“Purpose” and “every second counts” are mottos that cut across the second season of The Bear, last year’s breakout new show. Back with more multiple-character storylines, the hit series set in the world of haute cuisine continues to focus on some of the themes that it has been addressing since the beginning. Two important ones are the fear of success and the trap of living from a vocation. Another is the cult of aesthetics — the beauty of things — which, in this series, serves as a lifeline for a handful of lives that are besieged by tragedy.
There are a number of parallels between the successful show’s fictional characters and one of its behind-the-scenes leaders. Matty Matheson, 41, plays the handyman Fak and serves as comic relief in a series that has made anxiety and panic attacks a narrative subgenre. In reality, he is much more than a supporting actor on The Bear. The Canadian is also its executive producer and culinary consultant. After all, Matheson’s real career is in the kitchen. Raised in the shadow of his grandfather’s restaurant, The Blue Goose, he is one of Canada’s most respected chefs.
Twenty years ago, he learned French gastronomy’s most advanced techniques with chef Rang Nguyen at his Toronto restaurant. Since then, Matheson’s own career has taken off, and he has become a celebrity through various Vice-created digital entertainment formats. He is also a celebrity in his own right on social media, with over 1 million followers on his official Instagram account and more than 1.24 million of them on YouTube, where he shares recipes and culinary tricks. “My grandfather’s restaurant was connected to the family home. Just opening the living room door gave me access to the commotion that goes on in the kitchens of a place with lots of tables to fill and lots of homemade dishes to cook. It’s not a very safe space for a kid, but it taught me the ropes of the profession,” he says in a mid-July conversation by teleconference from his Toronto office, just minutes after The Bear earned an Emmy nomination for Best Comedy, as well as 12 other nominations.
In addition to his experience working in the best kitchens in the world, Mattheson’s recent leap into acting helps him convey his character’s “terror of doing something big that you’ve never done before.” “That requires a lot of effort, but you know it’s going to give you an incredible reward,” he says. That’s where the main characters of The Bear find themselves in the show’s second season. Having become a chosen family, together they take on the challenge of opening a new restaurant on time, setting their sights on the highest possible prize: Michelin stars. While Mattheson is responsible for teaching the show’s other actors cooking tricks to do on camera to make them seem like expert cooks, they help him credibly deliver his lines. “I’m not a professional actor, so Neil Fak is a version of myself. That permanent state of nervousness he has is totally mine, as is that need to please others and make their lives easier,” he admits.
In the show’s first season, the tortured Carmy, whose chaotic family has destroyed his mental health, is dragged to the highs and lows of his own existence through his career as a chef. After a brush with glory in New York — for which he pays a high price — he returns to Chicago and the humble family business when he learns of his brother’s suicide. But he is determined to make that sandwich shop one of the city’s great culinary hotspots. Now, he pushes those around him to find the best version of themselves. “This is no longer Carmy’s show. The series gains consistency by giving space to the rest of the characters. As they learn to cook, they are finding a voice of their own,” Mattheson explains.
“Finding yourself, your own talent and your own worth, is closely related to your self-esteem. It’s something that I found in the kitchen and that also happens with these characters,” says the chef, who remembers his own difficult time in high school. “I wasn’t good at sports, but I wasn’t good as a math or chemistry student either. When I discovered that I had a knack for cooking and people skills, I managed to keep [frustration] from setting in. Although it seems like I’ve done a lot of different things on TV and on the internet, I’ve really only done one thing well: cooking. Finding a purpose in life is the key to happiness, and I was lucky enough to do that at a relatively young age,” he continues. The stress caused by his fast-paced career as an elite chef led him to abuse alcohol, which is reflected in the plot of The Bear, although Mattheson overcame that problem a decade ago.
Many of the episodes in this season of the series focus on a single character, drawing on the classic structure of the hero’s journey. They show us how, in order to achieve the excellence that they’re pursuing, Carmy draws on his contacts to facilitate a rare opportunity for his team: a move to the epicenter of world gastronomy. That’s something that Matheson himself did not get to experience in real life. Coming from a working-class family, the chef-turned-actor learned the secrets of French cuisine by working in very demanding restaurants, but without leaving his native Canada. The first time he visited Paris, he was in his thirties and had already opened his own restaurants. In contrast, in some of the show’s episodes, young and ambitious chef Sydney tries out Chicago’s best recipes, the endearing master pastry chef Marcus continues to explore his creativity in Copenhagen, the complicated and troubled Richie’s life takes a radical turn in the back room of one of the best restaurants on the planet and the feisty Tina does it at a prestigious cooking school. Meanwhile, the viewer learns more about Carmy and his sister Natalie’s family past.
All these stories feature powerful cameo appearances that attest to The Bear’s enormous impact on the entertainment industry. Jamie Lee Curtis, who recently won an Oscar and is at the height of her career, stands out as a guest star on the show. The actress plays the very dysfunctional mother of the main characters. Other notable guest stars include Bob Odenkirk, in his reappearance after bidding farewell to his character of Saul Goodman in Better Call Saul; Sarah Paulson, Ryan Murphy’s muse in American Horror Story and American Crime Story; British actress Olivia Colman (The Crown, Broadchurch); and Will Poulter (The Chronicles of Narnia, We’re the Millers).
“There’s more to The Bear than chaos. In this series, the silences can be very defining, and that’s something the new episodes continually remind us of,” Matheson says.
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