Electrifying Chicago sandwich shop drama The Bear turns up the heat in every episode

·5 min read
Jeremy Allen White, Lionel Boyce and Ebon Moss-Bachrach in ‘The Bear' (FX)
Jeremy Allen White, Lionel Boyce and Ebon Moss-Bachrach in ‘The Bear' (FX)

There’s a cliche about what it takes to be a rockstar chef. It combines Anthony Bourdain’s aesthetic – arms tattooed, with a puckish sparkle in his eye – with Gordon Ramsay’s propensity for swearing at people. Restaurant kitchens are as scorching and vicious as the machismo it takes to thrive in one. To be the best, you’ve got to bleed, bruise, sweat and scream for it. You have to live to cook.

For most of its electrifying first season, The Bear – a show from Christopher Storer (a producer on 2018’s coming-of-age indie-hit Eighth Grade and Ramy Youssef’s celebrated comedy Ramy ) about a ramshackle mom-and-pop Italian beef sandwich shop nearly invisible among the skyscrapers of Chicago’s River North neighbourhood – leans into that stereotype. The kitchen staff’s yelling is so loud and nasty and incessant, I found myself hitting pause just to give my adrenal glands a break. But in the FX series’ penultimate 20-minute episode, “Review”, the ticking time bomb of the lunch rush bubbles over into actual violence. Shot in one long, roving take, the episode explodes the myth of the tortured, erratic genius and the kitchen hierarchy that props up his ego.

The genius in question is Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, a gifted cook at New York City’s Noma who returns home when he inherits The Beef of Chicagoland following his beloved brother Mikey’s suicide. It’s not going well for Carmy, played on the relentless edge of a nervous breakdown by Jeremy Allen White (from the US remake of Shameless). The regulars who’ve worked the shop since forever resist regime change, and he’s locked in a power struggle with Mikey’s hot-head best friend, Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach, who played Desi from Girls). Plus, Mikey – the always charismatic Jon Bernthal – was better with ingredients than he was with numbers. Carmy owes their sharky uncle (Oliver Platt) $300k (£257k) for covering his big bro’s debts.

Every urgent moment of every episode is a fight for the sandwich joint’s survival. The villains are the meat wholesalers, the health inspectors and the industrial mixer that won’t stop breaking down. Hope arrives in the form of Sydney (Ayo Edebiri, Dickinson), a culinary school grad who prefers making real meals for real people to working the line in the city’s grander kitchens. (At one job she held for eight months, she was never allowed to do more than zest lemon.) Syd’s as impatient to revolutionise The Beef as Carmy is to just make the place solvent.

In “Review”, the urgency isn’t just a fact of the narrative, but the viewer’s uncomfortable reality. The one-take episode is set inside the tight quarters of The Beef’s shabby kitchen, starting on the day Sydney implements an online ordering system. It’s also the day the chefs are bickering over a five-star review in the Chicago Telegraph. It should be good news for the struggling shop, but when the critic reserves his most effusive praise for one of Sydney’s fancy new entrées – a risotto – a peeved Carmy finds himself siding with the old guard.

All hell breaks loose when the pace of to-go orders overwhelms a kitchen staff used to dealing with one customer at a time. Most episodes of The Bear are about how the kitchen is self-destructing, but this one implicates the viewer, too. How often do we think about the human beings on the other side of our UberEats delivery? Not just the human beings, but all of the steps – from prep work that starts at 10am to clean-up that ends half a day later – that go into making a single sandwich.

The Beef is a messy, frantic place, but in “Review” you start to understand how vulnerable it makes a person to work in a space so small. When Carmy starts screaming – mostly at Syd but eventually everybody – there’s nowhere to hide. Boiling Point, the 2021 restaurant drama starring Stephen Graham as a swearing, stressy London chef, was similarly filmed in a single take. But here the cinematography is even more claustrophobic. The camera never steps outside the stainless-steel prison of the kitchen. For a cook at The Beef, the deli counter is the limit of the universe.

Ebon Moss-Bachrach and Ayo Edebiri in ‘The Bear’ (FX)
Ebon Moss-Bachrach and Ayo Edebiri in ‘The Bear’ (FX)

The staff are used to alerting each other to their own presence, screaming “corner!” every time they go around a bend and “behind!” whenever they need to pass. But in real-time, the collisions feel more imminent. The knives are sharper. A petty argument between Syd and Richie over who’s prepping the giardiniera ends with Syd accidentally stabbing Richie, or maybe Richie accidentally walking into Syd’s long chef’s knife. Even the first aid kid is on the staff side of the counter. Drawing blood is no reason to leave your post. Scars are part of the recipe.

This isn’t just any 20 minutes in the life of The Beef but 20 minutes with everyone at their hubristic worst. Carmy screams at Syd until she finally hangs up her apron and walks out. In an especially cruel move, he destroys the donuts a tentative pastry chef has been working to perfect all season. Carmy’s not a misunderstood genius but a bad guy. He was mistreated in the kitchens he worked in, and now he’s recreating that bedlam in his brother’s old sandwich shop.

Before “Review”, there was a general impression that making food had to be like this: scrappy, mean and exhausting. But something about a chef as talented as Carmy trying to punch a little machine that’s spitting out to-go orders exposes the whole arrangement as ridiculous and untenable. Just unplug it, dude.

The Bear doesn’t mimic intensity; it creates it. If the episode lasted a minute longer, I’d turn my apron in, too.