Yon the back of the house at the Original Beef of Chicagoland, things are tense. Space is limited. Money is low. Bills are literally piling up. There aren’t enough pots and knives to go around. The mixer doesn’t work. The meat supplier didn’t deliver enough beef.
This is the world of The Bear, the widely talked about US TV show that premiered this summer, which finally comes to the UK on 5 October on Disney+. Now UK audiences can follow the trials and tribulations of Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, a successful yet troubled young chef who, after the sudden death of his brother de ella, returns home to Chicago to run his family’s struggling sandwich shop.
The great appeal of The Bear is that it purports to give viewers an inside look into a restaurant kitchen. Even though it’s been 20 years since Anthony Bourdain published Kitchen Confidential and revealed the secrets of restaurants – that chef’s specials are usually made from yesterday’s leftovers and hollandaise is a breeding ground for salmonella – the appetite to know what goes on behind the kitchen doors remains.
In the show, Carmy and his crew, a collection of idiosyncratic personalities, are trapped in a tiny space together, working against the clock to get everything together by opening time and frequently taking out their frustrations on one another.
“It’s an accurate representation of a kitchen,” says Sarah Mispagel, a Chicago baker who made most of the breads, cakes and donuts that appear on the show and who speaks for many chefs. “Yes, it’s embellished, but it’s a TV show. We all aspire to work in fair kitchens with paid sick days and vacations, but a show that had all that wouldn’t be very exciting.”
The Bear has had a big impact on real Chicago eateries. One of this season’s minor arcs is the quest of Marcus, an aspiring pastry chef, to create a perfect chocolate cake. (The Bear’s creators were inspired by the cake at Portillo’s, a popular local fast-food chain.) When Mispagel and her husband, Ben Lustbader, opened their own cafe, Loaf Lounge, on Chicago’s north-west side in August, they included the cake Mispagel made for the show, identified on the menu as “The Bear Chocolate Cake”. They now sell 400 slices a week and frequently run out.
“It’s been great,” she says. “We don’t have very deep pockets. The Bear has been my PR person.”
The Bear has helped other restaurants, too. The Original Beef of Chicagoland specializes in Italian beef, a signature Chicago sandwich that consists of seasoned roast beef sliced thin and piled on a chewy roll. It’s often topped with sweet peppers or a spicy vegetable relish called giardiniera, or both, and many Chicagoans prefer it “wet”, or au jus. Since the American premiere of The Bear, sales of Italian beef have jumped not just in Chicago, but across the country.
But some Chicagoans, always sensitive to any hint of coastal condescension from Hollywood, are not pleased at the way the city is portrayed on-screen. The Bear is mostly set in the River North neighborhood – scenes were shot at Mr Beef, an actual beef stand in the area – which is depicted as gritty and ungentrified without much in the way of restaurants, the sort of neighborhood where someone can shoot a gun in the air, as a character does in the first episode, without drawing any attention from the police.
“[The show] flattens the city of Chicago and its contributions to the food scene in a way I don’t think accurately represents the neighborhood or city on the whole,” says Ali Barthwell, a Chicagoan and writer for Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. The real-life River North, Barthwell explains, is an affluent area near the city’s central business district, filled with restaurants – some with Michelin stars – and hotels that cater to tourists, and there’s a heavy police presence. “To insinuate that people in this neighborhood specifically have not seen braised short ribs and polenta feels really inaccurate.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism