Abe Beame finds solace in the kitchen and on the keyboard.
As food, cooking, and restaurants have evolved in the American consciousness, stories about food and cooking and the restaurant industry have evolved too. We’ve seen progress in cooking shows, travel food shows, cooking competition shows, and food documentaries. But one area I’ve felt the content mill has always lacked in is scripted entertainment.
Chef’s live in an interesting space in the cultural imagination. They are a fun profession to randomly pick for the boyfriend with little screen time in a rom-com. They are prickly, temperamental geniuses with warm and cuddly- if occasionally inaccessible- cores. There are several Netflix films (I’ve watched them all) in which they conquer barriers of culture, class, or common sense to make connections and break emotional barriers through food.
I’ve worked in restaurants and bars between Brooklyn and San Francisco throughout my entire professional life, specifically small, neighborhood businesses like the one featured in this show, and I’ve always been entertained, but frustrated by this work. Movies like the cute Favreau passion project Chef are a great example. I’ll watch sandwich porn, and the challenges presented by a food truck, and an older schlubby guy bedding Scarlett Johansson on loop forever, but when you watch that movie you don’t gain any real insight into what the life or the actual work of cooking professionally is like – it’s a cartoon that had to be drizzled with salted caramel in the writer’s room to be made palatable for a mainstream audience.
Until now, I had kind of given up on the idea that we’d ever get something approaching the real experience. Maybe it was just too odd, the logic too impossible to turn into something digestible as a subject matter. The bosses will simply never let a creator tell a story that really gets you in the head and Crocs of a cook because it’s too strange and fucked up for everyone else to try to understand.
But that all changed with FX’s The Bear, a four-hour triumph that comes closer to anything I’ve ever seen in capturing what the job of cooking is like, and goes well beyond explaining what it all means. It’s delivered and ran by Christopher Storer, a writer/director who is in the midst of an already blindingly bright career. He produced Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, my favorite film of 2018, that I still can’t watch without being reduced to a quaking mess, and Ramy a show starring the comedian Ramy Youssef about an Egyptian Muslim in New Jersey trying to find himself and his soul in a strange, secular country. On the surface there is little connective tissue that explains the projects Storer has had his name attached to, but what emerges when considering his body of work holistically is a slavish devotion to character. To sketching, then coloring fleshed out, complicated, funny and fascinating people locked in relatable struggles, trying to figure out who they are.
As far as I can tell, The Bear succeeds where other kitchen pieces fail because at last, there were the right hands on the plate. This clearly wasn’t a written story that brought in a chef consultant to punch up the script with a few specific nods and details. The story was built from the ground up with food, and the job, in its architecture. Storer has a background in restaurants and made a short documentary about modern American cuisine deity Thomas Keller. Storer’s sister is the chef, Courtney Storer, the Food Director at Jon & Vinny’s in Los Angeles, and she was a hands on consultant on the show. The internet-famous chef Matty Matheson has a bit part, and Hiro Murai is a producer.
It’s a fish out of water story about a chef with a sterling fine dining resume, who comes home to Chicago to revive his brother’s sandwich shop after he kills himself. There is a version of the show that is maudlin and melodramatic, there’s a version of the show that is cuddly and heartwarming, The Bear is neither. It lives in the details, in the restaurant’s menu, in the pain and agony of dish development, in the microscopic daily successes and failures of its characters. It’s a gritty and complicated show that presents these fucked up and very real relationships as they are, as it must, the interest of properly articulating the multitudes this industry contains.
In an age in which much of television reflects the world the writer’s want to live in, rather than the world as it is, The Bear has the courage to show the brutal shorthand, the strange and inappropriate humor, the bizarre logic that dictates the kitchen. It’s a very hot, claustrophobic, pressure-packed environment that isn’t like any other job, and at last we have a show that acknowledges that.
But most importantly, beyond these glossary terms and techniques, what makes The Bear special is its intimate relationship with the people who cook your food. It understands the work – a beast in a perpetual state of eating and shitting. It displays a familiarity that you have to earn over the course of years, a lifetime in kitchens with the literal scars to prove it. The Bear reflects the fundamental truth that we, all of us, in and out of the kitchen, are lost souls, hoping the love our chefs withhold from us like absent Gods will at last fill the bottomless caverns within us. Of course it won’t, but we love the work, even though it will never love us back, and we love each other, and that’s why we keep coming back, and that’s why it’s a great show that immediately becomes the standard bearer for this industry.
The kitchen is a microcosm, a jus, taking life, a loose and random thing composed of many disparate parts, and using heat and time to boil it down to its concentrated, glossy essential nature. The world is in a constant state of disrepair, you’re never prepared for what’s coming and something is always going wrong, and it never stops. The only question that matters is how do you respond, and what’s next? It’s an idea I’ve built most of my life around, outside of the writing I occasionally share with you, but it’s something I’ve never seen articulated clearly until I watched this show. So I hope you will too, particularly before you read this, because it’s full of spoilers, but afterwards, hopefully come back and check out this primer that may help clarify some of the shit you didn’t catch.
