and desire. That metaphor is what opened the book up for me, and I left my career that I loved, and I was terrified.
I went back to graduate school, and I started waiting tables again after managing for so long, and had this desperate drive to finish the book while I was in school. I was 30 years old — a little bit older than the other people in my program. You take on these loans, and you exit your identity in a way — the identity that I’d had for so long. l felt like I needed to physically have a manuscript at the end of it or I would go crazy.
Or else it feels like a burden.
I was coming back to this job [at Buvette], which I loved, but to be 31 at this point, with a manuscript and a service job and not know where it was going or when … that was really a hard mental space for me to be in. So at the end of July, I cold-queried all of the agents like anyone else, and I sold the book in October. I edited with Knopf for a period of six months.
Writing a book like this, when you’ve had personal experience as a server — how much of it is autobiographical? Do you worry that people will interpret it as such?
It’s a great question, and it’s so funny, because someone once asked, “What percentage of this book is autobiographical?” And I was like, “You think I know percentages?”
I gave Tess a lot of facts from my own life. I moved to New York City in 2006; I was 22 years old; I was hired at Union Square Cafe. But, again, I just treasured the freedom of fiction and knowing that my experiences were authentic and that I could do anything with them. And she quickly became so real to me. But people will think I’m Tess for the rest of my life.
That’s how it goes. I think that inability to differentiate is something that applies to female writers more than men.
There’s a whole host of things that people apply to female writers more than men, which has been really interesting throughout this process. People assume first novels are autobiographical. And I do think that when you’re first writing, you start with what you know, and it transforms and becomes a composite of every restaurant you’ve ever worked at, every server you’ve ever known, every boyfriend you’ve ever had.
This is not a thinly veiled autobiography at all, but I also know that it’s true as far as I know that what Tess is going through is true to her. And it was really important to me that her experiences be as authentic as possible, and that it never went into being a fairy tale. Sometimes novels feel false, or made up, and I did want to give this the urgency of the truth.
That said, with Union Square Cafe, it must have been a shock to watch the restaurant close. How did that feel?
Yeah, it was shocking.
In some ways, your book acts as a beautiful eulogy now.
I know. I didn’t intend that. But I did litter the book with businesses that had closed because I think that is so much the experience of living in New York. If you move here at a certain moment, you move to a city and it disappears. Your bars close — Milady’s, Mars Bar … My Williamsburg that I moved to is completely gone except for Clem’s. So I realized that I was writing from a map to a city that didn’t exist anymore, and then for Union Square Cafe to not even be there … the restaurant isn’t exactly Union Square Cafe, but that is the emotional heart of where I come from. It seems so fitting and so sad. I never thought that would happen. There had been rumors about it, you know, but never in a million years. I walked by the space the other day, and it’s so silly. It’s so silly that it doesn’t exist there.
Was there any legal concern there? Creating a fictional restaurant that has such strong similarities, including in name, to Union Square Cafe?
No, actually. I was so blissfully unaware of that side of publishing while I was writing. I don’t think you can worry about that when you’re writing. Memoir writers always say you can’t think about who you’re going to offend. But I felt so confident that the book was a love letter to whatever restaurant it was based on, and to all of the restaurants that I worked at, that even if I made up that the Health Department shut down Union Square Café, which obviously never happened …
It was written in a way that I actually thought, Did that happen? If it could happen to Per Se …
I’ve lived through so many health inspections at this point, and they are traumatic. It happens all the time. There’s so much you can’t control. But I was never worried, and Danny [Meyer] has been so kind with his encouragement and words.
What’s your relationship with him like?
Well, I actually ended up waiting on him several times after I left Union Square Cafe, and he would walk into Tía Pol, and my heart would stop. Like, “Danny’s here. Everything better be perfect.” Not everyone would recognize him by face, and I was like, “Everyone. The mayor is here.” And I would see him at Union Square Cafe alumni events, and my ex worked for him for many years, so he had an awareness of us as a couple. I just kept him informed [of the book] the whole time.
I think he comes off positively. It’s not a Devil Wears Prada situation.
No, I’m obsessed with him. I’m still drinking the Kool-Aid of Danny. I’m so grateful that that was my first job because it changed the course of my life.
How did you go about actually writing about the food — the visceral experience of eating — while avoiding so many of the usual tropes and clichés?
It had to come from Tess, and be necessary to her experience. I couldn’t have her eating an oyster for the first time and describing it. That wasn’t interesting to me, and that’s also not the book that I was writing. The purpose of the oyster is to have this experience coupled with desire, coupled with the temperature in the fridge. It had to be a moment that was larger than itself. There’s food in the background all of the time, but there are quite a few food-centric scenes, and I needed them to be heading toward a moment. Whatever the epiphany was, good or bad. There is a lot adjective-heavy food writing out there.
Do you know what you’re writing about in your second book?
I have so many ideas and, unfortunately, have not had the time. If I tried to write a character right now, it would sound like Tess. If I tried to imagine a man for you, I’m still thinking about Jake, because these characters are still so embedded in me.
Will food be a continuous theme in your work?
Obviously, I want to do something different. I think that, like any writer, I’m interested in challenges. There are a lot of choices I made in Sweetbitter to challenge myself, like I did a kind of fragmented vignette structure. All writers are readers because you read things, and the way any writer comes to it, I think in the beginning, is through mimicry. And then after you’re like, Can I do this differently? But I will always write about food. I will always pay attention to it. It is one of the ways through which I see the world — the same with the clothes, the weather, the light. I would say there will always be food and sex, in anything I write for the rest of my life.
I want to return to what you think it’s like to be a woman and working at this caliber of New York restaurants, and how the experience differs. What I loved about Sweetbitter is that you capture this — it’s not Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.
Yeah, there’s a lot of sexism, and that’s nothing against anyone I’ve worked for — it’s the culture. Any time you have kind of a boys’ club, it’s difficult to navigate as a woman. I worked for Danny, but after that I worked for a woman. I’m newly inspired by these strong, really fearless, and very instinctual New York women that have created these businesses. Wine is such a man’s world, the kitchen is such a man’s world, the restaurant industry is such a man’s world. I love how they navigate it. And so that’s the restaurant world I surrounded myself with.
Tía Pol, Prune, Buvette … I mean, someone like Jodi [Williams] is running this restaurant 24 hours a day. Every detail is thought out. She will scream at you if you’re out of line. She knows exactly what she wants. And you forget that she’s a woman in the best way. The restaurant industry as a whole … I think what I was trying to show with Tess is that you’re so lost and you’re trying so hard to make yourself small and innocuous, and not get into any confrontations, and that’s also part of the service industry. I think women struggle already with this desire to please, because we’ve been trained to do that our entire life, and it’s actually what you’re doing as a server, so it’s really hard to turn off.
There’s subservience and dismissiveness throughout the novel, and then there are little moments where she fights back, and not necessarily in a flagrant way. She learns to develop boundaries around herself, which I think is what we all have to do when you’re in a male-dominated industry. But it’s a tough world to navigate. It really is.