6 Ways "The Bear" Gets Restaurant Culture Right

And, how it tapped into my trauma as a former line cook

Three people in a restaurant freezer walk-in looking at eachother

Courtesy of FX

It's rare to find a TV show or movie that punches you in every emotion all at once (good and bad)—especially, within the first couple of minutes. For me, it's often one centered around food whether that's from a professional standpoint like "Burnt" or simply elevating the storyline through captivating food scenes like in "Crazy Rich Asians."

FX on Hulu's latest series"The Bear" recently debuted to a standing ovation from viewers. The show follows Carmen ("Carmy"), and his pivot from working in some of the world's greatest restaurants—like Noma and Eleven Madison Park—to taking over his family's cramped and battered Original Beef of Chicagoland—an establishment clinging to its last powerline (often, literally).

I not only binged all eight episodes in one sitting, but I binged the series four times in the past week (you could say I'm obsessed). Mesmerized by the kitchen chaos paired with salivating culinary moments, I instantly feel seen. I feel inspired. I feel sad. I feel as if I'm back to those days on the line, struggling to keep up with tickets while maintaining quality, my own mental sanity, and remembering why I chose this life. There are parts of "The Bear" that invoke a sense of regret that I didn't, or maybe couldn't, continue down the path of professional kitchens. But, also a sense of relief. It's a grueling grind no matter how big or small the kitchen.

I have an affinity for just about every food-focused film, but this is the show that gets it right. It's a fool-proof recipe for drama, comedy, redemption, and learning. Here's why.

The Food Porn

Until this point, Jon Favreau held my heart for the best food scenes in "Chef." Everything from delicate sauces to greasy grilled cheese, I could watch it all day. Similar to "Chef's" stark difference between fine dining versus street-style cuisine, "The Bear" pulls you in through images of tender, juicy slices of beef stacked high with fresh giardiniera, an iconic Chicago dog, colorful glazed doughnuts in a bakery box, pages of intricate dishes from Noma's cookbook, and so much more.

There's this preciseness to each moment that adds to its authenticity—including the shower of sugar falling from a pint container into the chocolate cake batter as the cook whisks it together, much like an artist. There's no doubt about the notable culinary talent involved in every aspect, including celebrity chef Matty Matheson, a co-producer who plays a quirky electrician and wannabe cook, Fak.

They also don't shy away from the grotesque—shots of spilled sauces, a cracked egg on the floor, and dirty towels serve to amplify the mess of it all. You'll see the trajectory of characters cleaning up their stations along with their acts as they reach a more organized, unified front by the end of the season.

Classic and Easy Chocolate Cake

The Spruce / Julia Hartbeck

The Sounds

There's the ASMR of crackling potato chips you'll find in Instagram Reels and then there's ASMR of "The Bear." It's a building symphony of sounds that usually leads to an eruption amongst the team followed by a calmness. From the dramatic opening, we hear the clicking of a burner trying to catch much like Carmen trying to catch a break from the nonstop setbacks the shop faces.

As you watch each episode, open your ears to the sound of a y-peeler pulling away at streaks of carrots, quickening knife cuts, high flames, bubbling sauces, painful screams from a burn, banging of tables, searing of meat, and rustling paper wrapping to-go orders. Most significant is the constant ticking of the clock as each chef takes a turn apprehensively watching time whittle away before service starts. Each of these sounds helps to build the heart-palpitating anxiety of a fast-paced restaurant along with the beauty of how each part of the machine works together to achieve success.

There's even a charm to the yelling of ticket orders, symbolizing the show must go on even if the chefs feel like they'll never reach the surface of drowning turmoil. Some of these sounds haunt me, while some are music to my ears.

Man on his hands and knees in a restaurant kitchen

Courtesy of FX

The Kitchen Etiquette

I love the small and not-so-obvious pieces of proper kitchen culture. First, there's the clear importance of a clean kitchen and how it affects morale just as much as the quality of food. Then there's the nod to certain industry accolades like Food & Wine's Best New Chefs and James Beard Foundation's Rising Star Chef. Even more, I remember when I first learned the importance of cutting tape versus tearing it to make labels for my prep—this scene felt like such a key moment, as it's this attention to detail that propels the good chefs to award-winning chefs.

