Chicago’s Mr. Beef inspires “The Bear” on Hulu from FX


Chicago is a major food town, from pricey fine dining to modest neighborhood joints that hit the spot, and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the sweaty, cacophonous kitchen dynamics of the latter so richly and lovingly portrayed as they are in “The Bear,” a darkly comedic drama that takes its inspiration from a local staple: Mr. Beef.

On the show, this River North Italian beef sandwich shop is simply called The Original Beef of Chicagoland. But the exterior shots certainly look as if they were shot at Mr. Beef. And a crew member told me that production designers all but rebuilt the interior of Mr. Beef on a soundstage at Cinespace (the studio complex on the city’s West Side) down to grease on the stoves and the walls. That had me laughing and intrigued before I watched a single frame.

Having seen all eight episodes, it might be one of my favorite shows of the year. (This is one of those FX productions for Hulu; it’s not airing on the cable channel, but the entire season is available on the streamer.) Front and center are the travails of a young chef named Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, who sometimes goes by the nickname Bear, hence the title. Here’s a guy who made a name for himself in the fine-dining world and he’s very good. As in, James Beard and Food & Wine awards good. But now he’s back home in Chicago, running the family restaurant months after his brother Mikey killed himself.

“The Bear” doesn’t sugarcoat the details, but trauma isn’t what comes to mind watching this collection of oddballs. The kitchen staff is thrown together by circumstance but something more begins to bind them together: The opportunity to be creative and still earn a paycheck. Creator Christopher Storer and co-showrunner Joanna Calo have wisely avoided ladling in romance or other soapy storylines to gum things up. This is a slice-of-life — raw, shabby, cacophonous, funny and beef-juice splattered — about the work of work. And specifically the ecosystem of a restaurant kitchen where sharp elbows are the norm and everyone is talking over one another.

Grief hangs over the place like a bad smell nobody wants to acknowledge and Carmy, played by “Shameless” alum Jeremy Allen White, is looking to metaphorically air things out with some new ideas of his own. Using his culinary expertise, he wants to up their game with a more gourmet approach: Ambitious flavors, farmer’s market produce and a standardized organizational chart — the so-called French brigade system of kitchen management. All of this might remind Chicagoans of the now long-gone establishment Hot Doug’s and chef Doug Sohn’s efforts to elevate the humble hot dog. That’s never referenced but it’s similar to what Carmy has in mind here.

First things first: Hire a sous chef. She arrives in the form of Sydney Adamu (a droll Ayo Edebiri), who is smart, eager and a realist. She trained at the Culinary Institute of America and has logged stints at Alinea and Avec, but coming into the chaos that is The Original Beef of Chicagoland is like baptism by deep fryer. Carmy holds her to a higher standard, which creates all kinds of tension — on top of the tension already fueling that kitchen.

Sizing up his newest hire, Carmy asks: Why here? It was my dad’s favorite spot, Sydney tells him. But she’s well aware of Carmy’s accolades — that’s the real reason she’s here — and she asks the same question back: What are you doing here? Exhausted, he runs his hand through his unwashed hair. “Makin’ sandwiches.” They have terrific peer-to-peer chemistry that is tested time and again.

There will be blood! And yelling! So much yelling! But there’s also camaraderie and legitimate warmth threaded throughout the show. The quiet conversations out back during a lull. The intense focus on food prep (gorgeously shot; Storer and Calo are directors here, as well). The thrilling jolt of creative collaboration and getting a new recipe just right.

White is wonderfully disheveled in “The Bear,” putting his sad-eyed countenance to good use as a guy with tremendous confidence in the kitchen but who’s fumbling everywhere else. At this point, his family has been whittled down to a lovely but exasperated sister (Abby Elliott) and her perfectly dorky husband (“Chicago Party Aunt” creator Chris Witaske).

There’s also longtime frenemy and jagoff extraordinaire Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) who is simultaneously awful and deeply loyal and the kind of guy who tells Carmy: “I do not care what you did up in Napa with your tweezers and your foie gras — you got no idea what yer doin’ here!” He’s a dirtbag complete with dirty fingernails (I clutched all my pearls imagining this guy near food) and although he and Carmy aren’t related, they call each other “cousin.”

They’ve known each other since back in the day, before everything went to hell and Mikey was still the guy who could charm everyone with stories of drinking all night and stumbling into a bar at dawn where a group of Blackhawk players were partying as well. That’s the world Carmy and Richie come from, and Carmy’s upscale training is a thorn in Richie’s side.

Aside from these two (and a hanger-on handyman played by real-life Canadian chef Matty Matheson, who is also a co-producer), the kitchen is staffed primarily by Black and Latinx and Afro-Latinx people, which feels like an accurate and important detail about line cooks and dishwashers in many restaurants across the city. Not everyone in the kitchen gets a fleshed-out portrayal, but they all feel as if they are fully realized people with their own lives. There’s real skill in populating a show with supporting characters who are more than bodies filling up space but whose presence feels lived-in and essential to the story.

Other key figures in the kitchen include longtime veteran Tina (a fantastic Liza Colón-Zayas, so good in the recent reboot of “In Treatment”) who puts Sydney through the ringer before realizing, oh wait, these new recipes are legit and it’s pretty rewarding to make them. The sweet and curious Marcus (Lionel Boyce) is in charge of making the bread rolls but is inspired to become a full-on pastry chef under Carmy’s new plan. Other recognizable faces show up for cameos: Jon Bernthal, Joel McHale, Amy Morton, Oliver Platt.

According to FX, the show’s creators aren’t Chicagoans. But the attention to detail is noteworthy and it gives the show a palpable Chicago feel. They bother to get the small things right. Hell, they use the Kennedy and the Edens correctly in a sentence. There’s a barb about ketchup and hot dogs. Carmy has a 773 tattoo on his left bicep. The voice of WXRT’s Lin Brehmer shows up briefly. What’s missing is any sense of what the shop’s regulars think of Carmy’s tinkering. And there’s a turn of events in the final episode involving stashed money that doesn’t fully make sense.

But the show’s approach to dark humor won me over. While catering a suburban birthday party for a family friend, an old man approaches Carmy and says: “Carmen, is that you? I thought you killed yourself?” Carmy pauses. “No, sir. That was my brother.” The old man shrugs and walks away.

“The Bear” is a study of people coming together, sometimes begrudgingly (not unlike “Abbott Elementary”), and how complicated that can be. It doesn’t always work out. This is a show created by people who recognize that our lives are a group project. No person is an island and we have to figure that out in order to get anything done. Sometimes that process can feel like rough edges forever jabbing at your soft spots.

When regular people — not a special ops unit, or a group of superheroes — figure out a way to work toward a common goal? There’s nothing better. It gets me in the gut. At a time when it can feel like so much is rigged and all is lost, it can feel profound to see TV and film remind us there’s a different story that’s also true. We’re all we’ve got.

Author and activist Dean Spade once said: “What do I want to spend the rest of my life doing? Being fully alive, being with other people, being in it together, taking risks, being really, really caring (and) learning to love people even if they annoy me.”

That’s “The Bear” in a nutshell.

“The Bear” — 4 stars (out of 4)

Where to watch: Hulu

Nina Metz is a Tribune critic

nmetz@chicagotribune.com

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