Fictional chef Carmy Berzatto is haunted by memories of a former boss who whispered taunts in his ear as he tried to plate orders at one of New York’s top restaurants. “You’re terrible at this,” said the boss. “You should be dead.”
Those scenes are “chillingly accurate,” said Matthew Oetting, chef and owner of Marta Fine Food and Spirits. Oetting also worked in New York City for many reputable chefs and recalled some who were eager to cut underlings down to size, making employees feel “one foot tall” in the name of chasing perfection. “I’ve had chefs come to me and say, ‘Are you not good enough to do this job?’”
Now in its second season, FX’s “The Bear” has earned critical acclaim — and 13 Emmy nominations — for its depiction of life in a Chicago restaurant. It’s also won the appreciation of Baltimore chefs who say it captures the essence of kitchen life with rare accuracy.
“It’s as real as can be,” said Nancy Longo, whose career included a stint working under Anthony Bourdain when he was in the kitchen of Baltimore’s Gianni’s in the 1980s. “We busted our butts for him,” Longo recalled of the late chef and “Kitchen Confidential” author.
In scenes that might have inspired their way into the first season of “The Bear,” Longo recalled “plates of food flying” as well as drugs being passed around like “candy” at Gianni’s. “I had never in my entire life seen as many drugs flow through a restaurant as I did in those days,” she said.
The show’s first season introduces viewers to Carmy, played by Jeremy Allen White, who takes over The Original Beef of Chicagoland, a casual restaurant previously run by his brother, Mikey, a drug addict who died by suicide. The second season, released late last month on Hulu, dives deeper into the Berzatto family’s trauma, with an alcoholic mother played by Jamie Lee Curtis.
That all rings true to Longo, who said substance abuse and mental health problems have long been commonplace in professional kitchens. “You will find a lot of people who ended up in this business who come from home lives that are also not great,” she said. At the same time, many cooks, like the ones depicted in the show, come to think of coworkers as “family for a lifetime.”
Longo connects with Carmy’s dedication to the eatery, even at the expense of his personal life. “A restaurant becomes an attachment, like an appendage,” she said. “People that I dated — a lot of people do not want to deal with this lifestyle. That is why the restaurant industry is in serious trouble right now,” she noted, comparing the life of a chef to “going to the convent or going to prison. You ain’t got time for this other stuff.”
Efforts by Carmy and his staff to open a new concept with Michelin-star aspirations in the latest season felt familiar to Oetting, who launched Marta last year. Within the first few episodes, Oetting said he identified with the protagonists’ battles to keep opening costs on track during the restaurant’s renovation. “You could write the best budget, it always gets blown out of the water,” he said.
But Oetting has struggled to finish the second season: “I have trouble watching it if I’ve just come off work. It’s literally like watching work.” After a 14-hour shift, he might rather watch “Friends” reruns than rip some “open wounds,” he said. “If I had more time off, I think I’d have more fun watching it.”
That’s not how Ekiben owner Steve Chu feels. Though he’s heard other people say the series is anxiety-provoking, he said some of the more intense scenes just “felt like Tuesday.”
“People might view it as stressful, but I kind of view it as adrenaline,” he said. He even related to a scene from the show’s first season when Carmy almost burns down his apartment while sleepwalking. Chu said he once tried to braise octopus after a long shift at work. He dozed off, waking up hours later when the smoke alarm went off and the octopus had turned into “black charcoal.” After that, he tried to stick with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as a post-shift meal.
Like Carmy, Chu worked in New York City as a young cook, returning home to his father’s Pikesville restaurant and hoping to implement what he’d learned. He also encountered resistance. But Chu said he’s also witnessed cooks who, like the characters on the show, eventually develop new skills and are never the same.
Longo, too, has seen that play out in her experience with other cooks, and even kids she’s given cooking lessons. “Once you learn the right way, you can’t turn back,” she said.
While Carmy is tormented by memories of his abusive ex-boss, the show also reveals the character’s sometimes halting efforts to establish a healthier environment in his own kitchen — a shift Oetting also feels is true to life. “Things are changing,” he said, with more people who “focus on teaching and mentoring versus yelling, screaming or belittling.”
Longo, too, thinks restaurant culture has improved since the time she started as a rare female chef in an industry that’s still largely male-dominated. She recalled regularly hearing snide comments about who she’d slept with to get her job, as well as one episode of being violently sexually assaulted by a chef while others in the kitchen looked on.
“Stuff used to be even worse than it is now,” she said.