It’s Sweetbitter, not bittersweet. Get acquainted with the title of the book that rocked our world this summer. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the non-fiction book is a story about a 22-year-old woman — Tess– who ends up charming her way into a backwaiter position at one of NYC’s most renowned restaurants (modeled off of Union Square Café where Stephanie was once a backwaiter herself.) What follows is a plot line that’s both provocative and tantalizing as Tess navigates her way through a new job and learns the ins-n-outs of fine food, fine wine, and the service industry, all while trying to shake off cocaine hangovers and wild romances. So yes, it’s sexy and smart and you need to read it. And as spectacular as the book may be, the author (this mega babe you’re about to meet) could easily steal its thunder.
Stephanie’s story also began in restaurants, having held several jobs at acclaimed establishments and even co-owning some of her own. After a series of events, she found herself heading back to graduate school where she turned in the first, short draft of what is now Sweetbitter. The rest is history.
I had the honor of heading to Stephanie’s Laurel Canyon pad where we chatted about her recent jump from NYC to LA, her creative process, and what’s next for Sweetbitter. So go ahead, pour yourself a glass of red (she would want it this way) and get to know your next favorite author.
Seal Beach, CA
Los Angeles, CA
Author that inspires you:
Elizabeth Hardwick, Renata Adler, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag
Favorite affordable bottle of wine:
“Affordable” is a pretty fluid concept. I find the best value to quality ratio in the Loire Valley – super light Muscadets, interesting Chenin Clancs, and Cabernet Francs that I serve chilled.
Impossible. Let’s say God’s List of Liquids by Anne Carson, and “Light clarity avocado salad” by Frank O’Hara.
NY or LA?
Ha. That changes by the minute. For now, LA.
French or Italian food:
Random pet peeve:
People who yell while talking in restaurants. I cringe.
You’ve been book touring pretty hard lately. What random city has pleasantly surprised you?
Kingston in upstate New York – I love the Catskills, and wrote much of my book in Woodstock and at The Spruceton Inn in West Kill, but I had always passed by Kingston. The downtown area has come alive in a major way (everyone go to Brunette wine bar!), and I’m planning a return in the fall.
What do you miss most about working in hospitality?
The play. You clock in and your job is so playful – it’s wild and ridiculous and flirtatious, and even though it’s horrifically stressful, everyone comes back together at the end of the night and you laugh about it.
Briefly walk us through a day in the life of Stephanie Danler…
Even before touring, I was something of gypsy, and for years I’ve been moving around every few months. However, besides work meetings and obligations, my days that I block off for writing are pretty much the same. Poetry/Lunch/Writing/Aperitif/Gossip. I wake up, read poems, handwrite in a notebook while drinking coffee. Once I’m sufficiently caffeinated I turn to emails. I wish I could write in the mornings, but I always feel the pressure of those emails and the real world. I take a break and cook lunch – usually some sort of grain bowl.
Once lunch is finished, the afternoons used for specific projects – an essay I’m working on, or mapping out a story, or sketching dialogue. By the early evening, if I’ve been good, I get a drink – a Campari soda, a glass of sherry or white wine. If I haven’t been able to produce anything, I go for a run. I usually need the endorphins.
I believe in solitude for making art, but I also believe in community and conversation – I solve problems or explore concepts while I’m talking to people. I usually have dinner plans. When you’re alone with yourself all day, you need the release. We (writers) take ourselves so seriously, and I try not to forget to get outside and spend time laughing.
Your book gave us so many feels and I’m sure so many people can relate to the characters. Tell us a bit about how these characters came together, and how the story developed? How much of it is based on real events?
The experiences depicted in Sweetbitter are all true, authentic experiences, many of them lived by me. However, the characters are fictional. I’ve never known a Jake (I’ve known many versions of him) and I’ve never had a mentor like Simone (she sounds something like my favorite poets and my therapist combined). The plot is fiction – it’s based on Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. So I had a ton of freedom in writing. I wasn’t limited to what actually happened to me when I worked at Union Square Café in 2006. In fact, I got to use every restaurant I’ve ever worked at, from age 15 to 31. And Tess, the protagonist of the novel, started with a lot of facts about my life. But she exists in the world of the novel, with characters I created, and quickly became her own creation. She’s much more reckless, and by that token, braver, than I’ve ever been.
