FX’s The Bear has the culinary world talking. Although it’s only one season, the program paints a pretty accurate picture of the intense culture at play in most restaurant kitchens. Some chefs don’t watch because it just hits too close to home.
For those unaware, The Bear came out earlier this year and is about a gifted chef who seeks to improve the status of his family’s restaurant in Chicago. The chef, named Carmy Berzatto and played expertly by Jeremy Allen White, has put in some serious hours at Michelin-starred restaurants, but this is his toughest test yet, revamping an old sandwich shop with little order or leadership. That’s the gist, but the show touches on everything the restaurant industry is known for, for better or for worse. There are pronounced themes of toxic workplaces, substance abuse, and constant pressure. It shows the underside of a culinary world that we like to think of as pristine and trouble-free, where kitchen crews are paid what they deserve and all dishes are served with tweezers. As you might have guessed, that’s not quite it.
We decided to see how accurate the representation is by talking to a few culinary personalities across the country. They’ve all seen The Bear and offered a few anecdotes about where the show succeeds and where it fails. It’s food for thought as we eagerly await season two, which is set to drop early next year.
Chief Jair Solis
Jair Solis is the chef at The Norton restaurant in West Palm Beach. Although he is not currently a smoker, the act is very relevant and is another definite theme of the series.
“Early in my career, I started smoking to justify a break and realized shortly after that it was making me sick,” says Solis. “The surge of energy and the momentary sense of calm it gave me wasn’t worth feeling sick about. In the early 2000s, I worked in a restaurant where the chef smoked until service. The inspector had become a regular so a lot of rules were broken. This perfectly demonstrates how the industry operated at the time.
Solis also touts the importance of structure in the kitchen, something The Bear focuses on a lot. Carmy implements the classic French order, which countless restaurants can identify with.
“The brigade system is by far the most efficient way to run a kitchen, but old-school ways are what need to change to successfully improve the culture,” Solis adds. “For a team to achieve a common goal they must have communication as it is a key factor in building relationships all around. I believe most cooks who have worked in a hostile kitchen environment seek to change that culture in their own kitchens.
Chief Matt King
King is the culinary director of PPX Hospitality, which includes several high-end restaurants in Boston.
“Watching The Bear immediately made me think of how I got started in the business after culinary school at the CIA,” he says. “I was working in Florida for a very high-end resort, I was cutting my teeth in the business when I met a guy who was soon to become my mentor. He was tough, his expectations were high, and he didn’t have much time for jokes. I remember one day I was standing with him in the main kitchen where we were making fondant potatoes, you know, the little seven-sided football shapes.
He says the mistake he made was to make polite conversation. “I just mentioned to him that several staff members were asking if we were brothers because we looked so much alike,” King continues. “In the incredibly dry way that only he could express his disappointment at the prospect of a conversation, he simply said, ‘I have a brother, you’re not him. This was immediately followed by me having to finish the potatoes on my own. He taught me so much while I worked with him, including his relentless pursuit of perfection, knowing it was never attainable, but I never stopped trying to achieve it.
Chief Patrick Keefe
Keefe is the culinary director of Legal Sea Foods. He enjoys the rawness of the show, something that’s fair enough. The spectacle may be over the top, he admits, but it’s extremely relatable. “The Bear gives a more realistic glimpse into the humble, unglorified work of a chef,” says Keefe.
“Of course, that might be a little sensationalistic, but don’t get confused between the food, the people and the facilities, it shows how good a chef has to be to stay afloat. Restaurants large and small are a true labor of love. This is why those who succeed can rise to the challenges. Some points were so genuine I almost got anxious watching it, I’ve had my Carmy moments many times in my career. But I couldn’t stop staring. Pretty cool show.
Chief Niven Patel
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 points out in nearly every episode. “You never know what can happen when you work in a restaurant kitchen. When we opened Orno we were promoting our Sunray Venus Clams for use in our Bucatini. These clams are incredibly rare and we used to source them from a local farmer in Florida,” says Patel.
Suddenly, there were no more clams to harvest and the dish was put on ice for nine months. “Guests would come in and ask for the clams that we didn’t have,” Patel recalls. “It was really, really stressful 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 me and the rest of the team as we came together to turn this hectic situation into a positive one,” he says. “Ultimately, customers came away very happy with their experience and that’s our number one goal.”
Chef Jose Danger
Danger works for BRAVA! Constellation Culinary Group. It 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 old joint with an emphasis on classic American style cooking. Still, there’s a noticeable lack of technology in the series, something that could be considered a flaw even for a joint dated in its own way.
“The last ten years have really changed what a chef was; The days of the French brigade are long gone, that military sense of urgency and dedication to the craft,” says Danger. “Now, one has to keep up with the frenetic pace of social media, communications and the internet rather than seeking the best review from a well-known local food critic. For a chef to strive in today’s culinary world “Today, it needs to adopt a new set of tools. From cloud-based inventory processing, app-based ordering, freight tracking, and human resource management, we’ve adapted a modern way of working with tools that maximize staffing, while virtually assessing our finances and covering the business needs of our units.”
The Bear’s Carmy is very much a pencil and paper guy, but as the restaurant evolves, we’ll likely see more technology in future seasons. “The days of paper scheduling are long gone and we now connect digitally with staff using scheduling software that helps us manage time, labor and finances all at the same time. “says Danger. “At the end of the day, it all comes down to staying one step ahead and being organized, fundamentals that have always been at the heart of a successful kitchen.”