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'Sweetbitter' Is Actually One of the Best Food Shows on TV

The adaptation of Stephanie Danler's popular novel doesn't focus on chefs, and that's exactly why you should watch it.

by Bettina Makalintal
Jul 29 2019, 11:00am

Screenshot via Starz/YouTube

In its second season, the purpose of Starz's Sweetbitter series makes itself more clear. An adaptation of Stephanie Danler's popular 2016 novel, Sweetbitter focuses on the blurred line between life and work in the restaurant world through the lens of Tess (Ella Purnell), a 21-year-old who moves to New York and fibs her way into a job as a backwaiter at an unnamed stand-in for Danny Meyer's Union Square Cafe, where Danler worked while writing the book. When the show premiered last May, it was clear that Sweetbitter was basically Gossip Girl in a kitchen, far from the highbrow drama of Chef's Table but still worth watching.

Halfway through season two, which premiered on July 14 and consists of eight weekly episodes until August 18, that teenage soap opera comparison remains fair. Sweetbitter isn't "good" exactly: where it falters in acting it fills in with long, furtive stares; the lens through which it shows service industry life is overly romantic; its nostalgia for early 2000s New York is heavy-handed. And yet, Sweetbitter breaks the stereotypes of food shows, and it feels like the most refreshing food show for the current moment.

Part of the show's appeal is that it doesn't follow the formulas of food entertainment. For one, Sweetbitter doesn't show that much actual food. The food scenes, when they happen, are dramatic: when Tess eats an oyster, she imagines kissing a coworker in a scene cut with black and white shots of waves crashing (like any good soap, it's a little over-the-top).

Instead, what's maybe the most exciting thing about Sweetbitter is that unlike Burnt and Chef, Chef's Table and Ugly Delicious, Top Chef and Kitchen Nightmares, Sweetbitter is decidedly not about the people making the food, and more about the people serving it. The chefs are there to move along front-of-house drama—Tess breaks a hot plate and the chef yells, for example, ultimately sending Tess into the arms of a coworker—but they're certainly not the center of it, taking a backseat instead to servers and hosts and back waiters. Part of what that actually means, though, is that Sweetbitter isn't so much about men. The boys' club of food entertainment? You won't find it here.

There are a lot of good food shows and movies, but a lot of them follow the same premise: an insular look at the food world's male-dominated top ranks. In a way, it makes sense, since men continue to dominate the arbitrary metrics of awards and accolades, while efforts at gender equality in those spheres have been perfunctory at best.

Sweetbitter imagines an alternative. Focusing on the service aspect of the restaurant, the show puts its women at the forefront, highlighting the ways that women—as servers, back waiters, and hosts—propel the restaurant's daily tasks forward. The chef might be making a beautiful dish, but it doesn't get to the table without Tess; the wine might be rare and expensive, but it relies on icy, experienced server Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald) in order to make the sale.

Even the restaurant, we learn in the second season, doesn't hum without the work of the high-powered woman who owns it, played by Sandra Bernhard. With multiple restaurants and a book, she isn't introduced until the third episode, when her return throws the staff into disarray as she immediately fires the sous chef for disregarding her signature dish. There's the sense she's modeled after women like Barbara Lynch, whose six-restaurant empire forms the foundations of Boston's fine dining scene. It's nice to see that focus in food TV, as opposed to the archetype of the angry male chef (Bradley Cooper in Burnt, for example).

Along with gender, there's a sense of accessibility that Sweetbitter inverts with its focus on the women in service. Food shows and movies can feel like a game of elitist who's who, especially as they increasingly include figures beyond food. Jon Favreau and Roy Choi's Netflix cooking series The Chef Show was fun, but a mess of cameos including Spiderman's Tom Holland, Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, the Russo brothers, and Robert Rodriguez made it feel like the producers were packing them in there just because they could. The same went for David Chang's Ugly Delicious, which included appearances from comics and actors like Aziz Ansari, Eric Wareheim, and Gillian Jacobs. While so many of those people have already had the world, Sweetbitter is about the women who are still finding their places: Simone knows her stuff but she's unsure about her continued path in the restaurant, while Tess is just happy to discover the plate of chicken and rice at a sidewalk halal cart.

Of course, Sweetbitter's levity could soon be inverted. In an era after so many abuses of power in restaurants have come to light, Sweetbitter seems like it's angling to tackle that too. Halfway through the second season, the show appears to be teasing Tess's increased attention from Howard (Paul Sparks), the restaurant's general manager, who's already involved in a secret affair with another of his employees. If it goes that way, the show's current levity could be countered with something much more grim.

For now, though, Sweetbitter's focus is on women and their many facets of power in the private world of the restaurant, where women silently run the show. In some ways, that power is believable (that a successful woman owns the restaurant, for example); in others, less so (Tess retains and elevates her role, despite actually being quite bad at her job). As a whole, it's about a food world that doesn't understate women's labor and that leaves the undercurrent of control in their hands. We know that, in real life, that isn't always the case, and that's the escapist fantasy of Sweetbitter.