SF chefs say depictions of abusive kitchens in ‘The Bear’

If you’ve ever prepped onions and veg in the wee hours of the morning for the day’s lunch rush, if you’ve ever been yelled at by the dishwasher for not peeling the labels off the cambros before they hit the sinks, if you’ve ever dropped a tray full of freshly baked cookies in front of customers and the business owner on your first day, then FX/Hulu’s buzzy new show, “The Bear,” will slap you right back into the thick of those suppressed memories. 

“The Bear” depicts a young chef, with an extensive fine dining background, who abruptly returns home to Chicago to run his family’s sandwich shop following the tragic death of someone close to him. It’s a show filled with all the thorny, relatable moments most back-of-the-house staff experience and it’s a refreshingly honest depiction of what goes on behind the scenes to bring customers their favorite sandwich or blue plate special. 

I speak from experience as someone who toiled as a cook and dishwasher at small, independently run eateries — with questionable ethics and paperthin budgets — in Sacramento. Needless to say, not all of my experiences as a woman of color working in the restaurant industry were ones that I was ready to revisit. Yet, I binged the entire show in two days.

For Bay Area chefs, “The Bear” brought up feelings of anxiety, so much so that many admitted to turning the show off and walking away. (Variety calls it “one of the most stressful shows,” while the Atlantic said it was “the antithesis of comfort TV.”) At the same time, they’d find themselves returning to find out whether or not its leading character, Carmy, played by Jeremy Allen White (“Shameless”), could truly turn the beloved Chicago sandwich shop with its hard-knock kitchen crew around. 

The outside of Kristin Houk’s restaurant, Tato, in the Bayview neighborhood.

Ed. U./Yelp

After watching the first episode, chef-owner of All Good Pizza, Cafe Alma and Tato, Kristin Houk, said the patriarchal elements of the show’s kitchen were all too familiar.

“I think that they’ve captured the chaos of a kitchen, for sure,” Houk said. “Just the intense, intense pressure, and for me, as a woman, I always felt there was a lot of sexism in the kitchen as well, and a lot of really shitty behavior, quite frankly.”

As a third-generation chef, Jarad Gallagher, who’s worked in Michelin-starred kitchens such as Chez TJ, and owns a barbecue joint in San Juan Bautista called the Smoke Point, found the show’s gritty depiction of the small Chicago eatery refreshing. 

“It had a really good, realistic look into how these aren’t all lavish facilities,” Gallagher said. “It was enjoyable seeing that Carmy kind of became the way he is because of a collection of his experiences. And they’re not all good. He deals with all of the hardships that any business owner has to, and then he has to be a chef.”

Chef Jarad Gallagher is the executive chef of Broma in Mountain View and also the owner of the Smoke Point in San Juan Bautista. 

Chef Jarad Gallagher is the executive chef of Broma in Mountain View and also the owner of the Smoke Point in San Juan Bautista. 

Courtesy of Alejandro Velarde

For Gallagher, who now is the executive chef at Iberian-Spanish restaurant, Broma, in Mountain View, the pressures on display in every episode of “The Bear” remind him of all the tense moments he’s experienced throughout his career cooking across six continents and throughout the country, including in Chicago.


“It has also really exposed some of the negative. So when the chef was standing next to [Carmy] in the French Laundry, where he was just telling him basically that he’s worthless — that happens,” Gallagher said. “It’s happened to me in Europe. It’s happened to me in New York, Chicago, and here. It was a little overdone. But it happens.”

As far as the accuracy of how the show’s Chicago-based kitchen known for its sliced, dipped-beef sandwiches was portrayed, chef-owner of Nightbird Kim Alter said she was pleasantly surprised at its efforts to get it right.  

“I felt like they must’ve had a really good consultant, or the person who wrote was in this business because, I would say, 98% of shows that I watch are ridiculous,” Alter said. She pointed to details that “The Bear” got right — including the cutting of the tape used to make labels for food prep, and the dishwasher as an indication of how the show captured “all the things that this industry is.” 

Chef-owner of Nightbird, Kim Alter, in the kitchen.

Chef-owner of Nightbird, Kim Alter, in the kitchen.

Courtesy of Adahlia Cole

“It felt a little exaggerated in some parts, based on how I am in my kitchen and how I’ve been in other kitchens,” she continued, “but for the most part, it’s pretty dead on.”

Alter said she’s worked with every type of person portrayed in “The Bear,” whether it was during her early days as a commis or when she rose to the title of executive chef. Characters such as the ambitious leading sous chef, Sydney, to the hothead Ritchie, who has deep ties to the family restaurant — Alter has cooked with them all. 

Actor Jeremy Allen White plays Carmen "Carmy" Berzatto in the hit FX series "The Bear."

Actor Jeremy Allen White plays Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto in the hit FX series “The Bear.”

