Stephanie Danler owns at least 200 cookbooks. She adds anchovies to almost everything she eats, savoring the intense umami flavor. She plows through the works of Alice Waters, pioneer of the slow-food movement, like she reads novels: intensely and thoroughly, from cover to cover. And recently, she received a letter from that world-renowned chef, congratulating her on her debut novel and recalling meeting her when she was a waiter at Buvette.
The 32-year-old’s foodie status comes as no surprise given the backdrop of Sweetbitter (Knopf, out May 24). Set in a restaurant based on Union Square Cafe, where Danler toiled as a back waiter at age 22, it’s a coming-of-age story of another 22-year-old, Tess, as she lands that very same job. It’s rich in sensory descriptions, the kind of book that one doesn’t just read but devours. “A certain connoisseurship of taste,” Danler writes in the beginning of the book, “a mark of how you deal with the world, is the ability to relish the bitter, to crave it even, the way you do the sweet.” (If you think that’s a lovely way to describe the uncertainty and insanity of early-twenties-dom, Sweetbitter is for you.)
Despite possessing similarities to her protagonist, Danler is quick to clarify that Sweetbitter isn’t a simply a memoir packaged as a novel. “Anyone who’s worked with me will probably say that it’s surprising that it’s so non-autobiographical,” she says. “The characters are made up, and the plot is fully made up,” she continues. “However, the experiences are authentic as far as being 22 and realizing that you can stay out all night when you come to New York. That’s all very real. I lived through that. I can’t remember every single service,” she remarks of her early waiting experiences, “but I remember the first time I dropped a plate and the first time I cried.”
It’s moments like these that she captures, quite beautifully, in Sweetbitter. “There’s a long literary tradition of ‘orphan in NYC’ novels that are both elegiac and ecstatic twists on the coming-of-age story,” explains Melissa Flashman, Danler’s agent. “When I first read the manuscript, I knew immediately that the writer was not only heir to this legacy, but that she was updating its most glittering, majestic and heartbreaking tropes for our time.”
Flashman wasn’t the only one. After a draft of the book came across the desk of Peter Gethers, a senior vice president and editor at large at Penguin Random House who Danler had waited on for years, he texted the aspiring scribe some much-needed words of encouragement: “Congratulations. I’m telling you this now because nothing bad is going to happen to you with this novel.”
And was he ever right. The debut earned Danler a six-figure deal, and now she’s a writer-writer (not a waiter-writer)—and no one’s more surprised than she is. After climbing her way up to eventually managing the beverage programs at hot spots like Tía Pol and El Quinto Pino (and putting in the requisite 90-hour workweeks), Danler started looking at opening a wineshop of her own when panic set in. “I had this despair that I was going to become one of those people who in 10 years is crying about how they never wrote the book they wanted,” she recalls. So in her late twenties, she applied for an MFA at the New School, reverted to waiting tables and spent two years on the manuscript.
“When I was writing this book, I was very conscious of writing a New York City novel,” she says, adding that she looked to how Joan Didion, Jay McInerney and F. Scott Fitzgerald captured the urban experience. “I think that the life-or-death nature of New York City can give a novel a rawness and a sense of urgency that you can’t get placing it someplace else.”
Recently, Danler packed her bags for what many New Yorkers consider our antipole. “I have a base in New York, but I’m here in L.A. for a bit,” she says. But the city hasn’t left her mind during her respite. “New York punishes you and rewards you,” she notes. “And I feel like the New York novel is always one part raw and one part nostalgia for this city that’s always disappearing,” she adds. “I think that people will be writing about New York as long as it stands.”
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Danler promotes Sweetbitter at City Winery May 24 at 7pm and at BookCourt May 26 at 7pm.