A wonderful novel for higher ed people who love books about the world of restaurants.

September 1, 2016

Sweetbitter: A Novel by Stephanie Danler.

Published in May of 2016.

Are you also a fan of books set in restaurants?

The last restaurant book I read was Sweetbitter,  a novel by Stephanie Danler. 

Mostly I read nonfiction restaurant books, so Sweetbitter was a welcome departure.

Good novels reveal truths that inaccessible to even the best works of nonfiction. Sweetbitter, a novel that borrows liberally from the authors’ experience as a backwaiter at Union Square Cafe, feels true to the experience of living a restaurant life.

My affection for restaurant books stems from my curiosity about other (non-higher ed) workplace cultures. 

I like to think about how the subcultures, norms, and operations of restaurants - and compare that world to what we experience in higher ed.

Restaurants, like colleges, are both labor and experience intensive enterprises. 

Just as a great restaurant can’t scale past a certain point, neither can a great college.

Just as the quality of any restaurant is a function of the people who make the place go (a surprisingly large cast of specialists), so is the quality of an institution of higher learning determined. 

And just as the restaurant world is populated by passionate eccentrics who would have difficulty surviving in the civilian world, so is higher education.

Both restaurants and colleges seem to attract people who have chosen a line of work divorced from rationale calculations.  The sacrifices in time, dignity, and sanity necessary to make it in the restaurant world seem to parallel the trials endured by many wishing to find a foothold it in academia.

Many of us who ended up in higher ed have restaurant experience.  Having once been servers or dishwashers or cooks, we know just how hard these jobs are. 

We are particularly grateful for the benefits and privileges that we enjoy in working in higher ed - including the fact that unlike our restaurant colleagues we usually get to come home at a reasonable hour.

If you want to really understand how hard it is to earn a dollar - work in a restaurant. 

If you want to learn the importance of respect, good manners, and the importance of always tipping well - work in a restaurant.

The next time you go to a restaurant try to count to number of people working.  This counting may be hard, as you will not see all the people in the kitchen, all the food runners and dishwashers and barbacks.  But try anyway. And then think about how many people that we don’t see in higher ed that are necessary to make the place run.

Try to get a sense of the economics of the restaurant, of all the costs and the revenues, and think about how restaurant economics overlap with and differ from those of higher ed.

Sweetbitter is a terrific restaurant novel.  Can you name others?

Here is my list of favorite restaurant books - maybe you can suggest a few more:

Back of the House: The Secret Life of a Restaurant by Scott Haas

Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip--Confessions of a Cynical Waiter by Steve Dublanica

Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton

Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain

What are you reading?



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