Billing- Following the cold open in the pilot, a delivery guy drops off 25 lbs of beef. Original Beef of Chicagoland is behind on paying purveyors and have fucked their credit, a real problem. Depending on the purveyor, a business can get a grace period anywhere from net 7-net 30, or somewhere in between, which just means you have between a week and a month to pay what you owe before the purveyor cuts you off or hits you with COD (cash on delivery). Restaurants operate in an economy of debt, and this is the mess Carmen inherits from his brother.
Blood (or, Cuts)- Carm cuts his finger in the first episode, wraps it with a band aid, and keeps moving. Sydney does the same in a later episode after grabbing a box cutter left with the blade facing out, a double faux pas. She attempts to solve the issue with a glove the blood can pool in. That’s how it is. Getting cut, or burnt, is part of the job, and you have to roll with it. My preferred method is dripping lemon juice on a cut, then dipping it in salt to cauterize the wound, then wrapping the cut tightly in a strip of c fold paper towel, then wrapping that strip extremely tight with painters tape to cut the circulation.
Bone-In- Because of billing issues, Carm has to settle for bone in beef which requires an extra two hours on the braise because meat cooks slower on the bone (but improves flavor, in my opinion), which fucks the yield because of course meat on the bone means non-usable weight. Carm fixes this by cutting the bread shorter and adjusting the portion size. I think people would be surprised how much math a kitchen requires.
Braciole– Humble Italian dish and a love language in Carm’s family, particularly for his brother Mikey, who made it for the family every Sunday. A lot of different ways to go about this, but Mikey’s appears to be salted, thin strips of flank, layered with a slice of prosciutto, parmesan (potentially with provolone, or pecorino as well? I’ve paused it and tried to figure it out a few times but you only get one or two quick glimpses of the process as they make it in the opening flashback of episode 6), parsley, pinenuts, and breadcrumbs (and no raisins). The layered strips are rolled, fastened with wooden skewers, then (presumably) seared, braised in a gravy (marinara) bath, and sliced into coins. It’s also the title of the season finale.
Brigade- The classic hierarchical kitchen system adopted from the French. Carmy brings it in to Original Beef to improve organization, communication, and accountability. The show pushes back on the system using Sydney, who agrees to serve as the good soldier in Carm’s project even as she is decidedly mixed on the efficacy of the ancient model, I tend to agree.
The brigade question speaks to a larger question the show is in conversation with: Now that the old model of how kitchens are run is falling away, how do restaurants continue to meet the impossible demands that are inherent to the industry, and the work? The system is rigid and antiquated and can be abused. But most of the kitchens I’ve ever worked in operated off brigade and were well run. It’s a system that has survived for centuries. My experience has taught me unfortunately, it’s the least worst solution to a very difficult problem.
Bread- Bread is an entire journey on the show. At first Marcus’ rolls are coming out too crumbly, which means the oven is too dry, so Carm fixes the problem with a tray of water on the bottom of the oven, steaming them slightly as they bake. The rolls improve dramatically and it helps begin to build the bond between Carm and Marcus. Eventually, they’ll outsource their bread program, a smart and pragmatic solution that saves on labor and relates a real kitchen truism that if you can buy something better than anything you can make in house, you should.
Carmen- So much to say about Jeremy Allen White’s performance, but the best is he masters this kind of straight ahead, thousand yard stare, exhausted and electro-shocked with far too much caffeine, that you’d recognize in any kitchen lifer. It’s dull, hyper focused and not entirely there. He’s like a shark, he can only move forward and straight ahead, and if he stops, he dies.
Allen White went to a crash course at the Institute of Culinary Education in Pasadena (we used to have the flagship in New York at W. 23rd and Broadway, where I went) and staged (short for stagiaire, an intern essentially), with David Waltuck, a God of New York City fine dining who once ran the iconic Chanterelle in Soho (for my money, the greatest fine dining cookbook ever written).
We meet chefs in the films Boiling Point and Burnt that are tortured geniuses, one a maniac drug addict who literally dies of a heart attack after a rough service, and Bradley Cooper, basically Jerry Maguire in chef whites. From my experience, the CIA dickheads are mostly like Carm, a perfect, blunt instrument/American dumb ass.
Carm has a speech addressing his Al-Anon meeting that is obviously a showstopper, and an instant Emmy reel submission for White, but it also gets to an essential truth that I think is so important to telling the story of this character, this type of character, and this industry. Carm describes himself, I think accurately from what we’ve seen, as a dull, unfunny, inarticulate, petty, insecure, broken person who has issues moving through the world socially, so he made the kitchen his refuge and his identity.
