There’s a cliché about what it takes to be a rock star chef. He combines Anthony Bourdain’s aesthetic – tattooed arms, a twinkle in his eye – with Gordon Ramsay’s penchant for swearing at people. Restaurant kitchens are as hot and vicious as the fighting it takes to thrive in one. To be the best, you have to bleed, bruise, sweat and scream for it. You have to live to cook.
For most of his electrifying first season, The bear – a show from Christopher Storer (producer on the 2018 indie hit Eighth grade and Ramy Youssef’s acclaimed comedy Ramy ) about a scruffy Italian beef sandwich shop almost invisible among the skyscrapers of Chicago’s River North neighborhood – leans into that stereotype. The voices of the kitchen staff are so loud, nasty and incessant, I found myself pausing just to give my adrenals a break. But in the penultimate 20-minute episode of the FX series, “Review,” the ticking time bomb of the lunch rush turns into actual violence. Shot in one long, wandering take, the episode explodes the myth of the tortured, unstable genius and the kitchen hierarchy that props up his ego.
The genius in question is Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, a gifted cook at New York’s Noma who returns home when she inherits The Beef of Chicagoland after her beloved brother Mikey commits suicide. Things don’t go well for Carmi, played by Jeremy Allen White (from the American remake of Shameless). The regulars who have worked at the shop ever since have forever resisted the regime change, and she’s locked in a power struggle with Mikey’s close best friend Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach, who played Desi from Girls). Plus, Mikey – the ever-charismatic Jon Bernthal – was better with ingredients than numbers. Carmy owes their shark uncle (Oliver Platt) $300,000 (£257,000) to cover his big brother’s debts.
Every urgent moment of every episode is a fight for the survival of the sandwich. The bad guys are the meat wholesalers, the health inspectors, and the industrial mixer that won’t stop breaking down. Hope arrives in the form of Sydney (Ayo Edebiri, Dickinson), a culinary school graduate who prefers making real meals for real people to working the line in the city’s grand kitchens. (In a job she held for eight months, she was never allowed to do more than peel lemons.) Syd is as eager to revolutionize The Beef as Carmy is to make the place solvent.
In ‘Review’, urgency is not just a fact of the narrative, but the uncomfortable reality of the viewer. The one-shot episode takes place in the cramped quarters of The Beef’s squalid kitchen, starting with the day Sydney implements an online ordering system. It’s also the day chefs fight over a five-star review on Chicago Telegraph. It should be good news for the struggling shop, but when the reviewer reserves his most effusive praise for one of Sydney’s flashiest new arrivals – a risotto – a disillusioned Carmi finds himself siding with the old guard.
All hell breaks loose when the pace of orders overwhelms the kitchen staff who are used to dealing with one customer at a time. Most of his episodes The bear it’s about how the kitchen self-destructs, but that also involves the viewer. How often do we think about the people on the other side of the UberEats delivery? Not just the human beings, but all the steps – from the preparation that starts at 10 a.m. until the clean-up that ends half a day later – involving the making of a single sandwich.
Beef is a messy, frantic place, but in “Review” you begin to understand how vulnerable it makes a person to work in such a small space. When Carmy starts screaming—mostly at Syd but eventually at everyone—there’s nowhere to hide. Boiling point, the 2021 restaurant drama starring Stephen Graham as a sworn, stressed-out London chef, was similarly shot in a single take. But here the cinematography is even more claustrophobic. The camera never leaves the stainless steel prison of the kitchen. For a cook at The Beef, the deli counter is the limit of the universe.
Staff are used to alerting each other to their own presence by shouting “corner!” every time they go around a bend and “back!” whenever they need to pass. But in real time, conflicts seem more imminent. Knives are sharper. A petty argument between Sid and Richie over who prepares the jardiniere ends with Sid accidentally stabbing Richie, or perhaps Richie accidentally walking into Sid’s long chef’s knife. Even the first aid kid is on the staff side of the counter. Having blood drawn is not a reason to leave your post. Scars are part of the recipe.
This is not just 20 minutes in the life of The Beef, but 20 minutes of everyone at their worst. Carmy screams at Syd until she finally closes her apron and walks out. In a particularly cruel move, he destroys the donuts a pastry chef has been working to perfect all season. Carmy is not a misunderstood genius but a bad guy. He was mistreated in the kitchens he worked in and now he’s rebuilding that bed in his brother’s old sandwich.
Before the “Review”, there was a general impression that food preparation he had to be like this: ungrateful, mean and exhausting. But something about a chef as talented as Carmi trying to punch a little machine that spits out to-go orders exposes the whole deal as ridiculous and untenable. Just unplug it, man.
The bear does not mimic tension. creates it. If the episode had lasted a minute longer, I would have put on my apron too.