The television show turns the abuse of hospitality workers into exploitation-enabling entertainment
At least since Julia Child launched The French Chef in 1962, cooking shows have been a staple of American culture, offering a training curriculum for white middle-class consumer lifestyles. But over the last two decades, another form of kitchen entertainment has risen — one in which production, rather than consumption, takes center stage. Reality shows like Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and the hit drama The Bear have shifted viewers away from idyllic home kitchens like Child’s to chaotic restaurant workstations.
Gone is the world of the prototypical middle-class housewives of decades past. They’ve been replaced by the service industry worker attempting to survive paycheck to paycheck, a relatable archetype that’s captured the attention of a diverse TV-watching audience.
Why are people so compelled by depictions of the tumultuous world of kitchens run like little fascist fiefdoms featuring rampant abuse, meltdowns, and volcanically chauvinist chefs? Shows like The Bear expose viewers to the harsh truths of restaurant kitchens from a safe distance without sacrificing their ability to enjoy the comforts and pleasures restaurants afford them. Along the way, viewers are served an opportunity to empathize with working-class families without exerting effort to rally behind workers.
As someone who has depended upon jobs in bakeries, restaurants, and bars for over a decade, I have been intrigued and disturbed by how accurately The Bear portrays kitchen conditions. Watching workers regularly sipping water out of deli cups, or the intense, abuse-enabling hierarchy epitomized by the “Yes, chef” culture and high-pressure environment, hot tempers, and colorful language, it feels like my workplace experiences are playing on repeat.
The show highlights many of the most pervasive and challenging aspects of working in the restaurant industry. Anxiety disorders, chronic stress and substance abuse, the normalization of constant harassment, physically demanding labor without proper accommodations, cramped spaces, and undervaluation of talent among nonwhite workers — these are all standard features of hospitality spaces. Over 12 million people work in U.S. restaurants, a workforce with the lowest number of employees protected by unions, excluding finance.
Curiously, audiences are engrossed by The Bear’s depictions of worker abuse. Despite this anguish, the show has an impressive 99 percent rating on the review site Rotten Tomatoes. The Bear has built this fanbase by offering working-class trauma interwoven with liberal empathy as participatory entertainment. This is evident in a flashback where Carmy faces harsh criticism from the head chef (played by Joel McHale) in his former NYC kitchen at Eleven Madison Park. While this scene might unsettle some viewers, its purpose is to provide context for Carmy’s later actions, as he mirrors the same behavior, perpetuating a cycle. Instead of perceiving him as an abusive chef, we are meant to see him as a brilliant but struggling genius who is genuinely trying to excel. This allows us to empathize with his personal struggle and appreciate a deeper understanding of the challenges involved in running a kitchen effectively and not with the victims trapped within that cycle.
This superficial identification with workers’ experiences is disconnected from any storylines in The Bear. That might push viewers to denaturalize worker exploitation and abuse, let alone to imagine how workers can — and are trying to — organize against it. The result is a fleeting form of cheap progressive sentiment without substance. Viewers are encouraged to gulp it down like a cold beer with a funky farmhouse finish and then quickly forget as they disregard the exploited workers they encounter in their real lives and the labor policies that keep those workers so susceptible to mistreatment.
Millions of people who have worked in the hospitality industry see their own lives reflected in the show, getting a sense that their experiences are finally being recognized and valued by popular culture. Many other viewers, including the “foodie” class who have related to restaurant labor primarily through detached consumerism, are offered a self-affirming sense that they now have a more informed, morally responsible understanding of what it’s like for human beings in the back rooms supplying their pleasure.
In Season 1, viewers are treated to a can’t-look-away sense of discomfort as we witness Sydney performing free labor on her first day or watch in shock as Marcus’s careful culinary creation is callously thrown onto the floor.
We can observe all this abuse without ever setting foot inside a real restaurant kitchen, enduring the risk of having a pan thrown at our heads, or tolerating the intimidation tactics of a predatory manager. The drama on the screen provides a safe space for viewers to, after we’ve come home from a dinner out, wallow in our own internal drama of empathetic feeling — a kind of moral masturbation of the liberal conscience. And then, once our appetites are sated, we can press a button and remove ourselves from the scene as if it had nothing at all to do with us.