And I will risk coming off as Eric Adams in acknowledging I think, though there are many, many exceptions, that’s right as a rule, which I feel comfortable saying because I include myself very much among those ranks. Cooks are generally strange, moody, ill-adjusted people who do this because they fell into it, because they aren’t well suited for much else, because from the outside, and even from the inside, it’s hard to understand who would choose to do this for a living if there was any other option. My grandfather was an electrician, and my first job was working as his assistant, and in kitchens you spend a lot of time developing relationships with, and working directly with tradespeople like my grandfather. Plumbers, contractors, and electricians. Because there’s always a busted pipe or an issue with the panel. And that’s us.
Culture has attempted to sex up and romanticize the kitchen as some kind of rogue’s gallery of passionate, tortured artists, but generally they’re just craftsman. We have our weird little obsessions, but of the hundreds of cookbooks I own and the tens of thousands of recipes I’ve read in my life, I can recall a handful that were truly original or surprising. It’s an intuitive art, an occam’s razor in which the connections, the pairings are logical and self-evident. Most menus are incredibly derivative, and the ones that aren’t, that strain to be different for the sake of being different, are much worse. The magic is in execution, which is craft. People simply don’t view it like wiring a circuit or installing a grease trap because the results are subjective, but the work is very much the same thing, and I think in getting to know Carm, that’s what we learn. It’s the show’s greatest triumph.
Cartouche- A round parchment paper lid used for braises, to reduce evaporation and keep elements in the pot submerged.
Chef Snacks- It’s a well known cliche at this point that chefs generally eat like shit, particularly at the end of the night. After a long post-shift, scrubbing the kitchen floor on his hands and knees, Carm comes home and devours a peanut butter and jelly on white bread with chips and a Coke.
I have a weakness for chips. There was a time I’d drunkenly end my nights, about once a week, with a small box of jerk chicken I’d devour with kettle chips and a glass of wine on the couch with a replay of the Knicks game I’d missed because I was working.
Chicago Beef Sandwich- The sandwich is one of those legendary post-war staple cuisines of the city. It’s the perfect, humble lunch for a day laborer, hearty and crushable, and the sandwich, and all it demands in production, is a character in the show.
A shot the camera goes back to over and over again is the sides of Angus top round being caramelized in a rondeau. I could watch it in slo-mo, on repeat for hours and never get bored. The sandwich’s protein is a beef….. braise? Wet roast? I don’t know how to exactly define what that technique is, but goes into a hot over with mirepoix, a shallow bath of beef broth, and spices, then is pulled at medium rare and sliced thin. Then the slices are warmed back up and cooked through in the braise/wet roast liquid, (which is strained and reduced to a jus beforehand). Then the beef is slapped on a french bread roll, topped with giardiniera (a Chicago specific spicy pickled veg mix) and potentially some sweet peppers that were in the braise. The bread is dipped in the jus, and the sandwich is wrapped and served.
After watching the show, in preparation for this piece, I went to a slightly scaled down, real life version of the Original Beef of Chicagoland called Dog Day Afternoon, a Brooklyn transplant via Chicago, in Windsor Terrace to try the sandwich over the weekend. The bread soaks and fuses to its jus logged filling in a truly magical way. Imagine a French Dip on steroids. Or a sandwich composed of the bread chunk at the core of a French onion soup. The spike of heat and vinegar from the giardiniera is perhaps the only flavor on earth strong enough to stand up to the aggressively brolic beefiness of the meat, and all the components offset and meld together in perfect harmony.
Cigarettes- A necessary respite for nearly every chef, one of the only things you could get a break for. I never smoked, but was always jealous of my co-workers who got to step out for smokes between turns. Once, I asked a chef if I could go outside for a second for some fresh air along with my fellow cooks. He said no.
Cleaning- It’s an obviously essential aspect of cooking. You have to work clean and you do your best work in clean and orderly environments. I only bring it up because they don’t just clean on this show, they clean “right”. The pads they use, the repurposed small cambro soap buckets, the posture and form as they scrub, the actual combination of kitchen detritus: balled receipts and onions skins being swept into the dust pans. I don’t know how else to explain it, they just clean the way you clean in a kitchen.
Cola Braised Short Rib over Risotto- One of the first season’s best devices is this special Sydney develops over the course of a few episodes. It’s brilliant because it operates like a deconstructed Chicago beef sandwich, sweet and hot. It shows Sydney’s intelligence, the process over days, weeks, and months it can take to hone and fine tune a dish, and Sydney’s greatest flaw, her impatience, as she pushes Carmen to put it on the menu before it’s ready. Then, eventually, it nearly destroys her relationship with Carmen and the restaurant, when she unknowingly hands a free sample to a restaurant critic, and it’s featured in the review.
