Food television has been many things over the years. Instructional, aspirational, as with Julia Child’s “The French Chef.” Hagiographic, cinematic, as with “Chef’s Table.” Competitive, star-making, as with “Top Chef” — and so many (too many?) others. This is a medium that reflects and drives our attitudes about home kitchens and restaurants. It is 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 during according to your answer. F’rinstance: If your childhood dream was to be a celebrity chef, you are probably under 40.
During the peak of the COVID pandemic, food television reached new heights of popularity. Viewers were bored, scared, and facing the blank canvas of their own kitchens. From April 2019 to April 2020, Food Network’s ratings increased by 25 percent, according to the Nielsen company. New shows debuted, wherein celebrities like Selena Gomez and Amy Schumer learned to cook. Existing programming pivoted, with special quarantine editions. “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy” found perhaps the perfect pandemic sweet spot, smooth-as-gelato escapist gastro-porn. It took us out of our staling living rooms and Zooms, and we sucked it down like a plate of spaghetti alla Nerano we wished would never end.
That era comes to a close with a stack of unpaid bills, a desk cluttered with indigestion remedies, and a stab in the butt. That era comes to a close with “The Bear.”
Currently streaming on Hulu, the series tells the story of chef Carmen Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), an accolade-winning rising star in the world of fine dining called home to his family’s restaurant, the Original Beef of Chicagoland. Older brother Mikey left him the sandwich joint when he died, tragically and suddenly. With it, Carmy inherits the restaurant’s debts, dysfunction, and tight-knit but fractious staff. He’s also grappling with a heavy load of his own grief and trauma. It’s … a comedy?
If Carmy is the main character, the show’s true heart is Sydney Adamu (Boston-born Ayo Edebiri), the overqualified chef who shows up to learn from the guy who made the best meal she ever ate, and also to basically save the day, every day. Sydney is us, her facial expressions ours as we watch, shifting from amusement to disbelief to horror and back again. Sydney tells us what’s truly going on, despite what all the other characters say. So when Carmy tells her to implement a French brigade, the hierarchical kitchen system devised by Escoffier, we know what to think of it: As she tries to sell the idea to the staff as a “chill-archy,” her face twists with doubt. “I just follow orders, even if it leads to tension and chaos and resentment and ultimately doesn’t work,” she says, describing her role as sous chef.
I don’t want to spoil the show with too many specifics; go watch it yourself for those. But I will say that “The Bear” replaces food porn and chef worship with health inspections, cigarette breaks, budgetary gymnastics, and unpredictable personalities operating in close quarters as the clock inexorably ticks toward service. So much food programming is referred to as reality TV. This comes closer. (“They could really just rename this show ‘Swears,’” my 9-year-old son said after overhearing some of the choice dialog. “Stress” might work too.)
During COVID, while others worked from home, baked sourdough (or remembered how to boil water), and ordered takeout, those in the restaurant industry pivoted, and pivoted, and pivoted again — figuring out how to provide that takeout, feeding hospital workers, advocating for relief measures, building patios, crunching numbers. All of this was covered by the media, in a way that was often eye-opening for diners. It exposed the workings of an industry designed to appear like a duck gliding on water. Suddenly everyone could see the feet, frantically paddling. Suddenly the flock was announcing, “Um, quack, or hello as you like to say. A piece of personal news: We, your friends the ducks, whom you like a whole lot, could possibly go under.”
It was a moment of reckoning, an enforced pause that allowed for self-reflection within the industry. During a flashback in “The Bear,” Carmy remembers being told by a chef in 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 business? Is there a way to run a successful restaurant while ensuring staff members have 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 of 2020, digests it, and spits it out as entertaining, heartwarming, and ultimately conflicted viewing content. Carmy and Sydney want to change things. They want to run a different kind of restaurant. But the tools and ideas they have to keep things moving are the ones that already exist: the brigade the structural model, the fine-dining restaurant the ultimate goal, the hefty amount of cash in hand the only thing that makes it all possible. So many questions to entertain. (Maybe there will be answers in Season 2; the series was recently renewed.) “The Bear” is the first food television show informed by the pandemic’s full arc. It certainly won’t be the last.