If someone were to play your protagonist in a movie, who would be your dream star?
I can’t play that game! I do envision certain actresses, but if/when this is adapted I know we will find the perfect Tess, and it could be an unknown or it could be someone on a show currently. It will be someone that understands her blend of optimism and gravity.
You recently just made the jump from East Coaster to West Coaster. Describe your perfect food day in LA.
It starts at the Hollywood Farmer’s Market with oysters for breakfast and maybe a few tamales. I know it sounds weird, but I love being there early and it might be my favorite breakfast in LA. In real life, I am at Pressed Juicery every other day, I sip their Greens 1.5 in the morning and their vanilla coffee (cold brew coffee, almond milk, naturally sweetened with dates, it’s heaven) in the afternoons as a treat.
If there’s no traffic on this perfect day, I go to Gjusta for lunch in Venice. Their porchetta sandwich is brutally good, and I get any of their bitter green salads (dandelion, escarole, kale) to round it out.
For dinner, it’s impossible to choose. I live close to Petit Trois and I love their escargot and of course, the omelet. If I go east, Alimento is fantastic, as well as Pine+Crane for Chinese. But I also love to go to Koreatown, this place Mapo Galbi where they make a spicy chicken and rice stir fry in a giant pot in the center of your table.
For a nightcap I’m usually at the Chateau Marmont – I love the dark atmosphere and the history. Strangely, the Chateau reminds me of NYC. Plus it’s walking distance from my home, a rarity in LA.
How do you mentally prepare for an intense day of creative writing?
Reading. When I’m stuck, I’m always reading poetry or short pieces. Recently, for short prose, it’s Eve Babitz’s sketches of LA in Slow Days, Fast Company. One of those writers whose prose is always a surprise and delight.
I also love to walk, and while LA isn’t known as a walking city, there are trails, mountains, parks, and beaches everywhere. I compose sentences while in transit or walking so when I finally get to the page or computer, the hard work is over.
Are you onto book number two yet? If so, what may we expect? If not, what would you maybe want to write about next?
I’m not onto book two yet. I’ve been mainly writing essays because they allow me to work in short, adrenalized bursts. I still work for Sweetbitter twenty-four hours a day, so I don’t have the mental space for a novel. But I have tons of ideas. And you can expect that there will be food and sex in anything I write.
If you could get a drink with anyone anywhere, where and who would it be with?
I want to share a bottle of Burgundy with food writer MFK Fisher. Her writing – in particular her memoir The Gastronomical Me – has hugely impacted my life and my own work. But not all writers are good drinking partners – she’s got this dark humor that you know would bloom over a bottle of wine.
What do you hope people take away from Sweetbitter after they’re done reading it?
Its authenticity. I wanted to eschew fairy tales about women in their twenties and subvert expectations about the coming-of-age genre. We need stories with complicated women, in rich worlds, making real mistakes and small leaps at personal growth.
Where do you hope to see yourself and your book in the next five years?
I have such a diverse number of projects going, and I think that helps keep me sane. I am excited to see how Sweetbitter develops in other mediums. I know that teaching is in my future, I’ve always felt called to it. And I know I will be involved in restaurants again, I just don’t know the exact role I will play. That said, in five years, we will be talking about a new novel and new essays, and I can only dream that young people moving to NYC will still be passing around Sweetbitter.
Any advice for future Boss Babes, especially those looking to write their own book?
Finish what you start. You don’t know what you have – whether it’s genius or garbage – until you get to the end. So many people get lost in revising the openings of pieces but that should come later. The real work of writing is in the revision, but first, you must finish that terrible first draft.
Photography by Chelsea LeoGrande