It’s the small moments inside The Original Beef of Chicagoland’s kitchen that ring true for some Boston area chefs watching “The Bear.” A reminder to remove tape off jars, of calm that’s abruptly replaced by disaster, and in wee acts of sabotage. (FYI: If you haven’t yet viewed the Hulu series, you may want to skip reading because this article contains spoilers.)
“The Bear” revolves around Carmen Berzatto, a James Beard winner and fine dining chef, who returns to Chicago following the suicide of his brother. “Carmy” takes over the family sandwich shop with plans to improve the food and professionalize the kitchen. Moments of food porn are fleeting.
The series tackles a myriad of issues — creativity, grief, debt — but none seems to loom as large as the challenges of a male-dominated culture inside its kitchen, particularly when one employee — Richie, Carmy’s unofficial cousin — embodies toxicity. Seven female chefs were asked to weigh in on the show.
First, back to moments in “The Bear” ringing true: a young chef refusing help in removing a vat of stock from a shelf only to have it tumble to the floor; a Somalian line cook reading a restaurant review in halting English as the staff hangs onto every word; an on-fire pastry chef doggedly iterating doughnuts to perfection; and a jaded old-timer won over when praised for her cooking skills.
“To be honest, for me, it was some scenes of the characters teasing each other,” says Irene Li, co-founder of Mei Mei Dumplings and recipient of a 2022 James Beard Leadership Award. “It wasn’t like overdone. It just sounded like the kind of shit that you hear in a restaurant [kitchen] where you’re hanging out with people who you, maybe, spend more time with than your spouse or your family.”
“For me, it was when they’re tearing about the office looking for the tax [paperwork] because of liability [issues],” says Cheryl Straughter, chef and co-owner of Soleil in Nubian Square, Roxbury. “Small restaurants like mine aren’t like big restaurants. I am the payroll person, the HR person, the prep person, the cook.”
Rachel Miller, chef of Nightshade Noodle Bar in Lynn, says the trailer was enough to deter her from “The Bear.” “I haven’t watched it mostly due to lack of time, but also lack of interest in most shows about chefs and restaurants — particularly those about white male-dominated kitchens,” she says via email. “Don’t we have enough of that perspective?”
Tiffani Faison formerly held that sentiment, even tweeting her resistance. Faison, chef and owner of the Big Heart Hospitality group (and four-time Beard best chef nominee including 2022), thought the series would utilize tired tropes with a ruggedly good-looking protagonist (e.g. Carmy). “They veered away from every cliche,” she says. “There was no sex, there was no harassment. They could have taken shortcuts and they didn’t.”
But it’s “cousin” Richie who galled some chefs. As portrayed by Ebon Moss-Bachrach of Amherst, Richie is testosterone run amuck.
“He makes my skin crawl,” says Deborah Hansen, chef, sommelier, and owner of Taberno de Haro in Brookline. (Her wine program was a 2018 Beard semifinalist.) “Testosterone is powerful, and the only way I’ve learned to work with it is always have female cooks outnumbering male cooks two-to-one in the kitchen,” Hansen says. “Men behave better when they’re surrounded by women.”
“The older I get, the more aware I am of the energy in the kitchen and what the different sexes bring in,” says Patricia Estorino, a 2022 Beard semifinalist chef, and co-owner of Gustazo Cuban Kitchen & Bar in Waltham and Cambridge. “When most line cooks are males, there’s a different dynamic and it’s hard to deal with things.”
Asia Mei, the chef/owner of Moonshine 152 in South Boston, has had a different experience. “My own kitchen crews have always been a mix of men and women, but I strive to remember that what is more important is that I concentrate on every person’s individual energies and personality traits than on their sex,” she says in an email. “It is more about work ethic and the food than how many cisgender males and females.”
“The Bear” is also filled with characters who seem familiar to the chefs. “We all know a Tina, we all know a Marcus, we all know a Carmen,” says Irene Li. A favorite character among the group is Sydney, the young sous chef, portrayed by Ayo Edebiri, who is a Boston Latin School ‘13 grad.
“She was a fully formed character with her own aspirations in life,” Faison says. Straughter liked Sydney’s quick intelligence, exemplified when she uses concrete bricks to make an outdoor barbecue during a power outage. Hansen was struck that “Sydney is already jaded at her young age. I have a lot of 25- and 26-year-olds on my front-of-the-house staff that really feel like the weight of the world is on their shoulders. Maybe Sydney is a little bit of an embodiment of that, but in cook form.”
And then there’s the protagonist Carmen, portrayed by Jeremy Allen White, who has generated a sexual thirst on social media. “To me, it must have taken some restraint to not make Carmy a scumbag-womanizer type because in 99 of a 100 situations that person who is Carmy is sleeping around,” says Irene Li. “It was really important to the character that he wasn’t that, because he has no room in his life for loving someone in that way. I think they made a real conscious choice there, and it’s one I really appreciated.” (Li met White in Chicago at this year’s Beard awards event.)
“The Bear” is not for everyone. Li says her brother Andrew Li, a Mei-Mei co-founder, stopped watching “The Bear” because he found it anxiety inducing. The first episode alone was anxiety inducing for Estorino, who recently lost her Cambridge spot’s chef de cuisine at the same time the sous chef is ill and has jumped in to help.
Faison is glad she watched the show, yet adds: “Would I recommend it? Depends on to who. Like, do I want my mom to watch it? Nope. I don’t want to have the conversation of ‘How real is this?’ "