Set in 2006, the new Starz series "Sweetbitter" focuses on Tess (Ella Purnell), a young and very recent New Yorker who gets a job at a chic NYC restaurant and quickly becomes immersed in interpersonal workplace drama and the glamour of the foodie world. The show, based on Stephanie Danler’s bestseller of the same name, offers an fascinating glimpse of a world many viewers have experienced as guests but haven’t seen from the inside.
However, as a former restaurant employee who also began my NYC hospitality career in the mid-aughts, I find myself conflicted about the accuracy of the picture presented by “Sweetbitter”. The series nails certain aspects of restaurant life, but it also displays a very cavalier attitude toward unsavory sides the industry, romanticizing behaviors that should be wholly condemned. To help distinguish between “Sweetbitter”’s facts and fictions, here’s a mini-breakdown of two things “Sweetbitter” definitely gets right and one very major thing it gets dangerously wrong.
The folks who choose to pursue long-term restaurant careers are knowledgeable, passionate, and dedicated to their craft.
Many people with no work experience in restaurants have a derisive attitude toward career servers, bartenders, and managers. There’s a common and unfair assumption (often bolstered by pop-culture depictions of the industry) that restaurant employment is just a “day job” for actors, writers, and students, and that those who take these jobs on a long-term basis do so because they lack the education or work experience for white-collar work.
“Sweetbitter”, however, clearly highlights the skill and know-how required for upscale restaurant work and the career satisfaction that comes from mastering these challenges. In the series premiere, Tess embarks on her first day of training, where she tastes an oyster shucked (and explained) by long-time bartender Jake (Tom Sturridge). Jake’s willingness to share his knowledge with a new hire and Tess’s immediate reaction to a new flavor experience are highly representative of the passion for food held by many in the industry. In the second episode, she receives a similar crash course from senior server Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald), who teaches her that Riesling is in fact a grape and talks her through the proper way to taste wine. These small moments help viewers understand that restaurant work isn’t just a throw-away pursuit for these people, but instead a valuable career choice.
Restaurant workers who want to grow into upper-level positions have numerous educational options available to them, from sommelier certification for wine pros to Ivy League master’s degrees in hospitality management. Careers in upper-crust NYC restaurants (like the one featured on “Sweetbitter”) can result in six-figure salaries, making them both lucrative and personally rewarding for the professionals who hold these roles.
Women in the restaurant industry face significant struggles when trying to work their way up to management positions.
In the United States, almost 70% of front-of-house restaurant staff identifies as female. And yet, despite this sizable majority, 55% of management-level restaurant employees are male, and men represent nearly 80% of restaurant chefs.
“Sweetbitter” exhibits the food world’s gender inequality through the use of Simone, the talented and highly-educated server who still hasn’t ascended to a management position. In the premiere episode, Simone talks the staff through her wine-service technique, only to be met with eye rolls and dismissive comments from her co-workers. Thus far, we have yet to see a female manager or a female chef in the “Sweetbitter” restaurant team, a fact that happens to be a sad reality for the industry, both in 2006 and in 2018.
The So, SO Wrong:
There’s something glamorous about the restaurant business’ record of rampant gendered harassment.
We’re only three “Sweetbitter” episodes in, and we’ve already seen plenty of inappropriate, gender-specific mistreatment aimed at Tess during work hours. Some seems inconsiderate but ultimately harmless, like when a male bartender dubs Tess “Skip” (short for “Skipper”, aka Barbie’s little sister). Some, like general manager Howard (Paul Sparks)’s insistence on entering the personal space of Tess, Simone, and other female employees, feels invasive, uncomfortable, and sadly familiar to any women who’ve worked in restaurants.
However, the creative team of “Sweetbitter” chooses to light these sequences in lush soft-focus, and Tess and her colleagues have no apparent intention to push back against these majorly gendered microaggressions. While gendered harassment wasn’t any more acceptable in 2006 than it is today, this televised portrayal feels particularly tone-deaf in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement and its significant reveals of inappropriate behavior from powerful food-world figures like Mario Batali and Ken Friedman. The women of “Sweetbitter” deserve better, as do the female restaurant employees of the real world.