It should come as no surprise that I love reading books about the restaurant industry. One of my favorite reads of all time was Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend ordering it to enjoy during quarantine.
A few months ago, I read Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter by Phoebe Damrosch. While not as gritty as Bourdain's account of working in kitchens, Damrosch's story gives much reverence to the magic of fine dining.
Recently, a friend loaned me her copy of Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler. It's the story of Tess, a young woman who moves to New York City and secures a job in a fancy restaurant (I was imagining it as Eleven Madison Park). She knows nothing about food, wine or service and has to start at the bottom. She's so bewildered she doesn't even know if she's allowed to speak during family meal.
Her world, personal and professional, begins to meld. She lusts for the brooding bartender, idolizes the lead server and shakes in the presence of the hot-headed executive chef. After her shift, she stays out into the morning drinking, doing drugs and making one mistake after another.
On page 163, she perfectly describes how industry people view themselves in opposition to the rest of the working of the working world, "We called them Nine-to-Fivers. They lived in accordance with nature, waking and sleeping with the cycle of the sun. Mealtimes, business hours, the world conformed to their schedule. The best markets, the A-list concerts, the street fairs, the banner festivities were on Saturdays and Sundays. They sold out movies, art openings, ceramics classes. They watched television shows in real time. They had evenings to waste. They watched the Super Bowl, they watched the Oscars, they made reservations for dinner because they ate dinner at the normal time. They brunched, ruthlessly, and read the Sunday Times on Sundays. They moved in crowds that reinforced their citizenship: crowded museums, crowded subways, crowded bars, the city teeming with extras for the movie they starred in. They were dining, shopping, consuming, unwinding, expanding while were working, diminishing, being absorbed into their scenery. That is why we - the Industry People - got so greedy when the Nine-to-Fivers went to bed."
Doesn't that passage give you goosebumps?
Sweetbitter is dark. There are very few redeeming characters. It's mostly about the under belly of the industry and the people who inhabit it. That said, it was colorful enough to be adapted into a television series for Starz. I haven't watched the show and don't plan to.
If you're seeking a fantastic look at the real life of restaurant workers, definitely give the Bourdain or Damrosch books a try. I highly recommend both!
*Image courtesy of Vanity Fair.