Popular culture often romanticizes abusive and explosive kitchens by casting them as the studios of eccentric geniuses called chefs who are exempt from ordinary human expectations that they not be assholes toward their coworkers or employees. Prestigious organizations like the James Beard Foundation gave awards to harmful chefs, normalizing and even implicitly celebrated this toxic culture, and though the foundation pledged to weed out bad actors, the jury is still out. And influential institutions like the National Restaurant Association have put profits first and have consistently lobbied for decades against worker protections. As a consequence, hospitality workers remain trapped in low-wage and high-abuse environments. To ensure that our empathy for restaurant workers doesn’t fade once we turn off the TV, we must actively ally with workers in real life who are contributing to changing this culture.
While workers band together, guests remain largely unaware, thinking they’re innocent bystanders inside a harmful system. This reinforces existing power dynamics. Each of us engaged in consuming perpetuates abuse and inequality by accepting and collaborating in a culture that thrives on exploiting workers. We’ve allowed the structural inequalities inside restaurants to go largely unchallenged and often unquestioned.
The abuses — including sexual assault and battery, as well as flagrant racism and wage theft that targets vulnerable employees like undocumented immigrants who have few routes for recourse — are common but not unknown. Instead, they have long been a kind of public secret: a truth that we all know exists but that we agree to pretend is the rare exception at which we express surprise and shock when it surfaces. Exposé after exposé has laid bare these ugly truths in recent years, with 2020 emerging as a year of reckoning for the industry as many workers, encouraged by having little to lose as they were laid off en masse during a pandemic, called out the exploitation to which they had been subjected for so long.
Regrettably, despite the personal risks many took to force better restaurant work cultures into existence — by calling out their toxic workplaces, chefs, and managers to raise the political appetite for passing policies to enable this — little has changed since. Everyone knows workers have few protections, but most diners simply don’t care. They willingly exploit our creativity, physical labor, and emotional capacity to satisfy their desires to be pampered and cared for without feeling a responsibility to do anything about what we endure in the process — as if payment of the dinner bill can just wipe their conscience clean after each meal.
Restaurant workers in many U.S. cities are taking matters into their own hands by organizing and deploying tactics to improve their working conditions. They are increasingly forming unions, establishing community organizations for mutual aid, and uniting to devise innovative methods for self-protection. In Chicago, for example, I am part of a collaborative — the Chicago Hospitality Accountable Advocacy Database (CHAAD) — formed in 2020 to do precisely this work and to galvanize collective action for structural change. This has given me a front-row seat to the difficulties such work entails and the hostilities it elicits from those who benefit from the status quo like owners, investors, and institutions like the National Restaurant Association — those who fear a shift in power away from owners and chefs toward rank-and-file bussers, servers, cooks, bartenders, hosts, and overnight janitorial workers. Sadly, popular food shows and food journalism rarely highlight these collective efforts, instead remaining fixated on the ebb and flow of individual chefs’ moods or owners’ personal virtue.
But restaurants and bars depend upon guest participation to produce the product they sell, which lies less on the plates than in the social exchanges and atmosphere created through collaborative social performances. This reality gives guests enormous leverage over the industry. For diners who value restaurant culture and care about the people who make it possible, their collaboration with us as workers shouldn’t stop at paying the bill or adding a tip at the end of the meal.
What restaurant workers need far more than food enthusiasts or conscientious consumers are collaborators dedicated to supporting workers’ efforts to force policy changes to the industry that can ensure our safety, financial security, and human dignity. We need people who will join us in coordinated diners’ and workers’ strikes against restaurants that refuse to change abusive practices, donate to mutual aid funds to support workers’ organizing efforts, and push for legislative changes to prevent union-busting and to ensure rights to proper wages, sick leave, and health care.
We must not only reject the romanticization of our industry that enables abuse, but also refuse the pseudo-progressive focus on individual chefs’ personalities. If we are ever going to create a truly hospitable hospitality culture for both workers and guests, we need to insist instead on durable structural changes to protect workers regardless of who’s issuing orders in the kitchen.
Raeghn Draper is a writer, hospitality worker, and co-founder of the Chicago Hospitality Accountable Advocacy Database (CHAAD), a mutual aid and labor organizing network for Chicago bar and restaurant workers.