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    employees working in a restaurant kitchen

    Redeeming the Food Industry

    Despite the chaos and dysfunction, The Bear makes me want to get back in the restaurant kitchen, to make someone’s day every night.

    By Alex Sosler

    November 28, 2023

    In college I worked at a regional pizza place in the Midwest that specialized in “fresh and ready” pizza, and I can assure you they were only sometimes ready and never fresh. Some nights when I managed the shop, we would run out of pizza dough. It’s hard to explain to potential customers that a pizza shop has no pizza. But I never really cared. The worst people could do was yell at me, and I have parents. I’ve been yelled at. These incidents were not life-threatening. I had little stakes in the proverbial game. I felt no responsibility.

    My second experience in “the industry” was at a fine dining restaurant in an uppity northeastern Ohio town during graduate school. In the pizza shop, I split time between the “front of house” and “back of house,” but here, I worked exclusively in the “front of house” as a waiter or bartender. Many of my new colleagues were older and seemed to be lifetime restaurant workers. I didn’t get that; I always viewed these menial jobs as a means to an end. For me, food service seemed like a deadbeat job. But while providing a dining experience (a new concept for me), I became enthralled. I grew to love hosting a good meal. There was something sacred to it.

    Now, living in Asheville, North Carolina, I experience the food industry as a guest. I go to enjoy.

    In my restaurant days, I learned that the food business can be very isolating and infuriatingly dysfunctional, but also incredibly holy. In the television show The Bear, all these aspects of the restaurant industry – the loneliness, the chaos, and the beauty – take center stage. There’s relational breakdown between Carmy and employees. There’s the veiled drug dealing of Richie in the back of the restaurant. Most people seem isolated and alone outside of their work environment. However, in the restaurant, there’s a sense of family and sacrificial love. Among those who feel like they don’t belong, there’s a sense of camaraderie. And despite the ugliness of many of their backgrounds, they can deliver a beautiful (and delicious) product.

    The Bear and Belonging

    For full disclosure, The Bear is the first show that I re-watched immediately after finishing. So, I like it. The storytelling is compelling, the character development is surprising and beautiful without being didactic or wooden, and there’s something that hooked me about the low-grade anxiety that you feel throughout the series interrupted by panic-attack-inducing scenes. Perhaps the most memorable episode, called “Fishes,” in Season Two, features a Christmas family dinner. If you’ve ever been to an Italian family meal, the raucous evening will feel familiar – though (hopefully) the tension and outrageous drama of Carmen’s family is not something you’ve personally experienced.

    Carmen Berzato, affectionally called Carmy throughout the show, leaves home to pursue excellence in cooking. His older brother, Michael, inherited the family restaurant but never let Carmy work there – perhaps to hide Michael’s drug addiction, or maybe so that Carmy wouldn’t get stuck in the same mundane pattern. Regardless, Carmy set out to prove him wrong, to work for his brother’s approval and respect. The greater he strained, the more he produced. He cut out other people, even his family, and he was alone. But the more independent he was, the better a chef he became. He never had to depend on anyone. He heeded the advice from a family member in that chaotic “Fishes” episode: Considering so much dysfunction at home, get out. And he did. His dreams came true: he was great. He worked for the best restaurants in the world and was awarded best new chef and a coveted James Beard award.

    His freedom and dreams all come crashing down when his brother, Michael, struggling with drug addiction, kills himself, and leaves the family restaurant, The Original Beef, to Carmy. The brothers had dreams of doing something great with the place – changing it, modernizing it, elevating it, but now, Carmy is left with a dysfunctional beef sandwich shop strapped with debt.

    employees working in a restaurant kitchen

    Jeremy Allen White in The Bear (2022). Album / Alamy Stock Photo.

