Sweetbitter, based on Stephanie Danler’s coming-of-age novel of the same title, premiered on Starz yesterday.* Like the books, the show follows the misadventures of a young woman named Tess (Ella Purnell), who starts working at a fancy New York restaurant and gets a rapid education in the world of New York haute cuisine — and the whirlwind of drugs, booze, sex, and debauchery that accompanies it. Inspired by Tess’s misadventures, we asked ten people in the upper echelons of the New York restaurant world to share their wildest stories on the job, from out-of-control guests to on-the-job coke binges to kitchen meltdowns. Their tales are far better than anything fiction could come up with.
Interviews have been edited and condensed. Names have been changed to preserve anonymity.
“She deadpan tells me to spit in her mouth.”
One time we’re in service and it’s pretty busy, but I notice this girl sitting at the bar staring intently at me through the window every time I would look up from what I was doing. Fast-forward and I’m closing the kitchen before I move to the bar for my routine shift drink. The girl, who is still there, promptly gets up as I sit down and walks out the door. Strange, I think to myself. But about five minutes later she returns and walks straight to where I’m sitting and pulls out a stool. I’m about to say hi because things were getting a little awkward at that point and just as I open my mouth she slides a condom toward me, gets up, and bee lines for the bathroom. Sounds crazy in retrospect, but I got up a few seconds later and followed her. We immediately start making out and things were moving along quite quickly: her dress is up, my provided condom is on, and then she freezes. I think something’s wrong but before I could ask if everything was all right she deadpan tells me to spit in her mouth … I did. About four minutes later, we parted ways and I never saw her again, with “Spit in my mouth” and “Sure” being the only words we ever exchanged. —Sebastian, chef
“For a night, the bar is your fiefdom.”
Cocaine use in the hospitality industry is pervasive. Former managers of mine would find small bags, with only remnants of their former substances, left on the tops of urinals or on dance floors. These came to be known affectionately as “ground scores.” Other nights, customers would attempt to pay for their drinks with cocaine. This tends to happen on slower nights, Sundays and Mondays. One particular evening I had a group of seven or eight guys come into the bar. They sucked down hundreds of dollars’ worth of vodka-sodas and just before they left, the ringleader shook my hand with a small bag tucked between his fingers, and said “We good?” The booze bartering committed by bartenders is one of my favorite aspects of working in a restaurant. None of the alcohol is yours, but for a night, the bar is your fiefdom, and booze is your currency. You can trade alcohol for drugs, cigarettes, a hookup. Or my personal favorite, for food from the kitchen — essentially trading one commodity that isn’t yours for another.
One particular cocaine-fueled evening, I ended up hooking up with my manager. He was straight, and I was high. After hooking up with me, he had effectively hooked up with every staff member at the bar, male and female. After drinking and doing coke for hours (at work), we both went to his place, took some benzos in his room. A few minutes later, he looks over at me, then gave a suggestive glance at his erection. Then boom, we were bisexual. —Brett, bartender
“He just wanted to be the poor waitress’s sugar daddy.”
One time I was chatting with a guest about music and great concerts, and he told me that Paul McCartney would be playing the MetLife Stadium in just a week or so and I should go. As if I had that kind of money. But when I told him exactly that, he said I should give him my email address and he’d be able to get me in. So I did. Why not?
I should be clear that I 100 percent know that I flirt with my guests. It gets me higher tips, particularly when they’re men or lesbian/bisexual women eating alone. I always keep it professional, but I know what I’m doing when I look a guest in the eyes as they’re talking, smile, lean in, and keep my hands or my body touching the table. Understanding that, though, I also know that people don’t often remember their waitress after the meal, and that’s okay. So when I wrote my email address down for this guy, I didn’t think he’d actually remember or go out of his way for me. That made it a real surprise when, two days later, I got an email from him saying that he’d gotten an extra pass for me, and all I had to do was turn up at a specific gate of the MetLife Stadium to meet him.
Obviously, I went. When someone offers you a free ticket to see Paul McCartney, you go. I went to the gate he specified, and he met me there with an all-access pass. Holy shit. I was very psyched about it, but then he opened the door to the stadium for me and led me in, putting his hand on my hip. It’s pretty obvious what that means. So I go in, very excited to see this concert, and suddenly he can’t keep his hands off my arms, shoulders, and waist. Oh. He just wanted to be the poor waitress’s sugar daddy. —Amanda, server
“He told me his whole life story.”
I was 21 and it was my first sommelier job. One night, the whole restaurant was packed, and there was one table with these two guys who told us they worked in the aviation industry — a very handsome older guy and a very handsome younger guy. They drank some very nice bottles from the wine list and bought me and a female waiter that I was working with drinks at the end of the night. They were kind of the last people in the restaurant and were really, really convincing us to go out with them. The woman I was working with politely declined, but I decided to go. So we went to some fancy bar downtown and had a drink. At this point it kind of felt the night was winding down.
I forget how, but the younger guy had made some excuse to get my phone number from me — like maybe he wanted to come back to the restaurant at some point and contact me directly. So we said our good-byes and I was in a taxi going back to Williamsburg, and I had a call from a number that I didn’t recognize. It’s the guy asking if I want to go back to his hotel room with him. And so I did, and we ended up drinking a lot of tequila from the minibar, he told me his whole life story about being in the closet and being an executive and how he had a wife back home. It was a very interesting, eye-opening experience — [the hookup] all kind of happened very quickly and very drunkenly. That was the only time that I personally ever went home with a customer from the restaurant, early on in my career. —Ben, sommelier
“He had thrown the four quarts of blood at the sous chef.”
