Over the past decade, much of gastronomic television, scripted or not, has focused almost entirely on haute cuisine. We’ve seen a lot of chic chefs on the brink in movies like Chef and burnt, but few have taken up the challenge of presenting the chaotic and harsh reality of life in an ordinary neighborhood restaurant that is on the brink of financial collapse. Enter The beara new FX series streaming on Hulu today.
Starring Jeremy Allen White and created by Christopher Storer of Eighth grade fame, the bear follows Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto on her return to Chicago after a brief (but successful) turn in the world of haute cuisine. Before returning home to run Original Beef of Chicagoland, an everyday diner, Carmy is a prodigy, having spent time in some of the best cuisines in the world – including Noma and French Laundry – and was named a food and wine Best New Chef, all under 21. The script notes that Carmy won a James Beard Award, and was responsible for “the best restaurant in the world, at least according to Eater”. (Note: Eater does not host the Best Restaurant in the World award anywhere except within our own minds.)
But now, Carmy is stuck in Chicago running Original Beef after the sudden death of her brother; he does so alongside a seriously compelling cast of secondary characters. Carmy is trying to bring the restaurant’s cuisine – and its sandwiches – up to his own exacting standards, so he brings in Sydney (Ayo Edebiri), an ambitious and organized sous chef who is tired of not being taken seriously in the restaurant world. She’s the perfect foil to feisty cook Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas), who is deeply skeptical of how Carmy is changing recipes and the way things have always been done at Original Beef. And then there’s real-life Toronto chef Matty Matheson, who makes recurring appearances, bringing both the chef’s prestige and the occasional comic relief to some of the show’s most tense scenes.
In eight dizzying episodes, The bear offers what may be the most authentic portrayal of scripted TV life inside a failed restaurant. Your first moments feel like a reality show, maybe an episode of restaurant nightmares, while Carmy tries to get the kitchen in shape. The restaurant is, like so many others, deeply in debt, leaving Carmy to trade vintage menswear for the meat he needs to make his sandwiches and with a pile of bills he has no idea how to pay. The air of this restaurant and its chef feels viscerally real, especially for someone who has worked in a restaurant kitchen plunged into chaos.
But Carmy is determined to make it work. Seemingly overnight, the Original Beef team learns to say “back!” and “corner!” when they’re walking around the kitchen with hot food or sharp knives, and “yes chef!” it becomes as common a refrain in this somber shop window as, I imagine, in the French Laundry. As in restaurants and in real life though, every step forward for Original Beef comes with at least one step back as Carmy tries to save her brother’s restaurant and fight her own trauma after working for an idiot chef, played in flashbacks by Joel. McHale, in his former life.
Along with its courageous authenticity, The bear it is also deeply rooted in the “foodie” culture of the end of the millennium. Carmy is written with all the hallmarks of important culinary credentials that give him the credibility he needs – that food and wine nod, the James Beard Award—to make the audience understand that he is a Serious Chef. The actual scenes involving food, the roasting the round top to make the Italian meat, the perfectly browned vegetables that are turned into fresh giardinera, are beautifully filmed and hunger-inducing without straying too far into food porn territory. To be sure, Carmy’s sandwiches would look killer on the ‘Gram, and it seems likely that this is the kind of spot that would go viral on TikTok for serving top-notch sandwiches in an unassuming space. Hell, even the popular Our Place Always Pan makes a cameo.
The series also crystallizes a lot of what we’ve learned about the impact this kind of high-stress environment has on the people who make the restaurant industry possible, specifically struggles with mental health and substance abuse disorders. These diseases have been widely reported in publications like the one you are reading now for nearly the last decade and fit perfectly with the show’s themes. Is there anything more gastronomic millennium than a former Noma chef with an anxiety disorder? I think not.
And while it’s certainly fun for a food writer like me, I wonder who exactly this show is for: what’s the audience? It’s certainly not chefs looking to relax at 2am after a long night of dinner service – no one wants to watch a show about their work when they’re off duty. A lot of The bear feels a bit like baseball, and many viewers won’t necessarily understand why Carmy is so frustrated that no one bothers to say “back!” when they’re walking around the kitchen with a plate of hot food. For those viewers who are intimately familiar with food and beverage culture, it feels a bit dated thematically. Chef’s Pincer Food and Anguish is very 2010, but the acting and writing in The bear give him just enough heart to make it worth watching.
By the end of the series, you might be left wondering why Carmy is interested in turning this shitty old diner into something great. Why didn’t he just cut his losses and start all over again? But this is largely the fundamental question of why anyone chooses to run a restaurant in real life, knowing that making a huge profit is next to impossible and that there is no end to the work that will need to be done. like The bearThe restaurant industry is built on chaos and uncertainty and men struggling with their egos, and that’s exactly what makes this series feel so accurate and compelling.
All eight episodes of The Bear are now airing on hulu.