FX show The Bear has got the culinary world talking. While only a single season deep, the program paints a pretty accurate picture of the intense culture at play in most restaurant kitchens. Some chefs aren’t watching because it simply hits too close to home.
For those who don’t know, The Bear came out earlier this year and is about a gifted chef looking to improve the status of his family’s restaurant in Chicago. The chef, named Carmy Berzatto and played expertly by Jeremy Allen White, has logged serious hours at Michelin Star restaurants but this is his toughest test yet, restructuring an old time-y sandwich shop with little order or leadership. That’s the gist of it, but the show dabbles in everything else the restaurant industry is known for, for better or worse. There are pronounced themes of toxic workplaces, substance abuse, and constant pressure. It shows the underbelly of a culinary world we like to think of as pristine and problem-free—where cooking crews are paid what they deserve and all the dishes are plated with tweezers. As you may have guessed, it ain’t quite like that.
We decided to see just how accurate the portrayal is by chatting up a few culinary figures across the land. They’ve all seen The Bear and offered a few anecdotes on what the show gets right and where it falls short. It’s food for thought as we eagerly await season two, which ought to drop sometime early next year.
Jair Solis is the chef at The Restaurant at The Norton in West Palm Beach. Despite not being a smoker currently, the act is very relatable and another accurate theme on the show.
“In the beginning of my career I picked up smoking to justify a break and realized shortly after that it was making me sick,” Solis says. “The jolt of energy and sense of momentary calmness it gave me wasn’t worth feeling ill. Back in the early 2000s, I worked at a restaurant where the head chef smoked through service. The inspector had become a regular so a lot of rules got bent. This perfectly demonstrates how the industry operated back then.”
Solis also touts the importance of structure in the kitchen, something The Bear very much focuses on. Carmy implements the classic French order, something countless restaurants can relate to.
“The brigade system is by far the most efficient way to run a kitchen but the old school mannerisms is what needs to change in order to be successful in improving the culture,” Solis adds. “For a team to accomplish a common goal they must have communication as it is a key factor in relationship building all around. I believe that most cooks who worked in a hostile kitchen environment are looking to change that culture in their own kitchens.”
King is the chief culinary officer at PPX Hospitality, which includes several high-end Boston restaurants.
“Watching The Bear made me immediately think of how I started in the business after culinary school at the CIA,” he says. “I was working in Florida for a very high-end resort, cutting my teeth in the business when I met a guy who would soon become my mentor. He was tough, his expectations were high, and he didn’t have much time for pleasantries. I remember one day standing with him in the main kitchen where we were preparing fondant potatoes, you know, the little seven-sided football shapes.”
He says the mistake he made was making polite conversation. “I simply mentioned to him that several of the staff were asking if we were brothers since we looked so much alike,” King continues. “In the incredibly dry way that only he could convey his disappointment with the idea of conversation, he simply said, ‘I have a brother, you’re not him.’ This was immediately followed by my having to finish the potatoes by myself. He taught me so much during my time working with him including his relentless pursuit for perfection, knowing it was never attainable, but I never stopped trying for it.”
Keefe is the culinary director at Legal Sea Foods. He appreciates the rawness of the show, something that’s quite accurate. The show can be over the top, he admits, but it’s wildly relatable. “The Bear gives a more realistic look into the humble un-glorified work of a chef,” Keefe says.
“Sure it might be a little sensationalized but make no mistake between food, people and facility it shows how much a chef has to manage to stay afloat. Restaurants big and small are a true labor of love. This is why those who are successful can work through the challenges. Some points were so authentic I became almost anxious watching it, I have had my Carmy moments many times in my career. But I couldn’t stop watching. Pretty cool show.
A three-time James Beard award nominee, chef Niven Patel works for the Alpareno Group, which includes restaurants like Orno in Miami. Patel relates to the unexpected nature of kitchen work, something The Bear emphasizes in just about every episode. “You never know what can happen when working in a restaurant kitchen. When we opened Orno, we were hyping up our Sunray Venus Clams to use in our Bucatini. These clams are incredibly rare and we were sourcing them from a local farmer in Florida,” Patel explains.
Suddenly, there no clams to be harvested and the dish was put on ice for nine months. “Guests were coming in and requesting the clams we didn’t have,” Patel recalls. “It was definitely high-stress at first but we worked together as a team to communicate.”
He says a similar situation just unfolded involving oysters. “It was definitely a learning experience for myself and the rest of the team as we banded together to turn this hectic situation into a positive one,” he says. “Ultimately, guests left super happy with their experience and that’s our number one goal.”
Danger works for BRAVA! Constellation Culinary Group. He reminds us that things have really modernized in a lot of kitchens, especially lately. The Bear is deliberately old school, as the kitchen is an older joint stressing classic-style Americana cuisine. Still, there’s a noticeable shortage of tech in the show, something that could be seen as a flaw, even for a joint that’s dated in its ways.
“The last ten years really changed what being a chef was all about; long gone are the days of the French brigade, that military sense of urgency and dedication to the craft,” says Danger. “Now, one must keep up with the fast-paced world of social media, communications, and the internet rather than looking for the best review by a well-acclaimed local food critic. For a chef to strive in today’s culinary world they need to adopt a new set of tools. From cloud-based inventory processing, app-based ordering, freight tracking, and HR management, we have adapted a modern way of working with tools that maximize staffing, all while virtually assessing our finances and covering the business needs of our units.”
The Bear’s Carmy is very much a pencil and paper kind of guy but as the restaurant evolves, we’re likely to see more tech in future seasons. “The days of a paper schedule are long gone and now we connect with staff digitally using a scheduling software that helps us manage both time, labor, and finances,” Danger says. “Ultimately, it all boils down to staying ahead and being organized, fundamentals that have always been the core of a successful kitchen.”
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