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  • Marielle Bokor

The Bear Made Me Homesick for Foodservice

It’s an odd thing to be sitting on your couch, streaming some shows, and come across something that makes you want to get on the hairnet and apron and dive back into the world of foodservice, but it’s just happened to me. Last time, it was a video game that brought me back the thrills of the Friday night slams I endured as a pizza slinger. This time, it’s FX’s series, The Bear.

To be profoundly honest, I started watching The Bear because one of my colleagues here at Culture Combine mentioned it. It’s set in Chicago, people are messing up Italian beefs all over the US because of it, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. At first, I wasn’t that into it. It felt a little overwrought and angsty. About a week later, with the last episode of the second season queued up as I write this, I’m completely hooked.

TV loves to glamorize things, and if you’ve really worked foodservice, you know any such glamour is completely fabricated. Behind the scenes of anything from Applebee’s to Alinea is hot, sweaty, messy, moody real life. No matter how strictly you run your kitchen, it’s a kitchen, and it’s full of knives, fire, and, at least in my experience, a motley crew of people who would probably have no reason to meet or talk to each other were it not for the fact that they worked there. 

The Bear doesn’t really play nice with its characters, no matter if they’re in a starring role or not, and it’s refreshing. I don’t like shows where everyone’s shitty and that’s supposed to be ok, but I do appreciate a show like The Bear being honest about people and how they work in stressful environments. We all like to think we’re capable of great self-restraint until the tickets are pouring out onto the floor, every chair is full, every phone is ringing, every pot is boiling and there aren’t any plates.

The Bear gets restaurants right by looking even fine dining square in the face as absolutely thankless, shitty and toxic at times. By getting this right, I feel like they’re also getting Chicago right in a way lots of shows fail to. In the words of a chef and writer I have incredible respect for:  

“You wake up in Chicago, pull back the curtain and you KNOW where you are. You could be nowhere else. You are in a big, brash, muscular, broad shouldered motherfuckin’ city. A metropolis, completely non-neurotic, ever-moving, big hearted but cold blooded machine with millions of moving parts — a beast that will, if disrespected or not taken seriously, roll over you without remorse.” - Anthony Bourdain

It’s the biggest love letter to the city I love the most, and The Bear nails that esoteric feeling you get from Chicago without the need for a million pans down Lake Shore Drive or artistically shot skyscrapers in the Loop.

Chicago is raw. Take it as it comes. Stinky, shady, dirty, messy and corrupt, but gorgeous, complex, vibrant, diverse, hardworking and friendly. Foodservice is raw, and so are the people involved. In my time in the kitchen I’ve thrown towels, screamed at people, been screamed at, and walked out on shifts cursing someone’s name. It wasn’t okay, and it wasn’t pretty. But when push comes to shove and someone at a table threatened me, even if we’d just been in a heated, ugly argument about who fucked up the entire line tonight and can’t just fucking do it right for goddamn once (there’s an awful lot of swearing in restaurants, by the way), those same people throwing the pepperoni and insults are going to be chasing that person out of the restaurant with a baseball bat. Because we’re family.

You can take my car to pick up your kid, even though last time you took it you dropped one of your little Newport nubbins on the car rug and it started a small fire that started smoldering later that night on my way home. We’ll walk you home after taking you to the liquor store across the street to get your 12 pack of Milwaukee’s Best. 

When we’re freaking out about a rush, a manager will come back to the line, make us all stand at attention with our hands on our hearts and sing the national anthem because life is stupid and silly and this too shall pass.

And if you don’t make it home one night, we will always remember you. We’ll stop everything, stand in a now silent kitchen and cry together. We’ll hold hands at the funeral and take turns going so someone can keep the restaurant open but everyone gets to go. Later that night, we’ll gather around the accident site with candles telling tales of how you made us do your prep work and close because you wanted to party and how you made us sing the national anthem during that crazy rush until the police make us leave. And even when we’ve gone on to other kitchens and other places, we’ll hold that night, that family, and those memories in our hearts. 

Raw is beautiful and real, and vulnerable, and family doesn’t even have to be chosen. Sometimes it comes from banding together towards a common goal and learning to love someone for exactly the sweaty, grumpy asshole they are, because you know they’re going to be there for you when you need them, even if in the meantime they’re also going to drive you insane. Pretending to be your best doesn’t work in the heat and chaos of a kitchen, but that’s the beauty of the thing – and in turn, the beauty of The Bear. 

The Bear will return for Season 3 on June 27th via Hulu.



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