One of my big nitpicks with the show is after Sydney walks out, Carmen makes amends by reaching out to her and “solving” the dish, saying the final element it was lacking was acid. It makes no sense for several reasons. One, is chefs like Sydney and Carm would never be stupid enough to miss, or at least not immediately realize after tasting that a dish needed a squeeze of lemon. Second, in the review, the critic praises the “ribbon of brine” that laces the shortrib’s sauce, I’d imagine representing the giardiniera. Wouldn’t that constitute as acid? Maybe he means it needs additional acid in the risotto? I’m not sure, and that’s the problem.
DOH- The Department of Health in New York, or the Chicago board of health. A deeply shitty, rotted grifter institutional hell every restaurant has to contend with. It’s like paying the mob for protection only you get nothing for the skim. A great detail is the shop, never cleaner or better organized than at this moment, gets hit with its lowest grade ever, a C, by an inspector who has taken over the route from her deceased partner. The point is the grades you see in the windows of restaurants are entirely dictated by the temperament of the inspector. An asshole inspector could shut down any restaurant in America depending on how hard they want to look and how loosely or exactly they’re interpreting food safety guidelines. A cool inspector could give even the worst run shithole an A, and most do. In New York, this dichotomy plays out explicitly for every place, every year. You get an initial, ungraded walk through from a “bad cop”, they ding you about as hard as they can for whatever they can find without shutting you down. You go to the DOH off Fulton, on Bond, and negotiate down the fines, pay them, then most of the time you get the “real” graded walkthrough, where the “good cop” generally rubber stamps an A. Palms stay greased and the restaurants get to display their good grade. It’s state run extortion folks.
Donuts- Like the Cola braised short rib, this is Marcus’ white whale. It’s a charming pursuit, at first, but ends up costing the restaurant badly when it distracts him from prepping his station for a disastrous service. The donuts speak to a nuanced point about the need for passion in the kitchen, and the ramifications it can have if it goes unchecked. Curious cooks who take ownership over the restaurant and their creative endeavors are the fuel kitchens run on, but it has to be earned, it can’t get in the way of the actual work. For the most part, there simply isn’t time for your people to experiment and learn on the job until they master the work they have, and even then, depending on the kitchen and its demands, they may have to wait for that promotion to get into dish creation. It’s why many chefs I know look forward to a future in which robots can do knife work and cook proteins. They want automatons rather than human beings who become obsessed with nailing yeast risen donuts rather than ensuring their fucking cakes are portioned.
I also want to give a shout out to what might be the show’s best shot. After ripping Marcus a new asshole and breaking him because he was busy with the donuts rather than prepping in the show’s penultimate episode, “Review” (which we will be discussing a lot), Carm bends down, grabs a piece of the destroyed donut he spiked on the kitchen floor, and tastes as chaos is raging around him. He realizes that Marcus finally nailed it, and it helps him understand what a piece of shit he was being.
The Drop- At one point, Sydney melts down after she’s pranked with the onions, decides to refuse all help, and accidentally drops a large cambro of veal stock off the top shelf of the walk-in, spilling the fatted gelatin out on the floor. Marcus, who helped prank her, tells her to just keep going, and sweeps the stock- which constitutes an incredible amount of money in product, time and labor- off the walk in floor, back into the cambro, where it will eventually be reboiled and strained. I wish I could tell you this is a sensationalized and extreme act that would never occur in a real kitchen you may have eaten from in the past week, but I’d be lying to you.
Drugs- For a show that is unsparing, and slavishly devoted to neorealism in the kitchen, drugs are the one aspect they seem wary of. They did a good job picking safe age ranges, the only 20 something who could conceivably be the type to go out and blow lines in a dive bar bathroom after service is prim Sydney, who would never. Mikey was into opiates, and Carmy goes to Al-Anon meetings, but it’s hard to tell if Carm actually has any issues with substances. We never see him drink, but we also never get confirmation if it’s his issue he’s grappling with, or a way to wrestle with his grief over Mikey. When he speaks in a meeting in the last episode, he talks about work, his true addiction. At one point, Carm flips out on Richie for selling drugs out of the shop, but most restaurants I’ve ever worked in had a plug, and were full of recreational drug users, if not full blown addicts, so the histrionics felt a touch off.
However, seemingly everyone on this show is on anxiety meds. This was before my time. We medicated like healthy and normal people, with weed and alcohol, but it feels right for a more in touch, healthier generation, and makes sense for the job. I’m sure these days that’s how it is.
Ebrahim- The Muslim Somalian chef de partie. One of my only critiques is there should’ve been a scene or at least a shot where Ebrahim prays in the back of the kitchen on broken down produce boxes. A commonplace sight in any kitchen.
