Chief carrying the weight of ‘The Bear’

I have a good friend in Arizona who was a chef. He spent his whole life in kitchens, first with his mom, and in his early teens immersed in the hustle and bustle of the variety of restaurants. When I met him, in the early 90s, he spent his time oscillating between Tucson, where we worked at the same gourmet coffee shop, and Bisbee, where he had grown up, working his own catering business next door.

On slow nights, when the scorching heat of the daytime blast furnace had settled into a comforting, breezy heat, we sat on plastic chairs in the parking lot just outside the cafe, which was located in the heart of ‘a downtown that didn’t have’ It wasn’t fully understood yet, and it was smoking, and we were busting our faces and talking about food. Eventually he let me cook with him for a bit, and the owner, a fabulously equipped blue blood from Virginia Horse Farms, felt confident enough in my abilities to place me in the kitchen for light cooking duties, making scones, assembling wild rice salad, etc.

From there, my chef friend and I worked together in several other kitchens. I mostly served at the tables, but once in a while, when things got bad and they needed another helping hand on the prep line, I’d be called to the back and throw an apron, authorized to be part of the kitchen staff for the night.

We were all half mad, of course, the waiters cluttered with tables and customer requests (“I need more sour cream!”, “Does this soup contain nitrates?”), washing them The crockery and the waiters lost in the clack of steam from the back flow and the kitchen staff try to hold it together as orders pile in from all angles and sides. It was like trying to build a sandcastle with perfect turrets in the middle of a hurricane, from opening up to when the last plates died down, and everyone could finally breathe again, when we quickly released alcohol in our sweaty mouths to fill the now empty void where all that stress had been.

The chefs at these restaurants are always at the center of the storm, battling the howling winds and whipping sands. Sometimes I watched my friend out of the corner of my eye as the orders piled up and the energy in the kitchen became compressed and dense like the atmosphere just outside a black hole. It was like watching an egg in a microwave, anticipating those crucial seconds before everything exploded.

A FAMILY FEELING

It’s that particular feeling I got at the start of FX’s surprisingly popular summer show, “The Bear” (all episodes are now available on Hulu). The way Carmy (Jeremy Allen White, evoking a young Dustin Hoffman), the young chef who returned to Chicago to take over his family’s failing sandwich shop, The Original Beef of Chicagoland, after running famous kitchens at renowned fine-dining restaurants New York restaurants, keeps his head constantly in the air, anticipating everything and staying hyper-focused on work, even as the kitchen and its ill-mannered staff seem to be falling apart around him.

In the eight-episode arc of this first season, we don’t see Carmy really losing it until the penultimate episode — by far the most stressful half hour of any show you could watch this year — when a new online ordering system goes haywire, allowing hundreds of orders to go through at once, his sous chef quits on the spot, his pastry chef drops a sheet of donuts on the counter and heads for the door, and his “cousin” inadvertently gets stabbed in the upper buttock with a chef’s knife.

Prior to this eruption, however, the remarkable thing about Carmy is her eerie composure, ruling the kitchen with a kind of otherworldly, undisturbed stillness. Not detachment – he’s too involved in everything going on at once to have that option – but a sort of transfixion. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to see from a superstar QB, leading his team to a late-game winning score. Leading the way, but somehow not quite the way.

HIGH LEVELS OF STRESS

It’s a practiced ability to absorb dangerously high levels of stress radiation, and somehow not get burned in the process. We only get one real look at Carmy’s life in “the best restaurant in the world” in New York, as the sneering, overbearing chef (expertly played by Joel McHale), bends over his shoulder and spits withered takes on everything from Carmy’s abilities to her small size (“You barely reach that…table,” he reckons. “You’re terrible at this…you’re talentless. You should be dead.”). The fact that Carmy has experienced so much contempt and hostility, but valiantly tries not to treat his own staff with the same disdain (at first he insists that everyone in the kitchen, from cooks to dishwashers, refer to each other as “leader”, as a sign of respect) is one of his most endearing qualities.

