4 Mistakes in “Sweetbitter” – fantasy versus real restaurant work

We love Sweetbitter, but it has some obvious errors that any New York restaurant worker will feel obliged to point out. Here are the top 4.

  • Tess (Ella Purnell) is able to afford a huge apartment in Brooklyn, even though she is only a trainee-server in a restaurant. She is actually able to walk to the  Brooklyn apartment from the Manhattan restaurant, which would make the apartment a prime location. Sweetbitter takes place in 2006, but even then, such an apartment would be an impossible dream for a restaurant worker. Supposedly Tess shares it with one other person, although he is never there. So Tess, in fact, has an apartment all to herself. In real life, people who work in Manhattan restaurants often have to commute an hour or more by subway to work. The apartments they live in are shared with 5 or 6 other people. Restaurant workers simply can’t compete economically for apartments. The good Manhattan and Brooklyn apartments are occupied by investment bankers, bond traders and hedge fund managers.
Average commutes to work in different parts of New York city.

Average commutes to work in different parts of New York city.

  • In Sweetbitter, the restaurant owner, Howard (Paul Sparks), leaves the restaurant each night before the workers, and lets them all stay behind to have as many free drinks as they want. In real life, alcohol theft by employees is one of the biggest problems for any restaurant owner. Some owners might serve drinks to the employees on very special occasions for a job well done. However, owners never let employees drink as much as they want every night. And restaurant owners are never the first to leave. Real restaurant owners don’t leave until everything of value, especially the booze, is safely locked away. Real owners are the last ones out, lock the doors and set the alarms.
Free drinks to employees is a sure way to bankrupt a restaurant.

Free drinks to employees is a sure way to bankrupt a restaurant.

No owner leaves a restaurant until everyone is out and the doors are locked

No owner leaves a restaurant until everyone is out and the doors are locked

  • In Sweetbitter, Tess (Ella Purnell) and Simone (Catlin Fitzgerald) have way too much time to “chat”. They spend a lot of time in the wine cellar or kitchen gossiping about the guests, other workers, or gourmet food. Real restaurant work is an exhausting rush during every second of every shift with no time to to gossip. The days end with aching feet and sore backs rather than free drinks.
Organization chart at even a small restaurant.

Organization chart at even a small restaurant.

  • Sweetbitter mostly ignores the rigid cast system in the restaurant world. Perhaps no workplace environment is more stratified than that of a gourmet restaurant.  In the kitchen alone there will be an Executive Chef a Sous Chef, a Salad Chef, a Pastry Chef, a Grill Chef, and various other cooks, cleaners and dishwashers. There is a bitter rivalry between all of them as everyone is trying to move up to the next level. Then there is the  overt hatred between the kitchen staff and the servers. The kitchen staff, especially the chefs, see the waiters and waitress as lazy people who have an easy job and take credit with the customers  for all the hard work of the chefs.  Sweetbitter touches on this only slightly, when we see the flash of anger from the Sous Chef when Tess drops a plate full of food. In a real restaurant, if you make an enemy of a chef, you will not last long. Every restaurant owner knows that it is easy to find another server, while good chefs are worth their weight in gold.

Sweetbitter is fun to watch, but it is a fantasy version of living in New York and working in a restaurant. If anyone goes to work in a New York restaurant thinking it will be like Sweetbitter, then that person is in for a rude awaking.  Sweetbitter is no more like  real restaurant work than the Harry Potter stories are about life in a real Scottish boarding school. The writer, Stephanie Danler, actually did work in a New York restaurant while getting her MFA degree. Therefore, either she knows she has written a fantasy, or else she has nostalgically  forgotten  what it was really like.

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