Yes, the food was real. No, I couldn’t eat it. Instead, the plates and plates of octopus that filled the tables and floors of a cramped hallway in Brooklyn’s Steiner Studios had a much more important purpose. If you watch episode 5 of Sweetbitter, the upcoming adaptation of Stephanie Danler’s hit novel about a young girl who moves to New York in 2006 and becomes a waitress at a high-end, haute cuisine eatery, you can see Scott (Jimmie Saito) thrust the dish towards Tess (Ella Purnell). She declares “Jesus fuck this is amazing,” before it’s immediately thrown in the trash. All in all, it spends about ten seconds on screen.
The actors worked this scene over and over again (hence the aforementioned consortium) the day I visited the set of the new Starz show last December. At that point, the adaptation only had a couple weeks left of filming. Six episodes crammed into two months. The book, however, was a different story. Danler spent ten years in the restaurant industry, first at NYC’s Union Square Cafe and later at places like the West Village’s quieter but equally impressive Buvette, unknowingly gathering inspiration for her debut novel of the same name, which was released in May of 2016.
Hollywood would never have been able to resist Sweetbitter. Its millennial pink cover allowed it to thrive on Instagram, and it even had a hand in coining the color-phrase in the first place. It wasn’t just a book people wanted to read, but they wanted to be seen reading. But it wasn’t just aesthetics that captured readers, though. Sweetbitter landed on The New York Times bestseller list that June, earning praise from places like NPR, The Washington Post, and Time Magazine, and putting Danler in talks for a TV show just a week after its publication.
I thought we could build out a series that could be funny, dramatic, sad, sexy, it could be all those things in one.
Fast forward a year or so, and the author is standing in the middle of a set trying to recreate the magic for the small screen. Unsurprisingly, the former waitress wasn’t scared to get her hands dirty, diving in as a co-writer for the series alongside Jaquen Castellanos and Deborah Schoeneman and executive producing all six episodes. For this specific moment, that means instructing Purnell to look a little more repulsed when she takes the Adderall offered to her by Ari (Eden Epstein). It’s important Purnell, who plays the show’s lead, gets this right, because Sweetbitter, for all its industry talk and foodie buzzwords, is a lot about drugs. And drinking. And sex. But most of all, it’s about starting over, something Danler is well acquainted with.
“I did feel that this is entirely new,” Danler said on figuring out how to make Sweetbitter The Book into Sweetbitter The TV Show. “I get to play.”
Her work in restaurants inadvertently made her a good producer, but she’s the first to point out that TV writing is a far cry from writing a novel. For a book with such buzz already behind it, successfully translating that feeling to TV is no easy feat, so she was joined by The Affair’s Stu Zicherman, and Sweetbitter 2.0 was off.
“So much of television now is so specific,” Zicherman said. “And what I’ve always loved about the idea of a restaurant show is that it can be a platform for any kind of story. In the book, Tess is a great character and the central piece of the show, but there’s all these other characters and worlds and backstories, and I thought we could build out a series that could be funny, dramatic, sad, sexy, it could be all those things in one.”
To do that, they had to enlist the right actors to bring the characters of the restaurant to life — some of whom, like so many struggling actors, were fresh off restaurant jobs themselves.
“I had my last shift at the restaurant the night before my callback for [Sweetbitter], and the restaurant was closing and I was going to have to find a new job,” Eden Epstein, who plays Ari on the show, explained. “And I didn’t. I booked this and this was my restaurant job.”
Daniyar, the standout actor behind Sasha (who gives Tess the moniker of “baby monster” and introduces her to the drug-fueled nights she had no idea accompanied the job) had previously worked at a Russian restaurant that was nothing like the one we see on the show. There was cursing and yelling and definitely no sweet “family meal” — the ritual that kicks off each night of service where the staff eat dinner together. And Jasmine Matthews, who plays Heather, had worked in a restaurant for three years in three different cities, and was the only server of color at all of them, something both she and Danler felt was important to bring to the show.
“There was a moment in the first episode, there was a joke that Ari said, that was in the first script —” (“White girls are always vegan.” “Does that make you half vegan?”) “—but as soon as I saw that I went and talked to Stephanie and I was like, ‘This is huge,’” she remembered. “‘This is my own truth, and I know a lot of other people of color’s truth.’”
It’s perhaps credit to the impeccable casting that the characters were so often matched with actors going through similar journeys. At 21-years-old, Purnell identified with newbie Tess, whose, milestones may as well have been her own.
“It was my first time properly in New York, my first time working for TV which is very different, and I was really in over my head,” she told me. Before this, the U.K.-based actress played Emma in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Helen Garrett in the movie Churchill, and, way back when, a young Keira Knightley in Never Let Me Go, but this is her first step into prime time. “I had just moved here, it all happened really fast, and I had the same thing...I sat down and was like, ‘Okay. I have no friends here. I don’t know what I’m doing. My apartment is nothing like it was in the photos. I’ve never heard of this area.’”
Although, not everything is the same. The benefit of living in 2017 as opposed to 2006 meant Purnell could pull up Netflix, or find things to do nearby on Google Maps. For Tess, she was totally alone, something Danler and Zicherman pointed out is a marker of the time period. The show makes sure to regularly ground itself in the past of ten years ago, when people had to check their email on public computers and print out Mapquest directions before leaving the house — two things Tess does in the premiere, are thanks to the 2006-themed writers room sessions planned by Zicherman.
It’s attention to details like this that make this such a successful adaptation – r but it’s not a word-for-word transplant, either. Instead, Danler went back to the original premise and constructed a story that worked not just for six episodes, but hopefully beyond. The essence of the book is still there and so are the themes that matter. Yes, there’s still a Tess and a Jake (Tom Sturridge), the brooding and dangerous love interest, but in season one, at least, Tess’ undefined yet intense relationship with waiter Simone (Caitlin Fitzgerald) gets priority.
It could easily be argued that Simone is Tess’ real love interest. Older, wiser, and infinitely more familiar with wine-speak, she represents what Tess thinks life could be if she plays her cards right. To get there, Tess wants to steep herself in everything Simone has to offer, coming over to cook in her apartment, falling asleep in her bathtub, not necessarily pursuing her romantically...but also not not doing that?
“I think that ambiguity is exactly right and important,” Fitzgerald said. “And I’m reluctant to pin it down in any kind of way, because I think all of the dynamics that are alive in this relationship are important and interesting.”
But let’s try.
“Tess has never met anybody even remotely similar to Simone and inspires her for the first time ever, and I think she becomes completely besotted and obsessed. She can’t stop thinking about her and she doesn’t know why, and I can’t tell you why, I haven’t figured that out yet,” Purnell admitted. “There’s a weird magnet, sort-of-elastic thing. She can’t leave but does she really want to leave, anyway?”
In a few weeks, Danler and Zicherman et al head back to the writers room to figure all of this out. Maybe. They’re still waiting to see if viewers are hungry enough for a second season, to unpack more of the layers the team realized make up a story as rich as this one. After all, it takes a village to create the ideal Instagram photo. Behind it all, there’s a combination of lighting and editing and a dash of deceit. It’s an apt metaphor. Restaurants portray this picture-perfect image out front, while all the grittiness stays barricaded in the back. You don’t know the story of the waitress who delicately presents you with a bottle of wine mere moments after getting screamed at in the kitchen. You don’t see the hookups and the crying and thwarted ambitions beyond the serene oasis of the table you inhabit for a single hour. The point of Sweetbitter is to show you both.
Sweetbitter premieres Sunday, May 6 at 8 p.m. on Starz.