Ecto-Cooler- At one point, as part of a catering job for Uncle Jimmy, Carmy makes homemade Ecto-Coolers for a kids party. This is may be the best articulation of the modern hipster chef and their dumb/delicious high brow/low brow nostalgia cuisine we see in the show.
Fak- A good in-joke, Vice chef/personality Matty Matheson plays the handyman around the shop. It’s a bit part, but I’d love to ask Chris Storer how they made this work. His availability for the show confused me because he also tends to an empire of Toronto restaurants that span cuisines and cultures. Just unclear what his shooting schedule was like and what the show had to do to accommodate him. As he’s spent considerable time on camera as a celebrity chef, Matheson is unsurprisingly a great actor, does a lot with a little in his comic relief role and I could watch just playing a friend in a romantic comedy or a weed guy, or something.
In the context of the show, not many places have the luxury of a guy like Fak, who gets his labor paid in sandwiches, but if you have a cheap and readily available handyman, it’s solid gold for a small business, invaluable for a space where there’s always a busted door handle to replace or a table to fix.
Family- Sydney makes family on her first day, the meal the kitchen makes for staff. Carmy asks for meat plus three: a protein with three sides. Sydney makes a stew, rice, plantains, and a fennel salad. They do this thanks giving thing during the family in the first episode that felt forced and corny. I’ve never seen that.
Gary- The dishwasher, weirdo, possibly ex Chicago Cub? He’s extremely protective of his station, like any good dish.
Gentrification- It’s tackled in the show, not just in terms of what’s happening in the restaurant and the neighborhood. There’s an argument to be made that even though it’s one brother taking over for another, in tandem with a young woman of color as his Lieutenant, what happens to Original Beef is a white savior story about European colonialism being forced on humble peasant food.
As Richie says, “This is a delicate ecosystem, and it’s held together by history, and love, and respect”, and it’s a valid argument. Carm’s sandwiches taste better than Michael’s, but what is lost in the exchange? In the formality and professionalism he forces on Original Beef, is he trading its soul? This is all poetic and highfalutin that could be the nonsensical sputtering of an old person whose lived through generations of cultural neighborhood decay, both in the makeup of the people and the restaurants and bars that disappear on the road to affluence, but it’s a question the show at least appears interested in considering.
The pay off for the show, and the lead in to season two is aided by the money Michael stashed from the Uncle Jimmy loan, Carmy is going to close the casual sandwich shop and open a sit down family style restaurant (with a sandwich window on the side). In terms of plot, this is going to be a fascinating development rich with storylines. In terms of the neighborhood impact on guys like Richie, probably less great.
Heard- Every single review I’ve read has pointed this out, but the call outs (“Behind”, “Corner”, reminders of the clock ticking down to open, pars on the line) and acknowledgments are a big deal. You have to work blind in a kitchen, and often without hands, in tight confines with people occupied with hot and sharp things, so this type of sonar is invaluable.
Housekeeping- Not familiar with this particular call, which Carmy explains means keeping your station clean and tidy. It’s probably common if they’re using it and explaining it here. Also, every kitchen has weird little calls, shorthand, tics, and nicknames for dishes that make it unique. No two kitchens are exactly alike.
James Beard Award- A circle jerk, self congratulatory annual industry party where a board of randos dreams up insane and impossible prizes like “Best Bar Program in the Northeast in 2021”. Just completely asinine. I’d refer you to my conversation with the great Alicia Kennedy if you want to read someone smarter than I am eviscerate the enterprise. I understand the writers needed to do something to establish Carm’s bonafides as a “serious” fine dining chef, but it’s a meaningless distinction and I’m disappointed a “real” kitchen show resorted to it.
Jimmy- A great meta joke made in casting is Uncle Jimmy, Carm’s slimy uncle (and probable main season 2 antagonist) is played by Oliver Platt, the brother of recently retired, longtime New York Mag restaurant critic, Adam Platt.
Thomas Keller- French Laundry and Thomas Keller’s eccentricities run though the show, which is ironic because he was a consultant on what might have just been downgraded to the second greatest piece of fictional TV or film ever made about the kitchen, Ratatouille. One of Keller’s signatures is every person in the kitchen refers to each other as chef, a sign of respect and an expectation of professionalism. As I mentioned, he was also the subject of a short documentary by Storer, so he was almost certainly involved in this.
Kitchen Spanish- With Tina, Sydney speaks the shitty gringo Spanish every non-Spanish speaking cook has to learn to survive. It’s mainly a utilitarian collection of kitchen nouns and incorrectly conjugated verbs, and profanity, needed exclusively for insulting your co-worker and their mother.