I was working at [a now shuttered Michelin star restaurant], where we had incredibly militaristic standards for cleanliness in the kitchen. We had made our own blood sausage, so this guy is unpacking produce in the walk-in and he knocked the four-quart thing filled with blood and spilled a couple of drops on the floor. And the sous chef walked in and was in a really shitty mood that day, and you hear screaming from inside the walk-in. Then we heard something smash. He had thrown the four quarts of blood right at the sous chef and it was streaming out of the walk-in into the rest of the kitchen. —James, beverage director
“Within minutes someone was fired.”
I work at a two Michelin star and there’s quite a lot of financial bros that come in. One time, a bunch of guys come in with one lady, she’s very well dressed, and they’re probably each four or five vodka-sodas deep, as would be expected. That’s the obvious finance guy drink. America is run on vodka-sodas. Three deep at the bar, it’s a little crazy. They bump into another group that’s also pretty vodka-soda’d up. The other group bumps into the girl, one of the guys says ‘Watch it, slut.’ Obviously no good in any form, but in a Michelin star restaurant where vodka-sodas are 20 bucks a piece, and has that pedigree of person that has to be able to afford this — Goldman Sachs, Amex, the works. There’s a little shoving, one guy gets into another guy’s face, and phone calls are made, to the extent that this guy is fired on the spot, he slams down his glass, breaks it, and runs out. They were calling each other’s bosses, taking pictures of each other, identifying each other, using LinkedIn to find out where they worked, the works. Within minutes someone was fired. —Evan, bartender
“They used to keep a little party drawer in the bathroom.”
Drug use is everywhere. There would be people going into the bathroom and doing rails. I knew of one place that used to keep a little party drawer in the bathroom: the bathroom had a table in it with a few drawers, and one of them people used to hide drugs in the back of, so in the middle of service you could just pop in and have a little bump and then pop out and no one would notice. It’s definitely something all the servers knew about. I’m surprised none of the guests ever found it— that would be a fun discovery. —Georgia, cook
“No one needs to ever see or smell that.”
Back in the day when I was still a budding sous chef, I used to work at this one restaurant that accommodated gluten-free diets. Unfortunately, this meant that many of our guests were not only celiacs or gluten insensitive, but also had generally crazy dietary needs and were a little bit demanding, which resulted in a few people being absolute horrors. One week in fall, we were running a dish with a pork chop and roasted beets. We had one lady order this dish for her little kid. Since it was for her kid, I was asked if I could make sure that the pork was thoroughly cooked until it no longer resembled anything anyone would actually want to eat.
Fast-forward a couple days, and we see this woman again. She doesn’t look happy. She tells us we undercooked her son’s pork. We’re trying to get our floor manager to talk to her, but she insists that we take a look in this Ziploc bag she brought. From this bag … she pulls out the most ungodly, rank, and putrid diaper I have ever smelled. We were horrified. We told her to put the diaper away. She was unrelenting. She opens the diaper up and shows to us her kid’s excrement, pointing to us how it was a reddish hue and how she was absolutely convinced this was because of our uncooked pork. We were all extremely grossed out about this but we did our best to explain to her how the dying power of beets worked, while trying to please make this woman put away her kid’s dirty diaper. Man, we were scarred. No one needs to ever see or smell that. —Jack, chef
“I’m pretty sure they both participated.”
It was Christmas Eve and I was worried about getting out on time because I spend Christmas Eve with my family. And then one of our bartenders who was kind of a sad sack was like: ‘The only Christmas gift I’m getting is the one I’m getting right now.’ And this white Hummer shows up and a bunch of super crazy dudes get out and they give him like eight grams of cocaine and a bottle of Moet, because he’s their best customer. And he’s like ‘This is my family’ and they’re like ‘Um no we’re not,’ and they left the bar. They were like, coke dealer bloods. And there was only ten people in the entire place and he decided to do almost all of the coke with another guy, then they brought a girl downstairs together, a customer, and fucked this girl downstairs on shift. I’m pretty sure they both participated. And I was like … I’m going to go hang out with my grandmother, bye. —Emily, waitress
“I yakked immediately, it was so gross.”
A while ago we had a line cook who we were pretty sure had a substance abuse problem of some sort — I learned pretty quickly that when you get paid on Fridays you don’t make him work Saturdays because he’ll never be there on time and he’ll be miserable, because he’ll have been up till 8 a.m. the night before. After a while I had a long talk with him and I said, On Sunday I really need you because we have a buyout for a wedding, you’ve gotta be good. And he comes in, he’s probably 32 or 33, and he’s crying. He’s a pretty tough kid; I wouldn’t have fucked with him. And he comes in crying and is like, Chef, I need to borrow $2,000 and I’ll be back in an hour. And he’s talking weird — his speech was off. And I’m like, Are you still fucked up or something? And he’s like No, I blacked out last night I don’t know what happened, but I have dentures — and he smiles, but there’s no teeth. He’s like, Well, when I was younger I was a heroin addict and my teeth went to shit, and I partied all day Friday and yesterday and some point I lost my teeth. So I’m like, Here, take my credit card, go get some temporary dentures and get your ass back here. He comes back and he’s got his teeth in, so I’m like great, awesome.
At the end of the night we go out for a drink, he comes too, we go out to the regular bar we always go to and the bartender comes over with a pint glass and he puts it down and it’s got Guinness in it — that’s what that other kid drank. And when he starts drinking it, something smacks him in the face, and I look over: His fucking teeth were in the fucking cup at this bar! He’d left them on the bar on Friday and they put them back in his glass. I yakked immediately; it was so gross. And now he had two sets of teeth, even though he’d just spent $1,800 on the new ones. He was like, Maybe I can return them! I was like … there’s no way you can return dentures, bro. I couldn’t stop laughing for like a year. —Andrew, chef
* This post has been corrected to show that Sweetbitter premiered yesterday on Starz.