Anyone who has spent even a brief stint in the restaurant industry will connect with Hulu’s “The Bear.” From pretending you need to get something from the walk-in just so you can take a 30-second breather, to maybe screaming a little before you step back out into the chaos. Wrapping a cut finger in that coarse brown paper towel that never really absorbs anything. The way the smell of onions and fresh bread clings to you hours after you get home, lingering even after you shower. Drinking flat, warm Sprite out of a plastic prep container after getting obliterated by dinner service. For people who haven’t worked in the restaurant industry, maybe you (unfortunately) have had a fling or two with the “exclusive strain of Sexually Competent Dirtbag™ that only exists in a restaurant kitchen.” If any of the above brought back any ugly memories, Hulu’s newest drama set in a failing Italian beef restaurant in Chicago should be next on your “to watch” list.
“The Bear” is not interested in sugarcoating the restaurant industry. The reality is that “back of house” work is not for the faint of heart. You must be thick-skinned and move fast to withstand the metaphorical and literal heat. Restaurant work can be grimy, toxic and abusive, and drives many chefs to unhealthy extremes, leading to addiction and unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Mental health in the restaurant industry takes center stage in “The Bear.” Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) is a professionally trained chef with a James Beard award under his belt (or apron?). He returns to his hometown of Chicago after his brother dies by suicide and leaves Carmy to run his restaurant, The Original Beef, which is on its last leg. The kitchen is dysfunctional and grubby, and the original chefs initially undermine and resist Carmy’s attempts to make improvements in favor of sticking to tradition — never mind how that “tradition” has run the place into the ground. Carmy has inherited a mess, along with an unthinkable amount of debt. As he struggles to clean up what his brother left behind, he is plagued by nightmares and hallucinations, featuring the titular bear, haunted by the fear that he is walking the same path that felled his brother.
Through Carmy, “The Bear” tackles topics that are often sidestepped in shows about the industry. Most media about the restaurant industry views the service through rose-colored glasses, such as the movie “Chef” (2014), a personal favorite of mine. The talented chef (Jon Favreau) is suffocated by the tame imagination of his restaurant’s owner, so he quits and starts a food truck with his best friend/sous chef and his young son. The movie is a heartwarming road trip, and the camera lovingly caresses cubanos and beignets. “Chef” frames the internal functions of a restaurant as an artfully oiled machine.
“The Bear” takes a much more honest and realistic approach. The average kitchen is not cooking five-star cuisine. Most chefs are dealing with disorganized Sysco trucks and cheap crushed produce, grease traps, drunk dishwashers and toxic arguments that descend into back-alley brawls.
If the plot hasn’t convinced you to tune in, the cast will. Carmy is played by Jeremy Allen White (“Shameless,” anyone?), and his character in “The Bear” brings the same fragile intensity from his role as Lip Gallagher. Sydney, the sous chef, is played by Ayo Edebiri, known for her role as the voice of Missy in “Big Mouth.” Despite her lack of on-screen experience, Edebiri’s performance in “The Bear” is an absolute revelation — she is eager and particular, balanced by a thinly veiled “f— this, f— all of you” energy that (rightfully) boils over when butting heads with Carmy’s abrasive directions. Above all, Edebiri is believable. Lionel Boyce, who plays Marcus, is also a relatively new face outside of his work in “The Jellies!” and “Loiter Squad.” Matty Matheson is a familiar face, but he’s usually the one in front of the stove. In “The Bear,” he is both producer and actor, playing a family friend and handyman named Fak, who does minor repairs for free food.
Trying to keep up with the plot and the dialogue at the same time is a dizzying task that precisely captures the frenetic chaos of working back of the house. There are always multiple conversations happening at once; in the pilot, Carmy’s cousin barks at him about money problems, while Carmy yells the knives are too dull, and the other chefs chime in to ask questions about prep and stock. Interspersed between the turmoil are quick shots of knives chopping away at onions and peppers. This isn’t food porn — the cooking serves a purpose, although there is no denying that the shots of beef and pepper swimming in shimmering juices are deliciously tantalizing. It needs to be delicious, but it also needs to be fast.
In terms of speed, Episode 7 takes the cake. The entire 20-minute episode was shot in one take. Reminiscent of an Edgar Wright film, the speed and velocity of the camera as it follows the chefs leave you literally breathless. In Episode 7, The Original Beef has just implemented an online ordering system. Prior to this, a food reviewer was mistakenly served a dish that is not on the menu, which is raved about in the subsequent review. As a result, online orders pile in at an alarming rate. Episode 7 leaves viewers with the sound of the receipt printer shrieking in their ears, and it will continue to echo for hours after the fact, as if you were in the kitchen with them, yelling “behind!” and trying not to mess anything up.
“The Bear” takes an intimate look at the ins and outs of kitchen life. You hate it, but you can’t quit it. It’s killing you, but it keeps you alive. In the heat of the moment, all you want to do is stop, but your body just keeps moving. Carmy puts it like this: “This weird thing happens. You have this moment where you’re watching the fire and you’re thinking, if I don’t do anything, this place will burn down, and all my anxiety will go away with it. Then you put the fire out.” The Original Beef is not just a restaurant. It’s a curse, an inherited burden, and it becomes a symbol of everything Carmy hates about the industry and himself. At the end of Season 1, Carmy is forced to make a decision — let the fire consume him or put it out and begin anew. It would be easier to let it burn and walk away, but chefs don’t know how to do anything the easy way.