I got my first restaurant job when I was 18. I had just moved to the big city (Chicago) and needed to start making money any way I could. I started out answering phones at Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria and was quickly intoxicated by the environment of working at a restaurant: the fast pace, the instant camaraderie, the cliques and hierarchy and interpersonal drama. The work itself was often thankless and tiresome but it didn’t matter because we could all complain about it together over drinks after work.
Since then I’ve worked in a number of restaurants in a number of roles even as I was working in journalism full time, but my last official shift in the biz (so far) was in 2018. And even with its many flaws, I still miss being a part of that world. Maybe that’s why just last week I finally felt compelled to watch the 2018 Starz drama Sweetbitter, a series about a young girl from the Midwest who moves to New York City and is instantly swept up into the food and drink world (relatable!), working at one of the best restaurants in the city.
At its core, Sweetbitter is just another goes-down-easy coming-of-age drama about good-looking people who are hooking up and fighting and learning about themselves along the way. But it reveals details of the behind-the-scenes work of both front-of-house and back-of-house roles that people who have never worked in restaurants may be oblivious to—details that are not accurately portrayed in most TV shows and movies. Those details come courtesy of the source material: The novel Sweetbitter is based on author Stephanie Danler’s experience working at New York City’s Union Square Cafe.
The show stars Ella Purnell (recently a breakout star as Jackie on Yellowjackets) as Tess, a 22-year-old with no real direction in life—she just wants a job. Despite not having any restaurant experience, she gets a job at a fine dining restaurant and quickly learns that serving isn’t as easy as it looks.
The bar and restaurant industry often gets a bad rap (from those who have never worked in it) as a “low-skill” or “easy” job. It may seem that way because it is, for many, a starter job. But as we watch Tess navigate her training process in Sweetbitter, we’re reminded that servers and line cooks and busboys and bartenders and dishwashers simply make it look easy.
First, there’s the actual physical skill. Balancing three hot plates on your arm is difficult, actually, and many servers have the burn scars and memories of broken plates to prove it. By the end of a shift you’ve gotten more than enough steps for the day, on your feet for hours, running up and down stairs with trays of precariously balanced plates and glasses.
Then there’s the minutia of side work, delicately filling salt shakers so as to not waste a grain, the endless stack of silverware to be rolled. Even properly pouring glasses of water isn’t a walk in the park; it takes precision and skill that simply can’t be appreciated until you’re tasked with watering a dining room full of guests.
Sweetbitter’s cast of characters also represents a faction that non-restaurant workers may not often consider: the lifetime server, the lifetime bartender. Not everyone is rolling through a restaurant job just to make ends meet. The narrative drive of the series is that Tess herself must go through a series of tests to become a permanent part of the team. We see Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald) as a lifer, someone who has dedicated every moment not only to this restaurant but to learning about the industry, teaching Tess the under-appreciated lesson of perfecting your palate, giving tips for how to deal with regulars and the less-than-savory customers.
A server is not someone to be pitied because they’re not living out their dream. Sweetbitter reminds us that working at a restaurant on any level is a legitimate career, and it’s not a career that just anyone can handle.