Some Kitchen Lingo Explained

In addition to frequent curse words, there's plenty of back-of-house classic terms, slang, and mannerisms throughout the episodes. We listed a few key terms below to keep you in the know:

  • "Yes, Chef": No matter what you're saying or asking, I hear you.
  • "Heard": I acknowledge what you said.
  • "Behind": I'm walking behind you, so please don't back up or turn quickly because one of us probably has a piping hot pot of something.
  • "Corner": I'm coming around the corner, so be aware.
  • "All Day": This is how many of a particular menu item we have.
  • "86": We're running low or out of a dish, so cut it from the menu.
  • "Hands": Someone (often a server), please come grab this food and deliver it to the customer while it's hot.
  • Chit: A receipt, order ticket, tab, or IOU
  • Consommé: A clear soup made from rich stock that has been clarified, using egg whites to remove fat.
  • Cartouche: A "lid" made from parchment paper used for covering the surface of stews, sauces, braises, and more.
  • In the weeds: Overwhelmed with work.
  • Escoffier-style French brigade: Famous French chef Georges-Auguste Escoffier devised this hierarchy system that many modern restaurants use today. Positions include Chef Executif, Chef de Cuisine, Sous Chef, Chef de Partie, and Commis Chef.
  • Family meal: Also known as staff meal, this is when everyone sits down to eat before service.
  • Knocking on the walk-in door: Hey, I'm coming in (or out), so watch it.
  • Staging or Trailing: Shadowing, cooking, and essentially interviewing at a restaurant in hopes of getting hired, but also to see if the restaurant is a fit for you.

The Screaming

Yes, this deserves an entire section. The most significant difference between most old-school kitchens and new-school kitchen is the screaming—or really any noise at all. Earlier in my career, I worked primarily in old-school kitchens where curse words flew just as fast as tempers. My fondest memory occurred on a busy Saturday night as I went down in flames despite working every pot, pan, pasta basket, and sheet tray in sight (those same pots would fly at me after putting in my notice a year later). As I rushed to keep up with service, Chef shouted, "You're horrible, you suck, just quit and die, and nobody will care." Oh, and it was an open kitchen meaning an audience sat at the pass to witness my torment.

You get a glimpse of this atmospheric difference when one of the head cooks Richie screams over loud music at just about anyone in earshot over frustration for this new system Carmen is so desperate to implement. Then, through flashbacks of Carmen working the pass at one of his former fine dining establishments. Crisp white linens and walls echo the soft whispers between cooks as they work meticulously to pure silence. Even the executive chef spews his rage at Carmen through whispers.

So, is it worse when a chef degrades you through hateful screams or when they whisper the disappointment they feel because you let down the rest of the team?

Two people looking at each other in a restaurant kitchen

Courtesy of FX

The Proving Ground

At first, the cooks of Original Beef avoid Carmen's changes out of sheer spite. But, as they realize his level of skill, they yearn for his approval. There is no end to this need for approval when it comes to cooking in a restaurant no matter what level you're working at. And, few things compare to the level of ecstasy from a chef tasting your food and loving it.

In the first episode, we see the soon-to-be sous chef Sydney prove her right to join the team during a stage. She does this in many ways, but most notably through a killer family meal. This brought me back to my most terrifying, yet triumphant stage at a notable fine-dining restaurant. My Test: Make a perfectly fluffy, seasoned French omelet with zero color (I crushed it). On the other end of the spectrum, I once worked a 12-hour stage where I never received family meal or a taste of any of the food. Through this experience, I learned these "interviews" are just as much for me as they are for the hiring staff.

As a woman, you often need to prove you can hold up just as much as the man next to you. In one scene, a male cook insists on Sydney letting him grab the cambro of congealed stock she needs off the shelf. This exchange happened every day to me for a year at my first restaurant (despite the fact I am taller and stronger than most). In fact, I cooked a perfect quail for the owner one night and he credited the sloppy male cook next to me. If starting out as a young cook isn't draining enough, this certainly didn't help.

The Pressure

The heat is on. Visibly and metaphorically throughout the series. There's the pressure to perform, to keep your station clean, to pass a health inspection (this often happens mid-service on a busy night—for me, it was my first service flying solo), to finish prep in time for service, and to do everything possible to keep the restaurant afloat. Restaurants are all about surviving as individual cooks just as much as a business. Something many of us are still experiencing due to COVID-19.

Each character takes their turn to feel the wrath of pressure to perform. One cook wishes to step up and impress with new menu items but soon topples while trying to stay on top of his regular duties. Another wants to show she is just as good as a classically trained cook from big-name establishments. At one point, Sydney goes into the walk-in freezer just to take a few calming breaths by herself before diving back into the mayhem. These little walk-in moments were a staple of my routine, especially during the busy season.

It's no secret many chefs suffer from drug and/or alcohol abuse. It ends up feeling like the only way to survive. And, it can at times feel like the way to fit in. Part of the reason I left professional kitchens was that I felt like I was slowly slipping away to someone I didn't recognize. It was triggering to tap back into this part of my career.

"The Bear" best shows the addictive adrenaline rush skilled chefs feed on. Even if that pressure leads them down a spiral they can't recover from. Behind the dedication, ingenuity, and attention to detail is this bear of paralyzing anxiety that we're desperately hoping doesn't consume us.