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5 Screenwriting Takeaways: How ‘The Bear’ masters the specificity of kitchen life

July 25, 2022
Photo courtesy of Hulu
5 min read time

Working in a restaurant is often a rite of passage for a creative. If you’ve never done booze or meat inventory in a commercial freezer are you even a screenwriter? That’s likely why so many have connected to The Bear. The specificity of the food service world is so palpable on the show that it might not be a surprise if you are having kitchen nightmares similar to Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) or Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) where food talk shows or recipe ideas wake you from a sound slumber. When you work in a kitchen, the kitchen is life.

The specificity of the world has hit so hard with viewers that the show currently has earned the rare and coveted 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. All the yelling of “behind” and “corner” and the specifics of the dishes each character is trying to create even have people wondering if the show is based on a true story.

Nevertheless, creator and showrunner Christopher Storer often pulled details from his life in Chicago. The EP and co-showrunner elaborated through an interview with Forbes: “I think we really wanted to focus on these original characters and the story about small business, but the small details, that came from Chris [Storer’s] upbringing, and obviously, that’s just one part of Chicago, right?”

So, just how did the writers get to such a level of authenticity that audiences continue to clamor for details of truth versus fiction, just as hard as they look for Carmy memes? Let’s take a look.

 

1. Carmy and the Bear

Playing a tortured Chicagoan is not new territory for Jeremy Allen White (think ‘Shameless’), but again the specificity of character is rich. Before shooting, White did two weeks of culinary school and then stints in restaurants in Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. Storer masterfully gives us details about Carmy bit by bit. In the pilot, Carmy literally faces a bear. Bear is also the family name. This family is tied together by the trauma, pain, and joy of the family restaurant Beef.

The thematic question Carmy has to face is so clearly presented in the first episode, but so slowly revealed: Can a prideful and talented chef survive the inheritance of a poorly run family shop? More deeply, can this man face his own monsters and demons and those that his dead brother left behind… and still survive?

 

2. The world of beef

Everything about the setting of Beef the restaurant is magnificently specific. In fact, it’s based on a real Italian beef sandwich joint called Mr. Beef. (Warning, if you click that Yelp link, you will get hungry, and most reviewers claim it’s the best beef sandwich you will have in your entire life). The uniforms, the layout of the kitchen, and the different zones where different characters can always be found all tell parts of the story.

Marcus’ (Lionel Boyce) baking area is always remarkably calm. Not only are these zones essential to running a kitchen, but they are also a great way for Storer and company to offer up specific character details while they just simply live in their environment. Sydney is going to chop vegetables differently than Tina (Liza Colon-Zayas) and, of course, that’s going to create conflict.

This is all such lovely work by the writers, ensuring every restaurant worker has a backstory and specialty, and sometimes those backstories and specialties conflict with each other. Because of this hard work, a show that takes place largely in a kitchen remains exciting despite the limited setting.

 

3. When reality and fiction blur

It’s no secret that people love food shows. The Food Network, YouTube, and beyond have made chefs into stars. It was a wise move to incorporate a real chef into the production of The Bear, and Matty Matheson was an excellent choice. Matheson, a Toronto native (who blends well in a Chicago scene) plays handyman Neil Fak.

There’s a lovely running joke that Neil really just wants to be a chef (and is not a great handyman in the least), but Matheson was on set not only as excellent comic relief, but as a consultant, a storyteller, and an extra hand to make sure the kitchen felt authentic. Writers also spent time speaking with chefs offering the excellent takeaway that you can never really do too much research for your writing.  

 

4. The stakes feel real

Much of the heart of the show is the simple day-to-day struggle to stay open. This alone could be enough to keep us watching. Can this failing sandwich shop stay alive? It’s estimated that 70,000 restaurants in America closed during the pandemic, so this is also very relatable. That said, there’s also the magic of excellent TV writing here: stakes, stakes, and more stakes.

Storer and his team don’t hesitate to amp things up each episode as it’s revealed that Carmy’s dead brother owes back taxes. His sister is on the line and could lose her house. Local mob guys have the cash the crew needs to keep operating… if they don’t mind turning the joint into a nightclub now and then. There's also Carmy’s family friend Richie aka Cousin (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) who sometimes sells cocaine in the back alley. Does this feel like a lot? Yes. But in the game of high-stakes streaming television, it feels just right. It also feels accurate for a block of struggling and changing Chicago where older local joints are closing left and right, being bought out for high-rise apartments, or run out by local gangs. The Chicago show embraces the city making even the highest of high stakes feel tangible.

 

5. The meaning of family

The show embraces the lovely restaurant tradition of the family meal. It’s the moment of calm before the storm when the kitchen crew sits down to eat together before opening. And in The Bear it’s where characters get to try their hand at a more complicated dish (although sometimes family spaghetti will more than suffice).

Family is also a heavy secondary theme in the series. Carmy and the Bear family are haunted by the death of a brother who initially seemingly left nothing behind in the wake of his suicide. Carmy and his sister Natalie (Abby Eliot) are on rough terms, and their parents who initially ran the restaurant left behind a level of trauma deep enough that Natalie doesn’t even like to set foot inside.

Additionally, kitchen staff often form their own family. It’s a place for misfits and dreamers as Anthony Bourdain so wisely said. If you want to work hard, you will always have a home in a kitchen. Family runs deep, and blood is thicker than water. Now that Storer has so aptly set up a lovable dysfunctional one, it will be a joy to see where he takes this family next.

 

The Bear is currently streaming on FX and Hulu.

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