ICBA Blog

4 Books Get the Bar and Restaurant Industry Right

Add these books (and one show) to your summer entertainment list

Whether you take shifts front of house as a server, host, or bartender, or you prefer back of house as line cook, dishwasher, barback, or other behind-the-scenes personnel, you know the bar and restaurant industry is its own unique animal. Books, film, and television often glamorize the culinary field. But anyone who has ever worked in the food service industry recognizes it takes major moxie — more now so than ever in times of COVID-19.

For your summer reading list (or anytime really), we’ve compiled a list of entertaining books with truly relatable characters that paint a more accurate picture of the food service scene.

Sweetbitter

You can either binge-read or binge-watch Sweetbitter, a novel and television show written by Stephanie Danler—take your pick. The point is you will want to binge it. Danler’s novel published in 2016, and two years later, Sweetbitter had a two-season run on Starz after the network picked up her pilot script. Sweetbitter follows Tess (played by Ella Purnell in the series) after she moves to New York City and works her way up the ranks at a high-end restaurant. Her co-workers are a mix of catty and kind, and Tess must navigate the treacherous role of being the naïve newbie. Sweetbitter waxes poetic about the wine and cuisine, but what Danler truly gets right about food service are the intricacies of how a house works together to get through a sprint of a shift.

Notes from a Young Black Chef

If you prefer nonfiction when you crack a book, Kwame Onwuachi’s memoir chronicles his journey of selling candy on the subway to catering to ultimately winning a James Beard Foundation Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2019. The narrative, written with the help of journalist and restaurant critic Joshua David Stein, follows Onwuachi’s unwavering love for food as he works in various kitchens throughout his career. The story details his appearance as a contestant on Top Chef, and paints an honest picture of chasing culinary dreams despite facing obstacles, setbacks, and racism. Onwuachi’s recipes follow each chapter.

Writers & Lovers

Writers and Lovers, a novel by Lily King, features narrator Casey Peabody. You guessed it. Casey, 31, is a server and writer. After waking up bright and early to walk her landlord’s dog, Casey pounds out pages of her growing manuscript in a garden shed that’s been converted into an apartment. Think of it as the tiny house of the late ’90s. Then Casey bikes to her lunch and evening shifts at a Cambridge, Massachusetts, eatery, only to arrive home late, get little sleep and wake up to do it all over again. Casey’s situation is relatable in that many service industry folks balance building a creative pursuit along with shifts that help pay the bills. Meanwhile Casey grapples with real-life issues such as grieving over a recent loss, wondering how to manage student debt, and navigating various relationships.

The Lager Queen of Minnesota

For those of you who work with the craft beer industry in some capacity, you won’t want to miss diving into The Lager Queen of Minnesota, by J Ryan Stradal, which quickly hit bestseller lists after its summer 2019 release. The storyline explores two Minnesota sisters estranged over a family inheritance. One sister used the cash to start a brewery that turns into a prominent, albeit boring brand, while the other received nada. Later in life, the down-on-her-luck sister suddenly finds herself further strapped for cash while caring for her teenage granddaughter, Diana. As Diana becomes an adult, she falls into the craft beer scene, almost by accident. And so the plot thickens. But in Diana’s storyline is where craft brewery workers will most likely see themselves. One customer actually orders a Blue Moon. Incidentally, Stradal’s first novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, also covers culinary topics with a charming cast of down-to-earth characters.

The Dishwasher

The Dishwasher is the English translation of Stéphane Larue’s Le Plongeur. Published in 2019, The Dishwasher (translated by Pablo Strauss) follows the coming-of-age story of a graphic design student just starting to dapple in freelance who needs money fast. He takes the first job he can as a dishwasher at a luxe Montreal restaurant. Readers will identify with the kitchen cacophony of clanging pots and pans, sizzling food, hissing steam, and hurried workers. Despite the chaos, we can see that back-of-house must work like a well-oiled machine for a restaurant to function—and it must function, even when things feel somewhat dysfunctional. Kirkus says Larue’s novel “reads like a cross between the dearly departed Anthony Bourdain and Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter.”