It’s hot in the kitchen

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SWEET­BIT­TER ar­rives like an average- look­ing en­tree. For a mo­ment, you might feel cheated by its seem­ingly unin­spired look. But once you delve into the story, you dis­cover a sur­pris­ingly com­plex flavour that catches you of­f­guard. And all you want to do is eat more.

The se­ries kicks off with a well- worn trope: an at­trac­tive young girl leaves be­hind her small- town for the big smoke – New York, of course – in search of a more ex­cit­ing life.

Tess ( doe- eyed Bri­tish ac­tor Ella Pur­nell) is the girl at the cen­tre of this story. While the open­ing scenes and in­te­rior monologue verge on the clichéd, it soon be­comes clear that Sweet­bit­ter isn’t go­ing to be your usual com­ing- of- age tale.

With no in­di­ca­tion of where the story might head, Tess ar­rives in an up­mar­ket, pink- hued, New York restau­rant for an in­ter­view with straighttalk­ing, se­ri­ous owner Howard ( Paul Sparks, House of Cards).

Their awk­ward, raw con­ver­sa­tion soon re­veals Tess knows next to noth­ing about the re­fined world of food and wine.

But, strangely enough, it is per­haps her odd re­mark com­pli­ment­ing Howard’s fin­ger­nails that lands her a trial run as a server.

Tess is thrust into the hec­tic, heady and to­tally un­fa­mil­iar world of an ex­pen­sive restau­rant. But it’s not only the foodie cul­ture that soon sucks her in, but the restau­rant’s un­pre­dictable staff.

She is drawn to sullen bar­tender Jake ( Tom Stur­ridge), but his feel­ings and mo­ti­va­tions are un­clear. Then there’s poised yet stand- off­ish head server Si­mone ( Caitlin Fitzger­ald,

Mas­ters of Sex), who seems re­pelled by Tess, but for some rea­son takes on a men­tor- like role, fill­ing in Tess’s vast gaps of knowl­edge.

Re­la­tion­ships are blurred around the edges, and de­velop in an un­pre­dictable fash­ion, which is why Bit­ter­sweet keeps you on your toes. In the same vein, Tess isn’t your stan­dard fe­male TV pro­tag­o­nist.

“Tess is a strong woman,” Pur­nell said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “And not in the typ­i­cal strong fe­male char­ac­ters kind of way.

“She’s strong in a very real way. She’s not try­ing to be nice or play nice. She’s just be­ing her­self.”

There are times when Tess’s naivety bor­ders on the far- fetched, but it’s tes­ta­ment to Pur­nell’s cap­ti­vat­ing per­for­mance that you be­lieve ev­ery mo­ment.

It’s not sur­pris­ing that she says she has “never played a char­ac­ter who’s so sim­i­lar to my­self”.

“She is con­stantly mess­ing up, she is su­per awk­ward and weird and just try­ing to fig­ure out her life in a re­ally hon­est and open way,” Pur­nell re­marked.

Dan­ler penned Sweet­bit­ter over seven years, based on her ex­pe­ri­ences of work­ing in the restau­rant in­dus­try. She has also taken the reins of the six- part se­ries, adapt­ing it for the smallscreen.

“I hope peo­ple just see how hon­est it is,” Dan­ler said.

“There are a lot of fairy­tales and ro­man­ti­cised New York shows, and a lot of chefs- yellingin- restau­rant shows.

“That’s not our show. What it is, is re­ally hon­est about this young woman’s jour­ney, and about her quest for fam­ily.”

Three episodes in, I’m hooked. Once I de­vour it, I’ll be pick­ing up a copy of Dan­ler’s best- seller.

Sweet­bit­ter, stream­ing now on Stan. www. stan. com. au

Dan­ler: “There are a lot of fairy­tales and ro­man­ti­cised New York shows, and a lot of chefs yelling- in- restau­rant shows. That’s not our show.”

In­tox­i­cat­ing: Ella Pur­nell is cap­ti­vat­ing as Sweet­bit­ter’s lead char­ac­ter Tess.

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