'Sweetbitter' writer brings her palate-conscious novel to TV

Ella Purnell stars as Tess, a newcomer to New York, in Starz’s new series, “Sweetbitter,” based on Stephanie Danler’s novel about life behind the scenes of a successful New York restaurant

Before she could play Tess, the  often-frazzled trainee at the heart of Starz’s new restaurant-based drama Sweetbitter, Ella Purnell had to learn the three-plate carry.

It’s the kind of stunt many actors have cause to  master before ever setting foot on a sound stage, but for the 21-year-old Purnell (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Maleficent), whose previous food-service experience was limited to pulling pints and serving “chips and burgers” at a pub in her native London, it was all new.

“I’m holding three plates, three white plates, and for some stupid reason I had decided to wear a white silk shirt on this day of training,” Purnell said  in an interview in January about the crash course she and other cast members underwent at the hands of  restaurant industry veteran Justine Slattery. Slattery, who reportedly once trained Stephanie Danler, the Sweetbitter creator from whose novel the series is adapted, to work at at New York’s Union Square Cafe, “comes over and she’s like, ‘I’m going to show you where your weight is, because your weight’s in the wrong place.’ And she poured red wine on all of my plates.

“And I was like, ‘I can do this. Easy.’ And I went and had a conversation with somebody and I looked down and like my whole white silk shirt is red. … And Justine’s just looking at me, shaking her head,” Purnell said.

“And then I turned around and I opened this bottle of wine — she passed out wine keys to open a bottle of wine — I did it sort of without looking quite quickly because that’s what I used to do in the pub … and I turn around and the whole cast is staring at me, and I’m like, ‘What?’

“ ‘So you can open a bottle of wine but you can’t carry a plate?’ And that was just the thing everybody knew me for — [she] was the girl who drops 13 plates on her first day. Which isn’t dissimilar to Tess.”

A plan, and a detour

If it’s harder to see Tess in the polished Danler, who, like her character, came to New York in 2006 and went to work for one of the city’s most successful restaurants, it might be because she was never  really Tess. Unlike her somewhat aimless character, she arrived with a plan, even if that plan took longer to execute than she’d expected.

“I’ve been a writer since I was a child,” said Danler, who’s an executive producer and who worked on the show’s six-episode first season with show runner Stuart Zicherman  (The Americans, Divorce).

Stephanie Danler, creator of Starz's "Sweetbitter"
Camera icon STARZ
Stephanie Danler, creator of Starz’s “Sweetbitter,” based on her novel of the same name.

“I went to undergraduate [Kenyon College] for writing, and moved to New York with a novel. And I thought I would get a restaurant job while I sold my novel. That novel’s terrible and is hidden away from the world, and I was hired at a restaurant called Union Square Cafe. And my life changed. I became a restaurant person and ended up working in the restaurant industry in New York for almost a decade,” said the southern California native, who went on to get a master’s degree in fiction from New York’s New School.

So much would change in that decade that Sweetbitter, which is set in 2006, can’t help but be a bit of a period piece. That, too, was Danler’s plan. Setting the half-hour show, as well as her 2016 best seller,  in 2006 was very important, she said.

“For one thing, restaurants in 2006 were a different proposition than a restaurant in 2016, when our food culture has exploded in every single media outlet and people from the Midwest, like Tess, who’s from Ohio, watch the Food Network. They watch Top Chef, they have Instagram, they follow restaurants. They are so much more savvy. In 2006, the restaurant industry still felt a little bit like an outlaw world, like something that not everyone was involved with. And it still had the stigma of failure a little bit, like to be server you had failed at something else, versus nowadays you can graduate from an Ivy League school and go bartend, and that’s a perfectly valid career path.”

What’s also changed since 2006 is the way we interact with restaurants, and with food, Zicherman added.

“We’re making a show about the experience, the sensory experience of discovery, right? And 2006 was the last time [before the iPhone came out in 2007] that we could actually experience things” without necessarily snapping and sharing a picture, he said. Before that,  “you had to experience things through actual experience.”

And then there’s the changing face of loneliness.

“We have a strong belief that our character, her biggest struggle is with being lonely,” Zicherman said. “When she first comes to New York, we have this scene at the beginning of the show where she’s on a blowup mattress drinking a beer and eating a banana. And she’s just sitting there. In 2018, she’d be on her phone.”

Dining in the dark

Working in a restaurant may have changed Danler’s life, but acting in a made-for-TV one seems to have changed Purnell’s palate (“palate” is a big deal in Sweetbitter, whose first episode is titled “Salt”).

“I’m really interested in food now. I never used to be. I always used to just eat when I’m hungry, and now it’s an experience,” said the actress, who said she’s also inclined to notice now when another diner “needs a water top-off.”

While filming the series at Brooklyn’s Steiner Studios, she fell in love with the restaurants in New York’s Little Italy. “I love pasta,” she said, pronouncing it in the English way, with the short first a. “It’s something in the water. The pasta and the bread in New York are so good.”

At home, Purnell apparently prefers to be surprised.

Asked for her favorite restaurant in London, she raved about the British outpost of Dans le Noir, an international chain with an unusual approach to the development of diners’ palates. (A New York location closed in 2013 “after 15 months terrorizing New Yorkers,” according to Eater.com.)

“All the waiters and waitresses are blind, and the whole restaurant is pitch-black. And you go in and you tell them if there are certain foods that you can’t eat – you’re a vegetarian, you’re allergic, whatever – and then they don’t give you a menu,” Purnell said.

“They serve you, everyone in the group, all different dishes, and then you have to guess what you’re eating. And at the end, they’ll tell you, and it’s always the most incredible stuff. Like saffron-infused kangaroo ears, or something crazy. I mean, I don’t think they’ve ever served that, but something crazy and creative that you’d never guess. It’s the most amazing thing.”

Cast of Starz's "Sweetbitter"
Camera icon STARZ
The cast of “Sweetbitter” includes Tom Sturridge (far left), Evan Jonigkeit, Caitlin FitzGerald,  Jasmine Mathews, Eden Epstein,  Daniyar,  and Ella Purnell.

Sweetbitter isn’t the first TV series to be set in a restaurant — anyone remember Jenkintown’s Bradley Cooper in Fox’s short-lived Kitchen Confidential? — but Zicherman thinks the Starz series is different because it’s not really about the restaurant.

“Every other restaurant show before this is always about the stakes of the restaurant — how do we stay open? How do we get an A rating? How do we make the most beautiful salmon? There’s no stakes in that,” he said. ”By putting the character into the most successful restaurant in New York, the stakes are all about the character. Can she survive there? Can she make it there? … And that way it’s not a restaurant show —  it’s a show about finding your place in the world and finding a family you never had.”

Watch this

Sweetbitter. 8 p.m. Sunday, Starz.