Culinary accuracy is the not-so-secret sauce of one of the most-talked about kitchen dramas in televisual history.
Now streaming on Hulu, FX’s “The Bear” has captured the imagination of mainstream audiences and garnered widespread acclaim for its depiction of the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of modern professional kitchens. Tools, technique, and even the very language of the environment — nothing is overlooked in the show. Compared with films like “Chef” and “Burnt,” or the formulaic reality interpretations involving TV’s idiot sandwich himself, Gordon Ramsay, there is no comparison and only one winner.
But there are also potential victims of this show’s success as well as genuinely worrying consequences of yet another celebration of the worst aspects of kitchen culture. Accurate though it may be, “The Bear” is an indirect celebration of abusive working environments, and one worth addressing. We can debate whether the show’s lead character is a hero or an antihero, but let’s not ignore that his behavior goes beyond unacceptable on multiple occasions. There’s also no arguing against the fact that Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto is overwhelmingly adored by viewers, something I’m sure “The Bear’s” writers and producers intended. In doing so, they’ve inadvertently set the stage for a perpetuation of harmful kitchen behavior — a theme that ironically plays out in the show but has been lost in the hubris.
Hand to the stove, if asked to choose the moment in the series that sparked the most visceral reaction from me as a former chef, I’d settle on Episode 7 and the point when the metaphorical stock boils over.
Tension had slowly been building in the Original Beef of Chicagoland but a sense of optimism also lingers in the kitchen air. Carmy is set to fire up a tablet that will accept online takeout orders. It’s a much-needed new revenue stream for the indebted Italian sandwich joint he recently inherited after his brother’s death by suicide. The system is the brainchild of sous chef Sydney Adamu, an ambitious young cook who’s overqualified for the restaurant but steadfast in her efforts to impress its award-winning chef. In the background, meanwhile, aspiring pastry chef Marcus applies the finishing touches to a 15th batch of donuts he’s spent days perfecting — Noma-inspired, lacto-fermented fillings and all.
Then, a spark. Nay, an explosion. Tablet online, the kitchen’s ticket machine, spits out an incessant stream of checks, overwhelming the kitchen and quickly surpassing the stocks of mis en place amassed during a morning of mainly jovial prep. Carmy’s temper flares faster than the orders of chicken, beef, and chocolate cake he barks at his brigade. He unleashes a verbal tirade at the young Sydney, then throws to the ground the project of the pastry chef he had only recently sought to inspire with tales of fine-dining dishes requiring a dozen sets of hands and two days to prepare.
Watching, I had a thousand flashbacks in an instant. It’s been six years since I last donned my chef whites, but random nights of sleep continue to feature the unwelcome interruption of a whirring, imaginary ticket machine. (I’m not alone here.) I’ve witnessed more than my fair share of dishes destroyed unceremoniously — the fallout of a head chef’s fit of rage. And I’m all too familiar with the dual risk and reward of encouraging junior chefs to run before they can walk.
Above all, however, the on-screen unfolding reminded me that these are the very moments that define the leader of a kitchen brigade. Not whether they can withstand the heat, as goes the old cliché, but how they react in the eye of the storm.
All too often, that reaction is to shout, scream, and hurl scalding kitchen utensils. Despite what you might be thinking, in most cases these impulses are not the sign of a bad character but a learned behavior. And this reality is among the many themes of kitchen culture that “The Bear” succeeds in subtly portraying.
“Why are you so slow? Why are you so fucking slow? Why? You think you’re so tough,” a vindictive, unnamed chef taunts Carmy during one of a handful of flashbacks to his fine-dining days. Fast forward to the show’s present, and we witness Carmy continue this cycle when dealing with his own crew in the heated throes of service. It comes as no surprise to see that by Episode 7, in a position of authority that’s been given but not yet been earned, Sydney eventually snaps in exactly the same manner at multiple members of the brigade.
It brings me no pride to admit that I, too, was once a cog in this fucked-up machine. As a young senior chef de partie, in charge of a kitchen “station” where I was responsible for a handful of employees, I followed my chef’s example. Shit flows downward in the kitchen, you see. And when you’re on the receiving end of a barrage of verbal abuse, there are two options: Allow the shit to stop with you, setting a different example for those working under you, or embrace it and allow that shit to keep flowing. Before long, it becomes second nature. Young chefs may even feel like they’re gaining more respect from superiors, perhaps inching them closer to a higher rank or more advanced station.
But “The Bear” is just a TV show, right? And so, in this respect, surely it’s only maintaining its authenticity?
True. But there’s also veracity in the old adage of life imitating art.
Many stumble into the cooking profession, but enrollment in culinary colleges remains as healthy as ever thanks to books like “Kitchen Confidential” and shows such as “Chef’s Table.” Not only a spark of inspiration, their gritty realism ensures large swaths of chefs enter the industry with their eyes wide open, knowing full well the working environment that awaits.
I know I did. Part of me looked forward to the challenge, in a similarly fucked-up way to Carmy admitting he quite enjoyed throwing up blood every day before service. #ChefLife.
Books from Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White — I never got into Bourdain until I swapped cooking for writing — taught me that: a) it wasn’t personal and b) being humiliated in front of a group of peers was all part of the game. Don’t want to put up with that? Sorry, the kitchen ain’t the place for you, pal.
Herein lies the meat and bones of “The Bear’s” biggest issue. This hit TV show will no-doubt prompt a slice of the young adult population to cover their arms in tattoos, purchase a pair of tweezers, and prepare for life in the trenches. And if these individuals enter that environment willingly accepting its unhealthy conditions as the norm, the circle of shite will never break.
Far from resting under a blanket of illusions, I know that a ban on realistic kitchen dramas will not cure restaurant culture. But did we really need “The Bear”?
For every viewer who finds solace in its depiction of grief, I have no doubt there’s a chef for whom its scenes, characters, and celebratory reviews are triggering. I’m not even sure who the show is for, either. Those who will pick up on all of the minute accuracies no doubt work in the industry or have gotten the fuck out of there with good reason. I’d wager that, for them, scenes of recipe development, machine malfunction, and chefs chewing out other chefs are as bland as an unseasoned plate of beef tartare.
No, let’s instead accept that this is just another dish served up to fulfill America’s insatiable, hypocritical appetite for kitchen chaos.
Hold the restaurant exposés, garçon. And skip the side of social media posturing, si vous plait. Tonight we’ll have the confit bear cubs with the reduction of workplace toxicity.