“The Bear” Is a Gritty Fairy Tale of Cooking and Grief
In FX’s excellent new series, the chefs at a Chicago hot-beef restaurant struggle to maintain a little pilot light of hope.
By Helen Rosner
July 22, 2022
The excellent new FX show “The Bear” takes place in a type of restaurant that only exists in Chicago. Not quite a diner, not quite a deli, not quite a fast-food joint, it is a storefront establishment with big plate-glass windows, grubby in a reassuring way, with illuminated signs that advertise Italian beef or gyros. The color scheme is brown and beige; the diverse, largely blue-collar clientele who line up for lunch every day are a glad-handing politician’s dream; the menus rarely stray from short-order classics and local specialties. I can summon in an instant the sense memory of stepping inside the doors of Johnnie’s Beef or Al’s on Taylor, and the newborn-like heft of a warm, paper-wrapped beef sandwich. (I get mine “sweet and hot, dipped”—both kinds of peppers, plus a full-sandwich dunk in the beefy broth in which the meat has braised for hours.) There’s a smell these restaurants share that’s found in no other place on earth: a layered, rough, masculine perfume of meat and garlic and fryer oil and Formica laminate and sweet, yeasty bread. It’s the aroma that would be pumped into a Smell-O-Vision showing of “The Bear,” which is about a decorated fine-dining chef who returns to Chicago to take over his family’s Italian-beef shop, and to try to save it from disaster.
The hero of the series is Carmen (Carmy) Berzatto, a driven hot shot who until recently had been running the kitchen at the (unnamed) best restaurant in the world, somewhere in New York City. He is played with rumpled intensity by Jeremy Allen White, who has the lake-blue eyes and crescent-moon profile of a young emperor unaware that he’s about to be murdered by the Praetorian guard. Carmy has returned to Chicago in the aftermath of his older brother Mikey’s suicide, after being willed his stake in the family restaurant, the Original Beef of Chicagoland, affectionately referred to as “the Beef.” The tragedy has sent reeling the ragtag world that revolves around the Beef, though the restaurant’s creditors don’t care. Carmy, a resourceful businessman, pays off a debt to a beef vender by selling a collection of selvedge denim, plus collecting quarters scooped out of the dining room’s neglected arcade consoles. But he is unsure what to do about the three hundred grand that Mikey had borrowed from their Uncle Cicero, a shady businessman (Oliver Platt, alternately lovable and terrifying), who might be the kind of guy inclined to break someone’s legs.
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Into this swamp of missing money, lifer line cooks, and rag-stuffed grease traps, Carmy brings the sensibility of the classically trained chef. The language and expectations of the high-end brigade de cuisine have been imprinted on him like a tattoo on the soul. Why shouldn’t an Italian beef sandwich be a work of art? By the end of the first episode, Carmy has already retooled the Beef’s offerings. He’s braising the meat using a new recipe and tinkering with how the bread gets baked, and he’s taken the customer-favorite spaghetti off the menu. (His new version of an Italian beef, passed around to staff for tasting, looks almost unbearably delicious.) To the patient skepticism of his staff, he calls them all “Chef”—“It’s a sign of respect,” he explains—and expects them to call him “Chef” in return. When a young, ambitious cook named Sydney (a magnetic Ayo Edebiri) turns up with a star-studded résumé, looking for a job as a sous chef, she rattles off Carmy’s bona fides and then asks him, “So, what are you doing here?” He pauses and further ruffles his permanently ruffled hair. “Making sandwiches,” he says, and turns back to work.
“The Bear” has rightly been praised for its uncannily realistic depiction of restaurant life. Kitchen work has rarely been portrayed this convincingly onscreen. The creator of “The Bear,” Christopher Storer, is best known for his documentaries, including the 2013 film “Sense of Urgency,” about the illustrious chef Thomas Keller, and it’s clear that he knows how to capture the way restaurants really work. Little touches help the Beef’s back-of-house rhythms ring true: cooks drinking ice water out of quart containers, a general shortage of working Sharpies, the walk-in fridge used as a place of solitude and recovery, the back office cluttered with bottles of Fernet and Pepto-Bismol, Carmy’s insistence that the green painter’s tape used to label bins and containers always have sharp, scissor-cut edges, never raggedly torn ones. The show was shot in an actual Italian-beef restaurant in Chicago, so the space, and the way that people move around and against one another, feels genuinely functional and claustrophobic. There are a few false notes, by my judgment — can giardiniera, a pickled mix of vegetables, really be whipped up à la minute? Can an Italian-beef joint a few hundred grand in the hole really justify a full-time dedicated pastry cook?—but the over-all impression feels strikingly true to life.