    The Original Beef displays all the chaos and stress of a kitchen, but the staff members belong to one another. Unlike Carmy, they’ve been together every day for years. There’s a sense of comradery and togetherness. Sure, they play pranks and give each other hell sometimes, but they do so in the context of care and trust, dependent on one another – like a family. The first season displays a collective group dynamic that isn’t particularly healthy or good, but it’s close. They may not be refined, but they’re together, and they’re trying – through fits and starts – to grow toward health. As the “Fishes” episode reveals, the Berzato family is not healthy. That’s clear. Yet even outsiders find a home within the chaos of this particular family. It prompts the question: What about those outside of the family who are there? Why aren’t they with their own families on Christmas? Is it better to have a dysfunctional family than no family at all? To be together in some turmoil, or separate and alone? I don’t have all the answers, or know where the line lies between belonging in dysfunction and choosing to separate. The show doesn’t answer them either. However, in our isolated age, to riff off G. K. Chesterton, belonging has not been tried and found wanting but found difficult and left untried.

    Chaos erupts in the seventh episode, “Review.” A new change goes wrong, and the already fractured and new group breaks down. Had the kitchen been run with trust and care, they may have handled the crisis. But Carmy’s attempts to reform the habits of the restaurant without care and his demand to perform or get out cause his employees to turn against him. They abandon him. The restaurant implodes. He’s been carrying the stress of managing finances, orders, preparations, cooking, rushes, and clean up alone. And when he needs others, he finds himself alone. The whole series is a commentary on the need to belong and the importance of belonging.

    As I get older, I realize that our culture’s emphasis on meaning, purpose, and success are secondary ends. Sure, I want meaning, purpose, and success as much as the next millennial. However, all those aims are limited without belonging. Meaning, purpose, and success flow from belonging. The words from Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter are modernity’s refrain: “The big idea of education, from first to last, is the idea of a better place. Not a better place where you are, because you want it to be better and have been to school and learned to make it better, but a better place somewhere else. In order to move up, you have got to move on.” Carmy thought he needed to escape to become someone, to make his brother proud, to be successful. He thought somewhere else would be better, and then he would be fulfilled. But he finds his place in coming home. Fulfillment happens on return, in coming home, in belonging. He has been trained for the betterment of his place, not the exploitation of his place for the sake of another place. The first season ends with a communal meal, a grand re-connecting to place and people. Carmy begins to belong, to be dependent.

    In a moment of vulnerability in Season Two, Sydney, the executive chef, shares her deep fears about failing. Carmy responds, “You’re not alone.” “Neither are you,” she assures him. Throughout Season Two, Carmy is waiting for the “other shoe to drop.” He’s lived a chaotic life, and bad things seem to keep happening. Finally, at the hour when he most needs to perform, things go terribly wrong, and the other shoe drops. But this time, he’s upheld by his community.

    The Bear and Beauty

    The second theme, parallel to the power of belonging, is the captivating force of beauty. Carmy receives a broken system and team in The Original Beef. They love one another, but they’re not very good at what they do. It’s chaos. How do you change the chaos of a kitchen? How do you motivate people to make them better?

    Where Season One focuses on the communal dynamics, Season Two become more personal, offering brief glimpses into the lives of individual characters. For example, Marcus, the baker turned pastry chef, started at McDonald’s. He got a vision of what cooking could be when he opened Carmy’s book about NOMA, a world-renowned restaurant in Copenhagen at which Carmy used to work. Marcus prints out the pictures for inspiration. At McDonald’s you don’t get to be creative. You just work with robots, he says, and everything is automatic and fast and easy. Mechanized work creates a mechanized life. Marcus discovers that humane work dignifies humanity. Beauty gives a vision of what baking might be, and Marcus gets hooked. He starts dreaming and creating rather than passing his time doing a job.

    In one opening scene in Season One, Carmy is sitting in an Al-Anon support meeting to grieve the death of his brother. A fellow mourner says you can’t curb the chaos of drinking until thinking, the foundation, the chemistry, changes. In the next scene, Richie, Michael’s best friend, is seen screaming orders in the kitchen, and group arguments break out. The first change that Carmy makes to curb chaos is a change of chemistry, a change of habits. He institutes the French brigade in the kitchen, where each chef is in charge of a particular station. He also refers to everyone as “chef” and enforces a common uniform. He wants to institute a sense of order in a chaotic kitchen, to give each person an important role, and to establish a sense of beauty in a drab and basic kitchen. Richie, affectionately referred to as “Cousin,” doesn’t take these changes seriously. He makes fun of the dignifying changes. It’s not the way things have been. It’s too fancy, too serious. It’s just a job.

