Stephanie Dandler’s debut novel, “Sweetbitter,” is a raw and gutsy romp through a year in the life of a young woman’s launch into a restaurant career in the food capital of the world. The 22-year-old heroine, Tess, has gladly departed her midwest roots in search of her true self and a more exciting life in New York. Although she quickly runs into the realities of big city living and prices, she is undeterred, taking the first apartment, roommate and restaurant job she can get her hands on. To her surprise, the latter is an entry level position at a desirable locale. Modeled after Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe, the restaurant of Sweet Bitter is prestigious and lively, with a cast of characters as customers and staff. As a back waiter and newbie to the restaurant world, Tess gets a trial by fire. It’s working late shifts six days a week, stocking inventory, carrying dishes, breaking plates, fetching wine, making big bucks but no time to enjoy, and getting hazed by veteran staffers. She is schooled about food, wine and the ways of fine dining customer service. She falls in love with the “bad boy” bartender only to get her heart broken, and gets stabbed in the back by her mentor. Bright lights, big city indeed! Along the way, Tess develops a good palate and restaurant smarts, but also becomes a product of her environment, imitating her colleagues through exorbitance in alcohol, drugs and reckless sex.
“When I woke again it was to a sunset I didn’t deserve,” Tess, recounts. “From my tailbone the shame started and with it came prongs of pain up my spine until it hit the base of my skull. I looked reluctantly at my shirt and moaned. The vomit had dried but the blood was still damp in spots on my breasts and at the collar. . . . I touched my nose and flakes of blood came back on my fingers. There was a note safety-pinned to my shirt: ‘Please text me so I know you’re alive, Your Roommate, Jesse.’ ”
Will Tess survive her first year in New York and in a new career? Will she climb the foodie corporate ladder, becoming chef, sommelier or the wife of a rich patron? If nothing else, this story, including its conclusion, is rooted in reality as it is derived in part from Dandler’s real life professional restaurant experience. Although at times tedious and over-indulgent, and bit over-hyped, “Sweetbitter” is undeniably enjoyable and understandably successful. It deftly combines a coming-of-age story with a foodie adventure.