Knives- Knives are sacred in a kitchen. Carmen has a proper knife roll with what looks like carbon steel Japanese knives. He used to cook in New York, so he almost certainly got his from Korin, the Mecca of chef knives in New York. A chef’s knives have to be kept sharp enough to slice through a swath of printer paper like butter, with a gleaming mirror finish courtesy of a whetstone. Carm has a breaking point when he finds his knife carelessly discarded on the floor, an absolutely shattering experience for any serious cook.
Labels- In kitchens, labels are made with a sharpie and painters tape. I believe this practice started with Keller, or at least my awareness of it links back to him, but Keller insisted rather than tearing the tape off to create a label, you trim it with a knife or scissors to create a perfect rectangle. I get the idea of making everything precise and putting thought into every movement, as well as setting an orderly and organized environment, but it’s still an obnoxious affectation, classic “chef bullshit”, and kind of a lie.
Marcus- My favorite character through the first six episodes (Lionel Boyce, who has collaborated with Tyler The Creator, apparently). There are times he’s too good to be true and a bit of wish fulfillment on the part of the writers room. In a situation like Carmen’s, Marcus is the platonic ideal, a pastry cook who came from McDonald’s and wants to learn and grow in his profession. He posts copied pictures from Carmy’s cookbooks around his station and loves the discovery and problem solving of dish creation. What ultimately makes him flesh, as discussed in the Donuts entry, is the show turns Marcus’ passion into a flaw, a very real and brilliantly articulated issue in the kitchen.
The Menu- Been trying to figure this out. Here’s a list of the items on order during the show: Chicago beef, chicken pepper, sausage pepper, mortadella, roast chicken, Greek salad, they sell ravioli and spaghetti, and at one point, hot dogs. Many critics have pointed out the similarities between the Original Beef of Chicagoland in the show, and Mr. Beef on Orleans. The mortadella seems to be a supersized equivalent of our Italian combo. The model is weird. It’s a little different from the Italian delis in New York and in Philly. The menu is more focused and limited at Mr. Beef, so I’m thinking that’s indicative of Italian Chicago Deli as a genre. If you want to do your own research, aside from the aforementioned Dog Day Afternoon, the closest corollary in New York is probably Ferdinando’s, or Defonte’s, both in Red Hook, but neither quite as strange and specific as this.
Mixer- When we meet Marcus his stand mixer is fucked, which means he has to mix and knead the house bread by hand. Kitchens and the equipment in them are always in various stages of disrepair, and you have to make due until you have the time and resources (be it financial or an actual, say, oven guy, who knows what he’s doing) to replace an expensive part or repair the spark on a pilot light.
The mixer, and Marcus not focusing on the task at hand, will eventually lead to the entire electrical panel, and the walk-in condenser at Original Beef, shorting out.
New York- Carmy was a CDC (chef de cuisine, basically the boots on the ground general in any conflict in the army) at the best restaurant in America. It was in New York, so they’re most likely referring to Eleven Madison Park pre-pandemic, when it was still good (Ritchie references it at one point as a pejorative for Carm’s pretentiousness). Because of the Keller influence, it could also be Per Se, a seriously price gouged export of his French Laundry in Napa that lives at the top of a shopping mall in Columbus Circle.
Carm’s flashback is practically a nightmare, and Joel McHale is probably my favorite cameo, which is saying a lot for a show that borrows Jon Bernthal for a single scene, as a miserable, withering prick. He’s tall and angular, the dark frames, the manicured beard, he’s imposing, direct, cruel and autistic. Note fucking perfect for this type of chef. He fires a cook for breaking a sauce like tossing a discarded gum wrapper on the floor. The wide shot of the kitchen is something out of Lanthimos, a pristine, Kafkaesque hellscape. The responses to the call in unison are expressions of the kitchen’s absolute discipline and hive mind, it’s pure horror. McHale indulges in a bit of rank pulling torture, flaying Carm for hiring the sauce breaking cook and lobs gernade after gernade, breaking him down as a chef and human being, getting as personal and inappropriate as possible, while deliberately trying to fuck his count on expo. I’ve worked for guys like this, and they nail him to the wall. It’s Zero Dark Thirty, it’s Clockwork Orange, it’s incredible.
What’s fascinating as the show goes on is seeing echoes in how Carmy treats Sydney, and subsequently, how Sydney begins treating the staff under her charge. You can see Carmen attempting a more humane and equitable model of operation, but unfortunately, the shit rolls downhill, and the system that was ingrained in Carmy can be as difficult to unlearn, if not much more difficult, than the shitty system the staff at the Original Beef got used to.
Nightmares- Literal Kitchen nightmares are a running device throughout the show. It opens with Carm being mauled by a bear, which, you know, maybe a touch on the nose. In the second episode, Carm has a nightmare where he’s buried in tickets, going down in flames with the printer taking on the properties of a Steven King monster, and in the finale we open with a surrealist, Lynchian, smile as a scream cooking show.