The most authentic thing about the Beef might be how awful it seems to work there. Life in Carmy’s kitchen is neither glamorous nor fun. The chaos is not alluring. The pirate ship is not a party. In the past it has been tempting, when telling this sort of story, to paint violent self-destructiveness as a viable path on the artist’s way, and cruelty as a language of truth. But the “rock-star chef” archetype, so ubiquitous at the start of the twenty-first century, feels painfully dated now, and “The Bear” ’s rejection of that paradigm is in keeping with other recent shifts in food culture. The harsh realities of the restaurant business—issues of labor rights, physical strain, and mental health—have intruded on the glossy fantasy of professional cooking as pure creative expression. (Even Anthony Bourdain came to regret his role in spawning the trope of the emotionally wrecked chef as glorious fuckup.) Since “The Bear” ’s début, cooks and former cooks have commented on how viscerally it captures the anxiety and volatility of a working kitchen. “It was so accurate that it was triggering,” the writer Genevieve Yam, a former fine-dining cook, wrote, in Bon Appétit.
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“The Bear” is also unusually on point about Chicago. It is peppered with local references and shibboleths: Green River soda and Sprecher’s root beer, Vienna Beef, Bill Murray, the hockey legend Denis Savard. Carmy has a 773 area-code tattoo (a little lame, to be honest). Another character has reflexive disdain for “fuckin’ Piven” (i.e., Jeremy, the actor, a controversial native son). There’s a voice cameo from the WXRT morning-drive-time d.j. Lin Brehmer. A billboard mounted on the roof of the Beef advertises Malört, Chicago’s inexplicably beloved paint-varnish-like liquor. But the truest, most shockingly accurate nod is the show’s ambient Midwestern bleakness, its aesthetic of high-contrast grime and emptiness. The city is famous for its sparkling drifts of snow, but locals—not unlike restaurant workers—know that reality is rarely so picturesque. A true Chicago winter is colorless and hard, gray slush on gray sidewalks under a gray sky. FX and Hulu (on which “The Bear” is streaming) categorize the show as a comedy, and each half-hour episode has its funny moments, many thanks to the celebrity chef Matty Matheson, who appears as an adorably deranged handyman. But the series’ overarching concern is despair and self-destruction. Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), the late Mikey’s best friend and the Beef’s erratic manager, is adrift in his anger. The middle-aged line cook Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) hazes Sydney with malicious joy. Carmy undermines his own insistence on a respectful kitchen culture by indulging in frequent outbursts of verbal abuse. Through flashbacks, we learn that his behavior echoes the bullying he endured at the hands of the chef he worked for in New York (an exquisitely vituperative Joel McHale, in Heston Blumenthal glasses). Even Sydney, whose quiet competence initially appears to be a tempering force, has the capacity to perpetuate the cycle of abuse. All of the Beef’s kitchen staff are nursing deep wounds, and all rely on the rhythm of the work to mask their misery—even when the work is what’s causing it.
As the great Chicagoan Roger Ebert wrote, “A movie is not about what it is about, it is about how it is about it.” “The Bear” has the feel of a dirtbag fairy tale, but its gritty propulsiveness is shot through with grief. This is a show about a restaurant, but it’s also about the struggle to maintain a little pilot light of hope. Most episodes take place almost entirely inside the Beef, in its narrow kitchen and fluorescent-lit dining room, but in flashbacks and asides we learn about the outside lives of the people who gather there: the ephemera of Sydney’s failed catering business, the dashed major-league baseball dreams of one line cook, the bloody war that led another to flee his native Somalia; Richie’s broken marriage; Uncle Cicero’s estrangement from his brother. Carmy is full of despair that he doesn’t know how to articulate, and anger that he doesn’t know how to account for. He falls into surreal, meta-theatrical dreams and nightmares, including a recurring one in which a massive bear threatens to tear him apart.
The plot of “The Bear” is, more or less, “How will the Beef stay afloat?” But the show’s weakest moments are those concerned with the will-they-won’t-they of financial survival, among them—vague spoiler—a frankly ludicrous deus ex machina in the final episode. (The series has been renewed for a second season.) The greater dramatic engine is the conflict between the competing qualities of refinement and grit that often exist side by side in restaurant kitchens. Carmy and Sydney want to elevate the the Beef’s food, perhaps as a way of elevating themselves, and the beginning of the series sets up what seems like a predictable arc: the newcomers sweep through, teaching the magical properties of care and technique and friendship to a stodgy crew of disaffected old-timers. But the show doesn’t give in to the easy, upward pull of love conquering all. There’s more to fix at the Beef than the recipes, and there’s also more worth preserving. The brigade system isn’t a universal panacea, any more than simply calling a person “Chef” makes them stand up straighter in their Danskos.
In the series’ seventh and strongest episode, Sydney, frustrated by Carmy’s slowness to shake things up like he’s promised to do, spots a visiting restaurant critic in the dining room and sneaks him an ambitious, very un-the-Beef dish of cola-braised short rib over risotto. The critic publishes a rave review, which attracts an unsustainable flood of customers, a so-called hug of death that nearly breaks the little restaurant. The Beef has survived for decades cooking a handful of dishes, passably well, for just enough people to keep the ship afloat. Changing one thing, it turns out, changes everything else, too. Is change always a form of growth? In the first episode, Gary asks Sydney what she’s going to make for the staff “family meal,” one of her practical examinations as an employee hopeful. “Are you going with delicious, or impressive?” he asks. Sydney gives him a side-eye. “Delicious is impressive,” she says. ♦