Sound Bites

‘The Bear’ Wants You to Stop Worshiping Toxic Chefs

An opinion piece from cultural critic Aaron Timms

Sometime over the past few decades, a strange thing happened: We started treating chefs as temperamental rock stars and restaurants as a barometer of cultural vitality. While pursuits like fashion, music, art and film all seemed to stagnate, retreating into repetition and nostalgia as the economics of these industries cratered, food surged ahead, becoming a rare bright spot in a culture stuck for new ideas. Seasonal, showy, produce-driven cooking was everywhere, and every medium-size city throughout the country had its artisanal pizza place, its special-occasion farm-to-table restaurant, its ramen spot with big ideas about broth.

But with growing cultural importance came heightened scrutiny of the restaurant industry’s failings: poor pay, punishing hours, a toxic culture of macho aggression and brutality. From the reported bullying and violence at Mission Chinese Food in New York to allegations of chronic mold at the Los Angeles jam destination Sqirl, the restaurant business suddenly seemed like a problem industry, just like aviation, fashion and finance, where the catalog of abuses was as long as any tally of creative accomplishments.

Into this environment in 2022 came “The Bear,” a show that seemed both forged in the fire of the food world’s worst excesses and determined to seek a way out of the inferno. Through its first two seasons (the third dropped last night), it follows Carmen Berzatto, known to everyone as Carmy, a hotshot chef called back to Chicago after his brother dies by suicide and leaves him the family restaurant. “The Bear” is both the culmination of two decades of chef veneration and a case for an improved version of it, a plea not to break from the religion of food altogether but to reform it and in doing so create a different culture that’s truly worthy of veneration. In the real world of professional kitchens — with their prosciutto-thin financial margins, boilingly stressful working conditions and entrenched hierarchies of abuse — “The Bear” might seem like a flimsy case for change. But the televised fantasy of a better, more moral restaurant culture, with better, more moral chefs, is part of what makes the show such intoxicating entertainment.

Carmy exhibits both the worst and the best elements of the tortured chef-genius archetype. For centuries, the glory of art excused the sins of the artist, and people happily appreciated the work of Céline, Picasso, Beethoven and all the rest despite the monstrousness of their personalities. Our culture started venerating chefs who exhibited this kind of creative callousness: David Chang, Marco Pierre White, Mario Batali and even Anthony Bourdain were all, in their different ways, avatars of the bawdy, abusive world of the male-dominated kitchen, and their accounts of culinary life glorified the notion that conflict is endemic to gastronomic invention.

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