FX

Throughout the show, lead character Carmy endures vivid flashbacks that thrust him head-first into the high-pressure situations of his Michelin-star kitchen days. For Alter, those scenes, in particular, were highly relatable as someone who’s worked in some of the most successful restaurants in the Bay Area, including Manrese, Ubuntu, Aqua and Acquerello. 

“All I ever was in growing up was very militant, disciplined kitchens and I personally like that,” Alter said. “I think it gives you consistency and it builds a better cook. I don’t agree with how I’ve been treated my entire career. I don’t treat people the way that I was treated. But, the discipline of a Michelin-star kitchen where you’re cutting your tape and everyone’s ‘chef’ and you’re just working hard, it leads to a better product, so that part [of the show] didn’t give me anxiety.”

Kim Alter of Nightbird making sure tickets are all accounted during dinner service. 

Kim Alter of Nightbird making sure tickets are all accounted during dinner service. 

Courtesy of Adahlia Cole

What did stick out to Alter in the show was stressful moments, such as when the restaurant’s toilet breaks and there’s no choice but to open, or when the power goes out adding to the day-to-day challenges. 

“As a chef, cooking is the easy part. It’s the dealing with the personalities, it’s the dealing with your toilet breaking, your power going out at 7 o’clock, like all of those things are never really portrayed because it’s a little bit more romantic in movies, or TV,” Alter said. “That’s the reality of it. Consistently, everyday, it’s something and that’s very relatable to me. Literally, every week my power goes out, or a customer flips out, or I get extorted by Google. So it’s relatable in that sense.”

For chef-owner Adam Rosenblum of Red Window, Causwells and Little Red Window, the anxiety felt in the silence during Carmy’s Michelin-star flashbacks reminded him why that path as a chef just wasn’t for him.

“Each episode that I’ve seen, there’s been a little piece that has hit home,” Rosenblum said. “All my friends went the fine dining route. They were the ones getting berated and yelled at and told that they were a piece of garbage. That just has zero appeal to me. I wanted to make really good food. But I knew from early on that I just wouldn’t thrive in that kind of environment.”

However, there was one instance in “The Bear” that Rosenblum said was completely inaccurate.

“When the full 22 [quart] of veal stock was on the top shelf, I was like, no one in their right mind would do that,” he said. “A, no one would have taken the effort to lift something that heavy onto the top shelf when there’s plenty of room elsewhere. And B, you know how that’s going to end.”

Chef Adam Rosenblum is the chef-owner of Red Window, Causwells and Little Red Window in San Francisco.

Chef Adam Rosenblum is the chef-owner of Red Window, Causwells and Little Red Window in San Francisco.

Courtesy of Stephanie Amberg

Rosenblum said being a good leader for his restaurant family, who are sometimes the folks he sees more than his own wife and kids, is high on his list of priorities. The show’s hard look into drug and alcohol abuse, for example, was a reminder of how some chefs and their kitchen crew deal with the stresses of the job.

“It’s pretty noticeable when people are abusing. Obviously, at work, we have a zero drug policy. But then, it’s more than that,” he said. “When we’re seeing someone struggling, it’s about talking to them and figuring out how we can support them.”

Across all of his restaurants in San Francisco, Rosenblum says the challenges seem never ending, but that doesn’t stop the order tickets from pouring in. At the end of the day, there are a lot of things that keep him in this fast-paced, high-stress environment and the food is just one aspect.

Actor Ayo Edebiri plays sous chef Sydney Adamu in the FX series "The Bear."

Actor Ayo Edebiri plays sous chef Sydney Adamu in the FX series “The Bear.”

FX

“There’s a lot of things that keep me in this ridiculous industry. It is so silly, especially now with all of the labor issues that we’re having, it’s even sillier,” he said. “We’re all stretched even thinner and costs are going up and margins are going down. It is the wrong time to be in the restaurant business — but it’s also a great time. I think it’s always going to be like that. There’s always going to be something that brings us down and then there’s going to be all of these positive things that remind us of why we do what we do.”

With high profile instances of accused sexual harassment from East Coast restauranteur Mario Batali, whose trial began in May, to  the alleged hostile and abusive work environment created by celebrity chef-owner, Michael Chiarello, of the San Francisco tapas bar Coqueta, the industry is already working to address the issues of problematic behavior seen on “The Bear.” 

To combat toxic behavior across her restaurants, Houk told SFGATE that she first and foremost hires women. All Good Pizza, for example, is her all women-led restaurant in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. Houk is also the head chef-owner of Tato, and her third restaurant, Cafe Alma, is also helmed by a woman. 

She also conducts extensive training with everyone on staff when they join, which includes equality and kitchen safety courses to ensure everyone knows they have a voice. 

“Nothing is ever going to be tolerated related to sexism or racism or any kind of bullshit like that.” Houk said. “To be quite frank with you, if I ever saw that in my kitchen, I would immediately get rid of the people. But I feel like I’m a pretty good gauge of that when I’m hiring people, so I don’t really ever fill my kitchens with that type of machismo attitude.”