It’s hot in the kitchen
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.