    To riff off G. K. Chesterton, belonging has not been tried and found wanting but found difficult and left untried.

    Richie’s character development is one of the most compelling in the show. In Season One, Richie is a joke. All the changes that Carmy institutes, Richie derides. Throughout the show, he’s talentless. He takes orders and calls them out. At one tense moment, Sydney goes on a diatribe about what a loser Richie is. At the beginning of Season Two, when the restaurant is changing quickly (for the better), Richie asks Carmy about his purpose. He has no skills, no personality. The restaurant has outgrown him. Richie is a sad, lonely man who hides his sadness in humor.

    Carmy sends Richie to a Michelin-rated restaurant to learn how to operate a front-of-house team. In fine dining, this apprenticeship is called a “stage.” For the first week, Richie polishes forks. And like the rest of his life, he doesn’t take it seriously. This leads Garrett, under whom he is staging, to confront Richie: “You don’t have to drink the Kool-Aid, Richie. I just need you to respect me. I need you to respect the staff. I need you to respect the diners. And I need you to respect yourself.” Richie decides he can do respect.

    Seeing the way a successful front of house runs, Richie becomes hooked. He sees that “every night, you can make someone’s day.” Being the host and experiencing hospitality are both transformative experiences. Hospitality is more than pragmatic providing or a utilitarian meeting of needs. It’s superabundant – like beauty. And beauty elects Richie and sends him on mission (to reference Dietrich von Hildebrand). He sees the dignifying and alluring power of beauty. He learns to pay attention – to customers, to experience, to food. He finds that there’s dignity in acts of service. And as Garett explains, that’s why restaurants and hospitals use the same word: hospitality. Both industries, at their best, take care of people. Richie begins to take himself seriously, to respect himself, and thus, to lead a life of service. He begins to wear suits rather than T-shirts because it makes him feel better about himself. Richie finds his purpose and meaning in serving others. Beauty compels him to pay attention, and isn’t attention another word for love?

    The Bear and Care

    In 1969, the Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon wrote a sort of cookbook, The Supper of the Lamb. What qualifies a priest to write a cookbook? Capon gives his credentials: He’s an amateur, meaning a lover. The amateur looks the world back to grace. The difference between a person who cooks and a good chef is the presence of a loving eye. He sees chicken and imagines what it could be. The same for the front of the house: he sees how tables and chairs, forks and knives can create a moment of pleasure, as much as a place to eat. Love is present. Like most careers, working in the restaurant industry can be dignifying or humiliating, and often, it’s the latter. There’s a regular hook-up culture, rampant drug use, overall dysfunction, and chaos. But to play on Capon, in the eyes of a lover, food can become a means to the transcendent. Dining can be an experience. A meal can be a means of transfiguration.

    I appreciate how the show makes room for a holy contentedness, as well. There is something good and right about providing a paycheck, too. A Somali immigrant, Ibra, doesn’t like all these changes. He was happy with the way things were. He just wants to make beef sandwiches. And the staff keep him around to do just that. There’s a place for people to show up and do a job without pretension. He still belongs.

    A refrain in the show is that every second counts. This phrase can mean two things. Hurry up, every second counts. And also, every second matters. It’s never too late. Time can be redeemed. Every moment is holy.

    The most captivating element of The Bear is the care the characters show for each other, for the process of cooking, for the dish to be enjoyed. It shows why people stay in the restaurant industry despite poor working conditions, poor pay, and their own dysfunctional life. Many who stay aren’t aimless or talentless. They care deeply. They find joy in doing something well. They’re motivated by affection. It made me want to get back in the kitchen, to tangibly care for the needs of others, to make someone’s day every night. For the time being, my only guests will be family and perhaps a few neighbors who show up. But in a world where the service industry often gets overlooked, neglected, and degraded, The Bear displays a holy vocation, and how good care and a loving eye can be an opening to the sacred.

    Contributed By AlexSosler Alex Sosler

    Alex Sosler is Assistant Professor of Bible and Ministry at Montreat College and Assisting Priest at Redeemer Anglican Church in Asheville, North Carolina.

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