'The Bear': US kitchen drama lives up to the hype

Jeremy Allen White as Carmen 'Carmy' Berzatto in The Bear. (Matt Dinerstein/FX)
Jeremy Allen White as Carmen 'Carmy' Berzatto in The Bear. (Matt Dinerstein/FX)

Upon its initial summer release across the Atlantic, The Bear rightly drew acclaim for its uncomfortably authentic portrayal of kitchen life. From the get-go, the much-hyped show — on Disney+ in the UK from 5 October — drags us into bedlam.

We’re barely ten minutes into the first episode when driven chef Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Shameless’ Jeremy Allen White) dismisses his kitchen staff’s reliance on spaghetti and their 'system', much to their chagrin.

Mirroring that anxious feeling of problems stacking on top of each other is how the scene’s filmed — at breakneck pace, with quick cuts of chopping vegetables, sizzling beef, and Carmy’s clear exasperation entwined amidst a cacophony of yells and curses.

All this after Carmy ensures his diner’s survival for another week by peddling some vintage denim, topped up with quarters scooped from the dining room’s decrepit arcade machines.

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Set in Chicago’s River North neighbourhood, FX’s gripping drama follows Carmy’s quest to turn The Original Beef of Chicagoland — a beloved but run-down greasy spoon that was his older brother Mikey’s before his suicide — into something that could rival Michelin’s finest.

Watch a trailer for The Bear

Given his haute cuisine past, including a draining spell running NYC’s best restaurant, Carmy’s skills aren’t an issue. It’s having to come back home to pick up the pieces Mikey left behind, on top of convincing The Beef’s reluctant cooks to buy into his vision. Oh, and The Beef is so broke that Carmy’s even had to promote a knockoff Mortal Kombat tournament to boost their clientele and finances.

Having helmed 2013’s Sense of Urgency, a revealing documentary about renowned chef Thomas Keller, showrunner (and Chi-Town native) Christopher Storer knows his stuff when it comes to how things work in restaurants.

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We see characters drinking from measuring cups, using the walk-in fridge as a sanctuary of solitude, shouting call-outs like “behind!” and “corner!” while manoeuvring around confined spaces, and devouring junk food after another hard day’s work. The details are all there and relatable to everyone who’s worked in busy eateries.

Jeremy Allen White as Carmen 'Carmy' Berzatto, Lionel Boyce as Marcus, Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Richard 'Richie' Jerimovich in The Bear. (FX)
Jeremy Allen White as Carmen 'Carmy' Berzatto, Lionel Boyce as Marcus, Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Richard 'Richie' Jerimovich in The Bear. (FX)

While doubling somewhat as a metaphor for the collective stress of living through the COVID era, The Bear is an intense character study that hooks you into multiple journeys.

Carmy processes his grief and PTSD with a relentless devotion to The Beef. New hire and audience surrogate Sydney (Big Mouth’s Ayo Edibiri) is a talented but impatient sous chef still scarred from past ambitions. Carmy and Mikey’s best friend/“cousin” Richie (Girls’ Ebon Moss-Bachrach) is the perma-vexed front-of-house who masks his sadness with faux machismo and laments looming gentrification.

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Curious baker Marcus (Lionel Boyce) is a dreamer hell-bent on making the perfect donut at the cost of his daily duties. Old-school line cook Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) is a cynic who takes a while to warm to Carmy and Syd’s methods.

Neil “Fak” (real-life chef Matty Matheson) is a lovable handyman desperate to prove his worth over a stove. Despite their mostly dysfunctional relationships, what unites them is their desire to turn The Beef’s fortunes around, making us care in the process.

THE BEAR -- Pictured: (l-r) Lionel Boyce as Marcus, Ayo Edebiri as Sydney Adamu. CR: FX
THE BEAR -- Pictured: (l-r) Lionel Boyce as Marcus, Ayo Edebiri as Sydney Adamu. CR: FX

What The Bear also does extremely well is to put a new spin on the masculine ego that typically occupies shows about chefs. White plays a bruised and vulnerable Carmy haunted by professional demons and familial trauma, unable to properly function outside the kitchen.

It’s not too dissimilar to Bradley Cooper in 2015’s Burnt, but unlike Cooper’s wannabe Anthony Bourdain, the tattooed Carmy’s too broken and insecure to be a 'rockstar chef'. We feel his pain, and completely understand why he’s made the kitchen his own personal haven.

In the years since the celebrity chef became a TV staple, the culinary world resides in a fascinating cultural sphere. Despite a slew of successful docuseries and cooking competitions, the screen has never really gotten the industry right.

Liza Colon-Zayas as Tina in The Bear. (Matt Dinerstein/FX)

Stephen Graham’s harrowing Boiling Point aside, chefs in film are generally depicted as likeable eccentrics (Jon Favreau in Chef) or roguish vagabonds (Burnt’s Cooper) who enchant those around them with their skills and quirks, but reality would tell you otherwise. It’s another aspect that The Bear nails, and considering how many shows have been made about various workplaces, it leaves us wondering why there aren’t more TV shows about restaurants.

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Then again, it’s possible that The Bear has heightened our expectations of how Hollywood should illustrate the fervour and urgency of kitchen life. It’s an eight-episode underdog tale with a heartwarming finale that asks more questions than it answers, and like a splendid dish, it’s left me craving seconds.

The Bear is available to stream on Disney+. Watch a clip below.