My thing was always paranoia. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and swear I forgot to shut off the oven or the deep fryer or something. Always did, but always was sure I had fucked something up.
Noma- Referred to as a shorthand for Carms fine dining rigidity. It was more of a touchstone of fine dining last decade, and has kind of calcified into how it’s used in the show, as a straw man, out of touch Portlandia styled bit of satire. I’ll be honest, I hate all that Nordic hay smoked delicate shit, even when it was popular here, and it seems like a lot of American chefs have come to the same conclusion. However, we get a bit of character building for Marcus in the first episode when we see him open the book, sparking his intellectual curiosity. However you feel about the aesthetic, as a text, it’s a book full of incredible ideas in terms of both flavor and technique.
Notebooks- When you work in food, dishes come from weird places. You’re catching up with your sister, who’s making dinner, and suddenly you remember lemon chicken piccata. We watch Sydney, Marcus and Carmy taking notes throughout the show, figuring out dishes and jams, making edits and adjusting recipes as they occur. Now we all walk around with notebooks in our pockets, but there was a time you could tell a good cook from a hack based on whether or not they had a marble composition book on them at all times.
Ordering- Carmy begins biting off more than he can chew. He gets Kewpie Mayo, and as Sydney points out, is spending too much on high end farmers market produce. It’s a natural inclination, to impose your will on your environment immediately, but it’s a bad approach. From experience, the best way to enact regime change is to come in first, and let the system run as designed, learn the in and outs before remapping the world. One of the ingenious touches the writers weave in is along with Carmy, we learn some of the pragmatism the business demands, the points Carmy has to compromise on.
Portioning- “Smaller fry scoops today chef”- Carmen. Just one of those little things you need to think about in a kitchen, stretching the fries and recognizing one of your cooks has a heavy hand portioning fries per plate. I’m just stunned someone actually fucking wrote that line of dialogue.
Pranks- Tina has a bit where she pretends not to speak English, Sydney’s disappearing onions, Tina turning the reducing veal stock up to a boil, it’s all on point. With the close quarters, high stress, and clashing personalities of the kitchen, pranks are definitely a thing, and these little hateful, deranged acts of sabotage are par for the course.
The name of the video game in the restaurant is a fictional European fighting game called Ballbusters, but that’s also the only way the cooks know how to relate to and treat each other. It’s the language of the kitchen. Jokes like when Carmy levels with Sydney about attending an Al-Anon meeting on Michael’s birthday, then Sydney pretends he’s crossed a boundary, then both share a laugh over it, are perfect, exactly on that line of fucking with you and loving you that is probably impossible to understand from the outside. It’s a very standard sort of fucked up but also funny joke between strangers who have been forced to make fast friends.
The Printer- A percussive instrument, a forever chittering cicada the show weaponizes, particularly in its taught, masterful penultimate episode. It’s the sound of another order coming in, yet another addition to an already long running list in your head of shit you have to get done as quickly as humanly possible. It’s the weight of work, a constant reminder of the impossibility of the job.
The sound design of the show is generally excellent. The phone, the buzzer, the bells, the calls, these noises that connote urgency and demand attention are all like creaking hinges and floorboards in horror films. At the end of “Review”, after the printer has been destroyed and we fade to black and the music dies and the credits roll, the disembodied printer keeps spewing out orders, ceaselessly, into eternity.
Review- The name of episode 7, which is so good, and so complicated, I had to cheat and dedicate a unique entry to it.
I can’t stress this enough if you’ve never experienced a service like this and think anything is even being remotely heightened or dramatized, this a fucking masterpiece. A 20 minute pressure cooker that gives me heart palpitations, even on a rewatch. I need to give this some time to marinate for fear of recency bias, but it might be my single favorite episode of television. Ever. It’s great writing, and incredible filmmaking, because it really could just serve as a standalone short film that does a better job explaining how completely fucked and claustrophobic and miserable it can be going down in flames and eating pure shit like that, a very unique experience that I couldn’t have explained before and can’t really explain now beyond asking someone to just sit down and watch this episode.
What’s incredible about it, or deeply troubling about me as a person, is there was a draft of this piece in which I broke down the tape of what happens here, minute by minute, in an effort to go to bat for Carmen and make the argument that it was actually Sydney that was out of pocket. But then I took a beat after finishing the series a second time, and walked around my apartment a little, and realized that I was justifying an adult experiencing a full scale, five alarm meltdown, and taking it out on all the people around him, because a bunch of orders came in to his shitty little midwest sandwich shop at the same time, and he wasn’t prepared for it.
And it’s why I’m either the best or worst possible person to write this piece, because I’m so indoctrinated into this extraordinarily fucked culture, and I so fully understand the stakes of that service, and what they meant to Carmen, that even several years removed from the job, I was too close to see how deranged and wrong it is to react that way to being busy.
