‘The Bear’: A veteran chef’s POV
We ask celebrated Chicago chef Max Robbins to review the nerve-shredding restaurant drama that’s got the world on the edge of its seat
Sunday 31 July 2022 By Maggie Hennessy
You don’t need to have spent any time working in restaurants to appreciate the visceral stress of kitchen service when watching The Bear. The buzzy FX/Hulu series fries your nerves through a relentless series of malfunctioning equipment, delivery mix-ups, unruly patrons, order pile-ups and so much yelling. So, it’s understandable that Max Robbins, culinary director of Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You and veteran of kitchens such as Longman & Eagle, Blackbird and the Purple Pig, was initially hesitant to spend his time off watching a dramatisation of his professional life. ‘I’m sure doctors feel the same about watching a medical show,’ he says.
The dark comedy follows antihero Carmen ‘Carmy’ Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), a decorated chef who returns to Chicago to save The Original Beef of Chicagoland, the restaurant left behind by his brother Mikey, who we find out died by suicide. Like Carmy, Robbins came up in professional kitchens as the underpaid, overworked line cook terrorised by dictatorial head chefs who instilled order via persistent verbal abuse, to which he’d obediently reply, ‘Yes, Chef,’ to keep his job. Cooking provided structure for Robbins, who came into the industry as ‘an incredibly undisciplined mess of a human being.’ Likewise, he’s been the ‘f***ing maniac’ chef in charge in past jobs, brandishing the same intensity he now fights against.
Maybe it’s because the show hits so close to home that as much as he wanted to enjoy it, The Bear ultimately let Robbins down. He mainly took issue with the glorification of the angry male chef in the form of the tousled, doe-eyed Carmy, whom we can’t help but root for even as he undermines his insistence on creating a respectful kitchen culture by verbally abusing his staff.
‘The most problematic thing in restaurant culture is that consumers continue to glorify this idea of the totalitarian dictator chef,’ Robbins says. ‘There’s been this huge momentum and change in the last few years with oppressed restaurant workers speaking out. And now, again, we have a show glorifying and making a sexually appealing antihero out of this aggressive male chef.’
That’s not to say it doesn't make for convincing, entertaining television. Robbins echoes countless industry pros who’ve said The Bear presents an uncanny depiction of what it’s like to work in professional kitchens. It’s in small touches, like the industry cookbooks heaped on storage shelves and chefs’ obsession over clean-cut tape for labels. In one scene, Mikey’s best friend, the erratic, toxic-male manager Richie (Eban Moss-Bachrach), derides the back of house staff donning new blue aprons for joining a ‘dumbass cult’. ‘That’s what a kitchen is,’ Robbins quips: ‘a dumbass cult.’
He appreciates how it convincingly portrays the duality of the intoxication of restaurants and the toxic environment of stress and abuse they create. For Robbins, this painfully manifests when pastry chef Marcus (Lionel Boyce) tirelessly workshops a jam-filled doughnut only to see the final product crushed by Carmy in a fit of frenetic rage when the restaurant is slammed by to-go orders and implodes in one long, vicious take.
Yet every time Robbins started to relax and succumb to the story or the beautiful cuts between characters slicing onions and browning glistening slabs of peppered beef, he’d find an inconsistency to nitpick: (‘No one puts a 22-quart [container] of veal stock on the top shelf!’ ‘No way they’re baking 500 rolls on two racks!’) Or he’d cringe at the overkill industry-speak. (‘Nobody throws term to term to term, like “Hey, this glace isn’t demi!”’)
While Carmy’s toxic behaviour indeed draws consequences, such as the measured Sydney quitting mid-service, Robbins was disappointed in the almost magical resolution in the final episode – SPOILER ALERT – finding thousands in cling-wrapped cash that his late brother (inexplicably) left him inside San Marzano tomato cans—which offered an easy out for its antihero. He and Sydney set the wheels in motion to remake the Beef into a finer-dining spot aptly called The Bear and set us up for season two. But as Robbins points out, the food — traditional, popular, affordable – never needed fixing. ‘What needs to be great is the restaurant culture, not the recipes,’ he says. ‘That is what the show misses. His investment or reinvestment shouldn’t be in what’s next but bettering what’s now.’
Robbins probably won’t watch season two, though he hopes to see more development in characters like Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) and Ebraheim (Edwin Lee Gibson) – the lifer line cooks often overlooked by media besotted by head-chef figureheads. Nonetheless, he’s happy to see a realistic portrayal of the industry and all its flaws – and he’s hopeful about the discussions it’s provoking.
‘The show is definitely worth watching,’ he says. ‘A lot of diners see that wall separating the kitchen and don’t realise there are real people behind that wall with real needs, problems and struggles. Shows like this get people to care and ask questions and pay attention.’