The Bear Necessities: Spilled Milk #34
What FX’s The Bear is really telling us.
A few months ago at the James Beard Foundation Awards, I met Jeremy Allen White who plays Carmy in the hot new series of the summer, FX’s The Bear.
He is a superb actor and is clearly devoted to his craft. I was a fan of his last series, Shameless, and The Bear has made him a very big star.
Allen’s latest character, according to FX’s website, is the youngest child of the Berzatto family who had a meteoric rise in the world of fine dining. Forced to return home after the death of his brother, the young culinarian is faced with the difficulty of navigating his own professional evolution in the very place where he started out. As FX puts it:
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“Wildly driven, Carmy throws himself into work in order to avoid reckoning with his grief and trauma. Fortunately, there is an insane amount of work to do as he tries to keep his family’s sandwich shop afloat.”
Well, I can tell you I am very familiar with grief and trauma.
I’ve been hard at work on these issues for the last 30 years. I am just beginning to see some big changes in relation to my trauma work. And remember, you have to work on it. Trauma not transformed is transmitted. The carried shame of trauma is a toxic, emotional component to mental illness, one that can be “transmitted” to others. An extreme example is a child who is regularly hit by parents. As an adult parent, that person is more likely to regularly hit or abuse their own children.
In the same way, someone suffering from severe trauma will have some very unhealthy responses to triggering events, large and small, and can be difficult to work with, work for, and/or be in any kind of relationship with. What is necessary for someone in that position is therapy, workshops and other work that reveals, educates and eventually allows the afflicted to eliminate the trauma response when triggered.
We don’t need to be a jukebox, we are human beings. Just because you put a quarter in me, I no longer play the same song. That’s a new freedom from bondage for me, and wasn’t true 15 years ago, or even 30 years ago when I first sobered up.
In that context, I love this show.
It’s also important for those unfamiliar with restaurant environments to see how they might exist. One has to remember that this is a TV show, not a documentary, and while it does get many things right, the show is a function of its scripting and story lines, as well as its directing and other artistic choices from the team that makes the show. It isn’t real. If it was, Carmy would need a lot more professional help, and certainly no one would ever recommend to anyone that it is OK to work more to avoid reckoning with one’s own grief/trauma, regardless of how much there is to do. But it happens in our industry for sure.
I do like some of the prescriptive advice that the series offers.
There have been a raft of “takes” on the show that simply amazes me. Jane Brendlinger has a superb column for Food & Wine’s website that has some good things to say about the show. Brendlinger appreciates the physical messiness of the show, like the kitchen and Carmy’s apartment.
I would take that a step further. It’s Carmy’s emotional messiness and the maddeningly messy elements of his personal life that I think everyone can relate to and should learn from. And Brendlinger acknowledges that her industry friends feel the same. Carmy is, however, not someone to emulate. This man’s life (at least in Season 1) is one to avoid duplicating. I am eager to see if he learns and grows and what kind of life professionally and personally he creates in S2.
As Brendlinger notes, “[the show] hits emotional chords, especially at a time when kitchen trauma is a hot topic; some acclaimed restaurants are being torn apart for the way they treat their employees. It almost feels like this kind of restaurant-bashing is the new chef-worshiping, and the media now gets to tear down all the institutions they themselves put on pedestals. But didn't we already know that restaurants were toxic workplaces? Didn't we know about the abusive chef archetype, the ruthless competition, the harrowing hours and conditions?” And she is right. We do and we have. The question really is what to do about it.
As Brendlinger asks later in the column, “How many times do we have to learn about how bad it can be before things start to change?”
I hope the answer to that question is moot… we have to change in order to survive, but what scares me is this: Why would restaurant culture change for the better (and it must) in a country that tolerates school shootings as an acceptable part of daily life? Can we have restaurants that care as much about the wellness of their own people as they do their guests? Or in the case of really higher-end restaurants, their food?
I also should say at this point that while a substantial number of restaurants have misogynistic, racist, and inequitable cultures, most don’t. I firmly believe this. Most restaurants are currently engaged in changing their culture. In a post-pandemic, recessionary world, our restaurant culture is truly changing.
Enlightened leadership is necessary to be successful.
Economic models must change. Menu prices need to reflect the actual cost of what it takes to get that plate in front of the customer (same with retail grocery prices BTW) and consumers won’t like that. Just as in The Bear, change must happen if anyone or anything is to be healed. In that sense, The Bear is immensely successful as a drama and as a cautionary tale. Change is necessary, but it comes at a cost.
Will the co-op movement grow and begin to make in-roads in our restaurant world? Perhaps. Most people get into the business because they love seeing people eat and be happy. They are looking to restore a piece of themselves and be healed in doing so, whether acknowledged or not. But the money gets in the way.
We will see if co-op models or smaller restaurants with smaller menus, and more specialist restaurants (think ramen shops, pizza parlors, steak houses, fried chicken eateries) become the norm. We will see how restaurants will implement ways to pay for the 12-15 percent more profit that conventional independent non-specialty restaurants will need to manufacture to offer paid sick leave, medical insurance, 40 hour weeks, fair wage practices, etc. Some already do by including wellness and service charges and eliminating tipping. We shall see. As Brendlinger notes, the solutions are not going to come easily. Nothing good ever does—but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
Nastassia Lopez has an interesting column about The Bear that dropped yesterday on Grubstreet.
The idea is simple, as Lopez wrote:
“Lately, plenty of people have been wondering what chefs’ kisses might taste like, fueled by rampant horniness for Carmy, the main character in the FX series The Bear. Otherwise levelheaded people are thirsting for their very own brooding, moody kitchen genius — a “sexy scumbag,” “ketamine Gene Wilder,” someone who will make you understand why “‘Yes, chef’ is the new ‘daddy.’” Bon Appétit declared it the summer of the Dirtbag Line Cook.
“WAIT,” a restaurant friend texted me mere minutes after that Bon Appétit story went live. “THIS CAN’T BE TRUE. This life is attractive to people?”
Well, as Lopez points out, people are into the fantasy of it.
Just like any other old TV genre, from the high school athletes and coaches of Friday Night Lights to Silicon Valley’s sexy funny entrepreneurial nerds to the vapid un-realness of The Bachelorette or F*** Boy Island.
Lopez follows her analysis with some great quotes, a few from people I know, explaining why one should never date a chef, and a hundred great reasons why. From narcissism to emotional bread-crumbing, everyone in the piece seems to echo the idea that anyone who worked in an industry this demanding, this toxic, must be broken enough for others to shy away from. The article has plenty of funny quotes, and Lopez does a nice job with it, but what the industry needs is balance, empathy, compassion and room to fix itself. Life isn’t fair, so columns like this will always be around — you take the good with the bad — but I know of plenty of healthy relationships in this industry. It’s not the work, it’s the people.
Sure, Carmy has a messy life and a mess of a situation at work. He is also a work in progress.
But it isn’t the work that created the mess. People make messes. And people make messes for other people. And people hell bent on finding work that can take them away from focusing on their challenges gravitate(d) into the hospitality industry.
For me, it was a great place to be successful back in the 80’s. To pursue my dream, yes, but also a perfect place to hide, to act out, to stay un-well. And I believe the industry is changing all that for the better. Slowly, but it’s happening.
Don’t let a TV show, even a very good one, fool you.