Richie- A Polish degenerate asshole. Feels like the most Chicago specific character. He’s the equivalent of front of house, the face, the ballbuster, the phone, the cashier, the host, security, the co-handyman, the cultural liaison, the consigliere, the shit stirrer. He wears a lot of hats.
You could also see Richie as a dying vestige of the old kitchen culture. He uses misogynistic language, he’s crass and profane, emotional and wildly inappropriate, either when angry or just trading in locker room banter with the cooks. He *still* plays grab ass with Fak, an old, time honored tradition in the kitchens of yesteryear I always thought was lame bro shit. He’s clearly a man out of time, clutching to the tired old traditions, and seems to know it. It’s a great, unhinged performance from Ebon Moss-Bachrach, who along with his part in Girls, seems to be his specialty.
San Marzanos- Tinned tomatoes that come in all different consistencies. Mikey had been buying 28 Oz cans rather than the 102 Oz that would make better financial sense in bulk, and Carmy can’t understand why. It seems to be indicative of Mikey’s adherence to old school, disorganized and chaotic operation that Carm is trying to solve. But instead, it’s a hiding place, where his older brother has stashed Mikey’s inheritance, and where he finally finds a measure of closure and relief.
Spaghetti- The first real fight between Carmy and Richie is over this dish, along the lines of ordering, it’s a comfort food dish and staple of the menu Carm dislikes because “it doesn’t make sense… it’s an under seasoned, over sauced mess that took seven hours to prep….. it’s gluey, messy, bullshit” and immediately removes with a lack of consideration for what the restaurant, the menu, the people who execute it, and the customers really want. At the end of the pilot, after Ritchie insists he makes spaghetti, Carm is on the verge of making it, and compromising, but stops, and tosses a 28 Oz can of tomatoes, and unbeknownst to Carm, thousands of dollars, in the trash.
Mikey’s suicide note to Carm is a recipe for the spaghetti. In making it, Carm is making peace with his brother, and the sandwich shop, and can finally move on, to open a restaurant with the capital Mikey has stashed for him. A perfectly written device.
Courtney Storer- Creator/Director Chris’ sister and a restaurant lifer. She worked at Verjus in Paris. She worked at Animal in L.A., and was the opening CDC, and now the culinary director at the Joint Venture restaurant group’s sister property, Jon & Vinny’s.
Sydney- The sous chef and quasi audience surrogate, played brilliantly by Ayo Edebiri, has done tours of duty in great fine dining Chicago restaurants: Alinea, Smoque, and Avec. She went to CIA like Carmy- what was once the Harvard of culinary schools in Hyde Park, New York- that’s now just another scam to bilk kids, casuals and career changers out of their bread (all culinary schools are scams). Sydney paid her way through culinary by driving for UPS, an immediately endearing trait because it means she’s not a preening primadonna.
Sydney faces a classic kitchen dilemma. She wants to find a better way to run a kitchen and do the job, but is unsure how that’s going to work, as we all are. It would be easy to have made Sydney a “perfect” character, but she’s far from it. She’s a perfectionist and a fuck up, she’s impatient and emotional, she can be cruel, she’s awkward, and that’s why I love her, and this show.
Systems- The first few episodes of the show are about breaking an old, chaotic system and instilling something more organized and efficient (the first episode is titled “System”). It’s brilliant, and one of the most difficult aspects of inheriting a kitchen. People are creatures of habit, and this is never more true than in a kitchen, where it’s easy to get rigid and stuck in your ways. Things like the order of operations when it comes to a prep cook’s routine (Ebrahim: “beef, then potatoes, then onions….. don’t mess up our system”) or using a rondeau that a line cook uses religiously for something on her station, might sound like an easy enough schedule to alter, but it absolutely isn’t. Allen White is great at the chef’s nod. He listens to each person’s laundry list of small grievances, even while Carm must consider the whole, but must smile and nod and not just listen, but make his people feel heard and understood (two very different things people process very differently), while also getting across that they have to adjust to the demands of each unique service and each random day, and make it happen.
Tina- The garde manger, initially resistant to Carm and Sydney’s efforts to instill a new system, and eventually comes on board. I found Tina’s arc the most realistic. Her turning point is nailing a batch of mashed potatoes. She follows her instincts, listens to Sydney’s instructions, and wins her approval. A slight nitpick is a cook like Tina scalding her cream, and melting down would never happen, and the magical herb bundle in cream Sydney has waiting is equally unlikely, but in broad strokes, this is usually how it works in a kitchen under a good chef. It’s not always a dramatic production, but in being able to see real results from the system working, having those little victories along the way, and having a patient, capable instructor who cares more about quality of product than petty personal bullshit, that’s how change and education happens. Every actor on this show is incredible, but even among great performances, Liza Colon-Zayas stands out.