WHAT: Sweetbitter

WHEN: Streaming from 4pm, Sunday May 6

English actor Ella Purnell plays Tess Sweetbitter.

"Arriving to New York is such a complicated event in someone's life."

Stephanie Danler, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed author of the best-selling novel Sweetbitter, is talking about the loneliness and overwhelming emotion she experienced when she first landed in the Big Apple.

It's hard to believe the impeccably dressed 34-year-old is the same woman who was down-and-out in New York after moving from Ohio aged 22.


Now based in Los Angeles, Danler is back in New York for the television adaptation of her hit book. It follows Tess, a young woman who arrives in the city without a plan but is quickly seduced by the behind-the-scenes world of a prestigious Manhattan restaurant where she is a waitress.

It's a classic coming-of-age story set in the beating heart of a restaurant kitchen, earning it instant comparisons to chef Anthony Bourdain's best-selling memoir Kitchen Confidential.

Sweetbitter is a sensual read, with pages dedicated to a description of heirloom tomatoes or the first taste of an oyster. Tess' exploration of food and wine are central in the novel but become a side dish in the series.

Both Danler and showrunner Stuart Zicherman were adamant that the six-episode television version not become "food porn". Instead, the human drama and Tess' exploration of sex and drugs take centre stage.

"Reading the book, the first five pages have descriptions that make your mouth water," says Zicherman. "I remember reading that first chapter being like 'Oh my gosh. Thematically, this is great'."

"[But] a palate is about so many things. It is about that first oyster; it's also the first taste of irrational lust and it's the first desire to fit into a group."

The first season will also be set across just two weeks – just the first 30 pages of the book.

"To slow down and to see someone struggle with loneliness, with finding their place, with the pace of the city – that seemed like three hours of television," says Danler.

The show has been lauded for its accurate representation of the adrenaline-fuelled hospitality industry – from the hostile kitchens, booze-fuelled benders and swift but superficial relationships.

For Danler, who wrote and executive produced the series, accurately portraying the industry was a priority. After working in New York's hospitality scene for a decade, she is fiercely protective of the bartenders, waitresses, chefs and kitchen hands of the world.

"In writing the novel I felt so much loyalty to this industry – even when I was showing the ugliest, most painful parts of it – that I had to get it right because I've spent my life in it and those are my people and my friends and my family."

An elaborate, three-level restaurant was built for the series and crew spent two days kicking in and greasing up the kitchen to make it look realistic. The ensemble cast also attended a two-week bootcamp, learning how to chop food, open wine bottles and carry plates.

"I did not have an appreciation for how hard it is," says Ella Purnell, the English actress who plays Tess. "Your back, your neck, your arms, your legs – everything hurts and you come out of a million-hour shift and it's three in the morning.

"In 2006, you'd get handed a wad of cash. Of course you're going to go out and blow off the steam."

Danler and Zicherman debated whether to set the story in the present day or stay true to the book, which is set in 2006. So much has changed in 12 years. The iPhone hadn't been released. There was no such thing as Facebook or Tinder. Foodies didn't share their dinner on Instagram.

"A person coming to New York now comes to New York connected to people through their phone," says Zicherman. "You don't feel lonely in the same way because you're connected to 1000 people."

For 21-year-old Purnell, whose film titles include Churchill and Maleficent, it was a case of life imitating art.

"I found my character hugely relatable, mainly because she's thrown into this world that she doesn't understand and that she is not at all prepared for.

"It was my first time in New York, it was my first time working in TV, so I was really in over my head and trying to stay afloat."

Purnell does more than just stay afloat. Her American accent is flawless and she imbues Tess with a palpable hunger.

"I wanted her to have an edge. That came from [co-star] Caitlin [FitzGerald] saying, 'Don't ever judge your character' and then Steph [Danler] saying, 'I don't care if she's likeable'. The combination of those two things; I said, 'Well then, I'm going to give her some fire to make her real'."

That swagger appears when Tess asks her colleague for another line of cocaine or when she steals a second oyster in the restaurant cool room.

For Danler, it seems like an incredible run: write a debut novel that shoots to the top of bestseller lists and then be handed the reins of a television show.

"I've never wanted to do anything else than write … I felt like my entire life had been building toward this moment," she says. "For the show, I'm like, 'How did I get here?'

"It'll take me years to understand it and why it happened. So I guess this time I'm like, 'I'm really lucky'. Not with the book. The book was a lot of sacrifice and hard work, but this is luck and timing."

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