Food TV has been a lot of things over the years. Instructive, ambitious, as with “The French Chef” by Julia Child. Hagiographic, cinematographic, as with “Chef’s Table”. Competitive, star-making, like with “Top Chef” – and so many (too many?) others. It is a medium that reflects and shapes our attitudes towards home kitchens and restaurants. It’s a force that has shaped cultural perceptions of cooking as a career. What type of cook and eater are you? I can guess with some accuracy what era of food TV you grew up in based on your answer. F’rexample: If your childhood dream was to be a celebrity chef, you’re probably under 40.
At the height of the COVID pandemic, food television reached new heights of popularity. Viewers were bored, scared, and faced with the blank canvas of their own kitchens. From April 2019 to April 2020, Food Network ratings increased by 25%, according to the Nielsen Company. New shows debuted, in which celebrities like Selena Gomez and Amy Schumer learned how to cook. Existing programming has rotated, with special quarantine editions. “Stanley Tucci: In Search of Italy” may have found the perfect spot for pandemic, gelato-smooth getaway gastro-porn. It pulled us out of our stale living rooms and Zooms, and we sucked it in like a plate of spaghetti alla Nerano that we wished had never ended.
That era comes to an end with a pile of unpaid bills, a desk cluttered with indigestion remedies, and a stab in the butt. This era ends with “the bear.”
Currently streaming on Hulu, the series tells the story of chef Carmen Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), an award-winning rising star in the world of fine dining who is home to her family’s restaurant, The Original Beef of Chicagoland. His older brother Mikey left him the sandwich when he died, tragically and suddenly. With him, Carmy inherits the restaurant’s debts, dysfunction, and tight-knit but restless staff. He is also dealing with a heavy load of his own grief and trauma. It is a comedy ?
While Carmy is the main character, the real heart of the series is Sydney Adamu (Boston-born Ayo Edebiri), the overqualified chef who shows up to learn from the guy who made the best meal she’s ever eaten, and also to save the day, every day. Sydney is us, her facial expressions are ours as we watch, going from amusement to disbelief to horror and back again. Sydney tells us what’s really going on, despite what all the other characters are saying. So when Carmy tells her to set up a French brigade, the hierarchical kitchen system devised by Escoffier, we know what to think: as she tries to sell the idea to staff as a “chill- archy”, his face twists in doubt. . “I just follow orders, even if it leads to tension, chaos and resentment and ultimately doesn’t work out,” she says, describing her role as sous chef.
I don’t want to spoil the show with too much detail; go watch it yourself for those. But I will say that “The Bear” replaces food pornography and chef worship with health inspections, cigarette breaks, budget gymnastics and unpredictable personalities operating up close as the clock ticks inexorably towards service. So many food programs are called reality TV. It’s getting closer. (“They could really rename this show ‘Swears’,” my 9-year-old son said after hearing some of the choice dialogue. “Stress” might work, too.)
During COVID, while others worked from home, cooked sourdough (or remembered how to boil water), and ordered takeout, those in the restaurant industry pivoted, pivoted, and pivoted again – figuring out how to provide that take-out meal, feeding hospital workers, advocating for relief measures, building patios, doing calculations. All of this was covered by the media, in a way that was often revealing to diners. He exposed the inner workings of an industry designed to appear like a duck gliding through water. Suddenly everyone could see the feet, paddling frantically. Suddenly the herd announced, “Uh, charlatan, or hello as you like to say. A little personal news: We, your friends the ducks, whom you love very much, could perhaps sink.
It was a moment of realization, a forced pause that allowed for self-reflection within the industry. During a flashback in “The Bear”, Carmy recalls being told by a boss at one of his world-class workplaces that he was worthless, that he should be dead. Is culinary perfection a pursuit worth risking trauma and abuse? What is the human cost of the company? Is there a way to run a successful restaurant while ensuring staff members have a quality of life, fair wages, opportunities for advancement, health care, and paid time off? What do we value? What should we value?
“The Bear” chews up the cultural conversation that has taken place around restaurants since March 2020, digests it, and spits it out as entertaining, heartwarming, and ultimately conflicting viewing content. Carmy and Sydney want to change things. They want to run a different type of restaurant. But the tools and ideas they have to get things done are the ones that already exist: the brigade the structural model, the gourmet restaurant the ultimate goal, the big bucks in hand the one thing that makes it all possible. So many questions to entertain. (Perhaps there will be answers in Season 2; the series was recently renewed.) “The Bear” is the first food TV show informed by the full arc of the pandemic. It will certainly not be the last.