Starz’s ‘Sweetbitter’ Cooks up an Energetic Drama About Restaurant Life

The mind-numbing anxiety of a job interview and the alluring scent of a high-end meal combine in Starz’s “Sweetbitter.” It features one of those characters we immediately want to cheer for, the underdog trying to make ends meet, thrown into the world of exquisite New York dining. If an outsider is to draw conclusions from this show, it’s that working in the kitchen of a top-of-the-line establishment is about the same as a military outpost in wartime. It is based on a novel by Stephanie Danler, who was inspired by her own experiences as a server. This gives the series the tone of an insider.  Even when the series premiere edges on corny, it’s the details that stand out.

Tess (Ella Purnell) is a 22-year-old wanderer who leaves her small town to move to New York City. After a week she lands an interview for a top tier restaurant in Union Square. The place is run by a well-dressed example of efficiency, Howard (Paul Sparks), who has meticulously well-manicured nails. After an interview during which Tess reveals she knows nothing about fine wines, Howard is still taken by her adventurous spirit and calls her back for training. What Tess discovers is that training to be a server is no fun, relaxed affair. Her first day is grinding as she learns the dos and don’ts, nearly spilling her first serve and of course getting a bad cut. Grabbing a proper wiping cloth is itself a hassle. She also meets the diverse cast of characters who also labor in the kitchen. Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald) is the poised, egotistic know it all, Sasha (Daniyar) is all sass and advice, Will (Evan Jonigkeit) is the no b.s. overseer of the kitchen, and Jake (Tom Sturridge) appears to be involved with Simone, but has an immediate, interesting connection with Tess.

The world of cooking and speedy restaurant life has until now been the stuff of reality TV. “Sweetbitter” tries to turn the whole environment of slick pans, rare bottles and good cooking into personal drama. Visually this is a glossy, well-lit series to look at. The pilot revels in close ups of wine being poured, cheese being cut into and restaurants candles being lit. It brings to TV the style of now forgotten restaurant films like “No Reservations.” Some of the best scenes are precisely when the show crackles with the intensity and pressure of restaurant life. In the pilot the best scene in terms of tension comes when Tess must serve wine for the very first time. Her hand shakes, the serving glass rattles, and the anxiety of doing such a thing for the first time is vividly conveyed. The gossiping and backroom chatter of a cluttered workplace is also captured very well as Tess walks in and other servers critique her appearance. When Sasha opens up to her there’s that sense of relief when you finally make a friend at the workplace. One flaw is that not a lot of attention is paid to the immigrant characters, who tend to form the backbone of restaurant work. Some of them say hello to Tess in Spanish and then disappear. The show is interested mainly in the key servers.

“Sweetbitter” can’t avoid some of the corn that you usually find in this kind of show. Before beginning another day of work the servers eat together and Howard brings them expensive wine as a gift. Simone tastes the vintage and is apparently able to describe what weather and ecological conditions the grapes were grown in. Tess’s job interview scene can’t help itself but fall into pure feel goodness, as she compliments Howard’s nails and confesses, “this place just feels different.” But for every corny moment there are also some good ones that anyone who has ever experienced a first day on the job will recognize. Yet at times the food seems to overtake the characters, as it seems to at times take on a life force of its own. During Tess’s first scene serving the guest asks that a shot of wine be also poured into the soup (“one for the soup, one for me”). In the pilot’s closing scene, Jake sneaks into a back room to share oysters with Tess, warning her to take it quickly. When she does her mind suddenly experiences jump cuts of the sea and what appears to be her having sex. You are what you eat, after all.

As “Sweetbitter” moves forward it seems poised to be one of those stylish shows that will veer from fascinating to melodramatic. Expect love triangles and moments of grand self-discover via delectable recipes. But this is not a boring show, and Tess is an interesting character. It also has much atmosphere and a sense of craft in its visuals. You are easily called back for seconds, but the show will have to prove if it will be worth more helpings.

Sweetbitter” season one premieres May 6 and airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on Starz.