During an interview in the fall with CBC’s Q, Toronto chef Matty Matheson — who is an actor, consultant and executive producer on The Bear — compared the anxiety of working in a restaurant kitchen to how an actor might feel before performing live theatre.
“Every night I’m getting ready to do something. People are showing up at a certain time. I can’t really make a mistake, right?” Matheson explained. “So it’s very similar to live theatre, live acting. And I was using that a lot with the actors because then they could actually understand what that meant.”
The show, about a successful but tortured young chef Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) who returns to Chicago to take over his dead brother’s sandwich shop The Beef, received high praise during its first season for depicting the chaotic nature of restauranteering.
35:36Celebrity chef Matty Matheson on The Bear, venturing into fashion and the health scare that changed his life
During its second season, released on Disney+ Canada in July, The Bear turns its attention to more intimate aspects of kitchen life, emphasizing themes of found family and the pleasures of making dining a memorable experience as Carmy and sous-chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) try to transform The Beef from a rough-and-tumble neighbourhood joint into a fine dining establishment worthy of a Michelin star.
Craig Silliphant, a Saskatoon film critic, arts writer and former dining critic, said that The Bear gives a realistic depiction of restaurant work that resonates with those who have experience in the industry — its claustrophobic camerawork and frenetic pacing create a visceral feeling of unrelenting stress as a constant rush of orders come through.
(The show’s cuisine-agnostic “chaos menu” looks amazing too, he says: “There’s a fine line between something that’s really unique and something that can be quite pretentious … all of it looks great.”)
But its second season takes a risk by paring back and branching out to explore each of its characters personal development as The Beef transitions under Carmy and Sydney’s leadership, “which not only means retraining a lot of the crew for stuff, but retraining how they think about things,” Silliphant said.
As Carmy tries to find work-life balance and Sydney painstakingly plans a menu, Carmy’s stubborn cousin Richie is sent to a fine dining restaurant for hospitality training, while pastry chef Marcus goes to Copenhagen for a stage. Carmy’s sister Sugar takes on an invigorating role as the restaurant’s operations manager. Veteran line cooks Tina and Ebra, meanwhile, are enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program to finesse their skills (only one of them takes to it).
“It’s still stressful, but in a different way,” Toronto line cook Grace Onasanya said of the second season in an interview on CBC’s Commotion. “You have more development of Carmen and the characters and the restaurant. It’s more like the kind of anxiety and fear that comes with change. Certainly not the heart palpitation-inducing stress of season one.”
There are also quite a few more guest stars, with Oscar winner Jamie Lee Curtis, comedian John Mulaney and American Horror Story actor Sarah Paulson appearing in the show. Jon Bernthal reprises his role as Carmy’s brother Michael in flashback scenes.
7:48The Bear Season 2 is finally available in Canada
Matheson described the lengths that the production goes to in recreating experience of a real-life kitchen on set. Other than instilling in the actors “small, weird courtesies” — like shouting ‘corner!’ or ‘behind!’ while moving between stations — part of his job as a consultant is to demonstrate how he might check on a roasting chicken, or how he would arrange a mise en place (a chef’s station or cooking setup).
“If you open all the fridges on the set, they were ready to make salad, sandwiches, all the things on the actual menu,” said Matheson, who in addition to his behind-the-scenes roles, plays handyman and family friend Neil Fak on the series.
“You don’t even really see it, but the menu out in The Beef was prepped every day. So then the actors actually could pull out [ingredients] and make a mortadella sandwich, they could make a Greek salad, they could do anything that they needed to do.”
Dysfunction not so delicious
Lesley Chesterman, a cookbook author, former pastry chef and former restaurant critic at the Montreal Gazette, offered a different perspective as she worked her way through the second season: The Bear‘s dysfunctional depiction of a kitchen does a disservice to the real thing, even as the newer episodes focused more on the food.
“I think it’s very interesting when you see these shows, the way people are depicting cooking,” Chesterman said. “It kind of makes me sad, because I think that people start to think that’s the way it really is, when there are people like Gordon Ramsay who are famous for screaming and there’s abuse in kitchens and there are all of these issues.”
“But people should also know that there are a lot of great things,” she added, pointing to the British film Boiling Point as an example of media that offers an accurate portrayal of kitchens.
“It’s also about people being happy in the workplace … I’m just seeing so many things in these shows that I just started going whoa … I was so happy working in kitchens. I mean, no, it wasn’t all fun and games, but there was also a lot of positive [elements] that we’re not seeing.”
Silliphant, who worked in restaurants during his youth, said that Richie’s story arc was a standout during the latest episodes. The character works his way up from shining silverware at one of the best restaurants in the world to learning and absorbing the art of hospitality — themes that Silliphant recalls in films like Big Night, Tampopo and Chef.
“That idea of making people happy with food — again, it’s a cliche, ‘you can taste the love’ and ‘we made this with love.’ But honestly, if you’re doing it right — and that’s what they were trying to teach Richie in this restaurant … it is about respect,” said Silliphant.
“Many people in the service industry are just in the service industry because that’s their job. They don’t necessarily want to make people happy at the end of the night. But in these establishments and in certain other cases, that is what it’s about. It’s about wanting to go to work and by making somebody else feel happy, you can make yourself feel happy too.”