“TERROIR…I looked it up in the World Atlas of Wine in the manager’s office. It seemed a bit far-fetched. That food had character, composed of the soil, the climate, the time of year. That you could taste that character. But still. An idea mystical enough to be highly seductive.”
Tess, the protagonist in Stephanie Danler’s debut novel Sweetbitter, researches terroir in an attempt to impress her worldly boss at the renowned New York City restaurant where she has recently become gainfully employed. However, over the course of the book, it becomes increasingly clear that, while terroir is only meant to define regions like Bordeaux and Rioja, it’s true meaning runs much deeper. The book itself has its own distinct terroir; Danler expertly evokes not only what it means to work in the service industry, but also to be a naïve, newly minted New Yorker, one who considers it “ludicrous to live here, but knows [she] can never leave.”
On the surface, Sweetbitter is about Tess, a girl from Ohio who drives to New York with nothing but a brief stint at a coffee shop on her resume and manages to impress the general manager of one of New York’s most renowned restaurants [which remains unidentified throughout the book—though the restaurant’s Union Square location and the fact that Danler once worked at Union Square Café do present the now-shuttered spot as a likely subject] and gets a job as a backwaiter. The story, segmented by season, takes place over the course of a year and, while it offers up some potentially useful and undeniably interesting F&B trivia, at its heart, Sweetbitter is a coming-of-age story. The reader follows Tess on a journey from an awestruck, nervous mid-western girl to a hardened, independent, and sometimes-but-not-always capable New York woman. Relationships are central to Sweetbitter: the one Tess has with Simone, the senior server whom she views as a mentor verging on idol; the one she has with Jake, the bartender with the devil-may-care attitude whom she is undeniably in love with and infuriated by at the same time; and the one Jake has with Simone, who raised him after his mother died but at times seems to function more as a wife than a sister. Tess befriends the bartenders, cooks, and other backwaiters, who warn her against getting involved in Jake and Simone’s messy web, but she ultimately finds herself at the center of it, unsure whether she’ll hall or have to take one of them down in order to reach the outcome she desires.
Danler chronicles the hierarchy, power struggles, and relationships of all the restaurant’s employees—and patrons too, in a manner both intense and relatable at once. The book successfully presents itself not only as a compelling look into one of the world’s most profitable industries, but also an excellent, beautifully rendered study of relationships, adaption, and success.
After a lifetime of heading to restaurants with little thought to what goes on behind the scenes, Danler has officially pulled back the curtain; and I don’t think I’ll ever feel the same about dining out again.