‘The Bear’ Imagines a Restaurant World Without the Horror Stories

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* Spoilers for “The Bear,” Season 2 below

Just two months after the release of the release of horror satire The Menu, three-Michelin-starred Copenhagen restaurant Noma announced its intentions to close and it felt like Ralph Fiennes’ psychotic chef Slowik had racked up one last kill. In some circles, the pending shutter was heralded as the end of fine dining, renewing dialogue about the unsustainable and downright abusive labor practices that have been endemic in the industry’s most prestigious kitchens.

Those issues loom large in the world of FX’s The Bear. Star chef Carmy Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) spent some time working at Noma and in other top kitchens including New York’s Eleven Madison Park which exposed him to verbal abuse from a chef played by Community’s Joel McHale. Carmy’s quest to elevate the Chicago counter service joint the Beef, at times, leads him to treat his own team with the same level of cruelty he’s experienced.

But if The Menu is about the virtue of burning down the model of fine dining, The Bear Season 2 dreams of building a version embodied by its titular restaurant. It finds the virtues in top-tier restaurants, whether it’s wowing diners or giving workers a unique sense of purpose and accomplishment.

Carmy sends pastry chef Marcus (Lionel Boyce) to follow in his footsteps in Copenhagen where he hones his craft under the exacting gaze and calm guidance of his dreamy counterpart Luca. The scenes were filmed at chef Curtis Duffy’s Chicago cocktail lounge After while its sibling Ever served as the set for the three-Michelin-starred restaurant where Carmy’s “cousin” Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) would stage. The two are connected in-world, with the fictional Ever’s chef Terry (Olivia Colman) having worked with both Luca and Carmy.

While The Menu treats fine dining as a toxic cult serving undeserving rich narcissists, The Bear, despite some critiques, celebrates it as a joyous art form. The staff at The Bear’s version of Ever customizes every dining experience, but their biggest VIPs are not the visiting celebrities but a pair of suburban teachers who saved up for the pricey meal of their dreams.

The restaurant isn’t perfect — the entire staff is chided about a smudge on a single plate emblematic of the level of obsession to detail that makes the concept work — but the employees believe in its mission to create beautiful memories from gorgeous and delicious dishes. This is a place so willing to dazzle it sends Richie to Pequod’s — one of the best pizzerias in Chicago — so that a table of tourists don’t leave the city without trying its famous deep dish.

The general manager mentoring Richie (Rene Gube) tells him he doesn’t love to cook but works at Ever because of a responsibility to serve, noting how “hospitality” and “hospital” share etymology. The ways food physically and emotionally heals are found throughout the second season, from the “Sprite” that Carmy makes for Richie’s pregnant wife to the omelet his business partner Sydney Adamu (Ayo Edebiri) whips up for Carmy’s sister and project manager Natalie (Abby Elliott). When Syd is utterly consumed by the stress and doubts of opening the Bear, watching Natalie savor the delicious, yet simple meal is the best part of Syd’s day, a reminder of why she’s chosen to persevere in an industry that often seems impossible. It evokes the pleasure that even The Menu’s deeply jaded chef Slowik found when cooking a good hamburger.

Season 2 of The Bear actually shares just as much in common with AppleTV’s sports comedy Ted Lasso as it does with The Menu. Both center on men with serious anxiety disorders who have had to deal with the suicide of a close family member seeking a fresh start by turning around a failing enterprise by coaching a team of misfits into becoming their best selves. This season of The Bear is even full of sports metaphors, from Sydney reading retired Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski’s book Leading with the Heart to Carmy’s investor “Uncle’’ Jimmy (Oliver Platt) giving a motivational speech about the Steve Bartman incident that kept the Chicago Cubs out of the 2003 World Series. Richie is told that at Ever, every night is the Super Bowl.

But while Ted Lasso’s portrait of teamwork is filled with sugary rom-com cliches that made it the perfect pandemic comfort snack, The Bear is a richer dish, like the savory cannoli Marcus makes to help Carmy process his trauma and grief. Ted Lasso tapes up a “Believe” sign in his locker room as a simple reminder, a lesser version of the motivational motto “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” from the high school football drama Friday Night Lights. In contrast, the “every second counts” sign added to the kitchen in the final episode of The Bear is well earned, a callback to the signs found in Luca’s and chef Terry’s kitchens and the lessons about the pursuit of culinary perfection that Carmy, Marcus, and Richie all learned there.

While The Menu ends with its restaurant in ashes, The Bear finishes Season 2 with a triumphant proof of concept. Richie dazzles Syd’s dad with a cart of nonalcoholic options just for him and earns new respect from Jimmy with a custom dessert inspired by a long-ago conversation about how the smell of chocolate-covered bananas stirs up powerful memories of his father. But like any good sports story, the team needs to overcome adversity. At the Bear, Carmy ends up locked inside a walk-in fridge which leads to a shouting match between him and Richie, an argument that threatens to undo all the emotional growth both characters made this season.

Fine dining didn’t die in Chicago when Grace closed in 2017 after Ever chef Duffy left the three-Michelin-starred restaurant. It won’t die when Noma closes next year. With the Beef completing its metamorphosis into the Bear at the end of Season 2, The Bear envisions a way to allow each member of the team to achieve their ambitions in a restaurant that runs on respect and cooperation rather than ego and cruelty. Working in a restaurant will always be filled with drama, but in The Bear at least it doesn’t have to be driven by horror.

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