That, and his apparent humility, after being grappled with this failing restaurant by his late older brother, Mikey (Jon Bernthal), the former owner, after shooting himself in the head on a bridge in the city of Chicago one night. But Carmy is not the only beneficiary of this raw offer. His sister, Sugar (Abby Elliott), who is not directly involved in the operation, is still responsible for agreeing to co-sign a massive loan for their Uncle Jimmy’s (Oliver Platt) place, which Mikey had hoped improve the situation. rusty ship. Then there’s Richie (a gorgeous Ebon Moss-Bachrach), Mikey’s former best friend, a scruffy asshole who ran the place with him, suddenly feeling left out as Carmy brings in a new sub very talented and opinionated. chef, Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) to help revamp the venue.

RELATIONAL DYNAMICS

The dynamics of personal relationships play an important role in the series’ narrative, but series creator Christopher Storer never loses sight of the galvanizing force in the middle of everyone’s life. In one scene, the camera is lovingly seated over a frying pan, where Carmy is making demi-glace, frying garlic and shallots in olive oil, adding capers and white wine to reduce, then stock, deglaze the pan, before adding a splash of lemon and parsley, cooking it like a savory sauce for a breaded, already plated schnitzel. I don’t eat meat, but even I was able to appreciate the fullness of this process, the way flavors can bounce back and clash against each other to create a bigger fulfilling whole.

As a metaphor, it also works well with the essence of a supporting cast, each a distinct and separate ingredient that adds to the richness of the dish. The show treats Carmy as the focal point, but barely, which is a necessary decision given his inscrutability. Sydney is a young, CIA-trained (meaning the Culinary Institute of America, not the government agency) sous-chef, fresh out of a devastating financial turnaround who runs her own restaurant business from the garage. of his parents. Early on, trying to land a spot on the staff, she hands in a meticulous and thorough business appraisal of the shop, which Carmy at first dismisses, but eventually reads carefully. She’s a strong and resourceful leader in her own right, haunted by the mistakes that led her business to failure, and ready to commit to a cause she can fully support.

That’s something else the show does exceptionally well, and certainly better than most shows that focus on a working kitchen. There is an almost cult aspect to working in the kitchen, an acceptance of outrageous stress and behavior that we could not imagine in the usual outside world. Reading a book like Anthony Bourdain’s infamous “Kitchen Confidential,” with his gang of mad chefs, screaming into the ears of their beleaguered sous, popping pills, booze, and cigarettes at all hours, and doing faced with the relentless and overwhelming anxiety of producing at the very height of their powers night after night, it’s hard to understand why anyone would submit to it.

COMPANION IN CHAOS

Like the military, I guess, there’s camaraderie in the chaos, camaraderie deep in the burrow of grills and stoves, ablaze with activity. As the show progresses, we see more and more staff members, once unwilling to adapt, suddenly owning their stations, especially after Carmy and Sydney began employing a hierarchy of French brigade, in which each person has their own distinct identity. responsibilities, meeting the pennies in the process. We watch Marcus (Lionel Boyce), the friendly pastry chef who began his culinary career at a McDonald’s, come to fully embrace the creative freedom and challenge of carefully crafted desserts; and Tina (Liza Colon-Zayas), an older Hispanic woman most opposed to any change in their chaotic old system, begins to take new pride in what she does, smiling to herself after a compliment from Sydney. , after being chastised for her technique for weeks, learning the untold joy of professional ascent.

It’s those times when the show seems to go so well in the kitchen, but also outside of it. Carmy and Sydney barely have lives outside of these patched walls – what we see of his flat is bland to the point of being oblivious (and in another specific detail, once home he’s content to eat dinner in a PB&J, some Doritos and a Coke). Neither of them can sleep: he wakes up one night hovering over his stove, after setting fire to a heap of frozen foods that he put on high heat; she keeps getting out of bed and scribbling a note to herself about a possible combination of recipes she could use in the future. Quite often, the two don’t bother going back to bed, but instead put their clothes back on and head back to the kitchen in the middle of the night, preparing for the onslaught of the day ahead. Crazy as they are, for people like Carmy and Sydney, the kitchen is the only place they feel they have any control.

I haven’t told my friend about this show yet, but I guess lying in his retirement he would really enjoy it. As with like-minded shows such as “Barry” and “Better Call Saul,” viewers have to accept the entertainment value of feeling thoroughly stressed. Watching Carmy, Sydney, Richie and the rest of the staff bustle as the world around them goes up in flames can be a harrowing experience, but, like the exquisite peace you feel at the end of a busy cooking shift – I’ve never felt more entitled to a drink in my life – there’s something seductive and addictive about the process.

About Margaret Shaw

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