Estranged from her parents, Stephanie Danler moved to New York in 2006 in search of emotional independence. But when offered a job at a high-end restaurant, she found how easy it was to lose herself in the dysfunctional industry.
After almost a decade working in New York’s culinary scene, the New School grad transformed her experiences into Sweetbitter, a coming-of-age novel about a young girl getting swept up in the unique world of love and sex behind the “employees only” doors. Danler stopped by RealSimple.com to chat with editor Lori Leibovich on her podcast The Labor of Love.
Here, an excerpt on negotiating boundaries and the importance of taking care of yourself, as well as those around you.
Lori Leibovich: As the book unfolds, the relationships Tess has [with the other restaurant workers] start to develop. It struck me as a highly dysfunctional family that was in a bubble. As an adult, you can often largely escape the dysfunction that you’ve grown up with. But in [the novel's world], you have to deal with everyone’s dysfunction on such a heightened level because you’re together all the time. Did you feel like you were a part of a family? Did the family dynamic ever feel oppressive?
Stephanie Danler: I definitely felt like I was a part of a family. In a lot of ways, the novel is about Tess’s search for a new family. She finds it in a restaurant [where there are] maternal and paternal relationships and brother and sister dynamics. But I did feel like those dynamics were also dangerous. Tess didn’t have boundaries with these people, and I think that’s true of dysfunctional families as well. Boundaries are the most essential part. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a group of dysfunctional people coming together. It’s when you can’t protect yourself within that group…
LL: Did you feel, when working in the industry, that you had hit a point where you didn’t feel protected anymore?
SD: I didn’t. I was a manager for most of my career. I wanted to make a safe space for the emotional “orphans” who come to New York City. It’s a very particular experience to come to your family and be estranged from your family whether by distance or [for some other reason]. I was always very conscious to make a very safe, non-toxic space.
SD: It was something I learned from [Union Square Hospitality Group restaurateur] Danny Meyer. It’s about putting your restaurant family first before the guest. My servers knew I was always on their side. That will trickle down to the restaurant. I practiced that professionally as a restaurant manager and I try to practice it myself in taking care of myself. I can give more freely and it can trickle down to everyone else in my life.
For more, listen to Danler’s full interview:
This interview was condensed for length and clarity.