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For Spokane chefs, new TV series ‘The Bear’ feels close to real life

By Adriana Janovich For The Spokesman-Review

It’s stressful to see. The tempers and flames flare. The egos clash. The chaotic pace at which obstacles arise in what, for all intents and purposes, could easily be viewed as an intensely hostile work environment.

Of course, as the saying goes, if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.

There’s yelling. There’s swearing. There’s the compounding of problems, throwing of things, even firing of a gun. In the first episode.

“The Bear,” streaming on FX/Hulu, makes for highly stylized, anxiety-producing TV. But a lot of it, some local chefs say, mirrors their real-life experiences – minus the gun firing.

“All of those characters are people I have worked with,” said Chad White of Zona Blanca, TT’s Old Iron Brewery and Barbecue, and Uno Más Taco Shop. “I have worked with those exact people.”

In the acclaimed new series released June 23, Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) is a James Beard Award-winning chef who has returned home to Chicago to run the family sandwich shop, Original Beef of Chicagoland, following the death by suicide of his brother.

His best jerk of a friend and restaurant manager Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and newly promoted, confidant and ambitious sous chef Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) are at odds. Uncle Cicero (Oliver Platt) wants to take the shop in lieu of the $300,000 debt the deceased owed him.

“The Bear” portrays the intensity, brutality and volatility of working in a high-pressure and dysfunctional professional kitchen. It stars a profound sense of place alongside toxic masculinity, on-the-job grit, and damaged, uncomfortable but creative and determined characters who learn about and transform themselves throughout the raw and aggressive first season.

All of that appealed to Chowderhead chef and owner Travis Tveit from the first episode. But he had to space it out, watching “one a day for like a week. I loved it, but I didn’t want to watch it all in one go. It’s a lot to subject yourself to. It’s very fast-paced. There’s lots of yelling. You hear people cooking and talking. It’s kind of a sensory overload, especially if you just got done being in an environment that’s kind of like that.”

By contrast, White, a contestant on season 13 of Bravo’s “Top Chef” who completed his culinary training in the military, binged “The Bear,” watching the season in one sitting. “It’s a very exciting show,” he said. “I feel like they did a really good job of showing what it takes to be a chef in a restaurant, to survive and thrive, and to see what happens when you bite off more than you can chew. The show is extremely accurate when it comes to showing what it’s like to move to fast-casual dining from fine dining.”

Like the main character, White returned home and worked in a small eatery, opening a ceviche bar in a shared downtown Spokane space in 2016. He identified with Carmy. “He’s trying to save the business,” White said. “He’s doing whatever needs to be done.”

Tveit also identified with Carmy. “I run a sandwich shop. I’m a chef. I really care about the space and the ingredients and the whole thing a lot, and you can tell he does in the show, too,” he said. “I thought he nailed it. I would hire him.”

Something else Tveit thought was cool about Carmy: “He called everyone is his kitchen ‘chef.’ I’ve never heard of anybody doing that before, but I think it’s really cool. It’s a sign of respect.”

However, it’s not likely something he’ll adopt in his kitchen. “I respect my staff, but I’m the chef here.”

All in all, Tveit said, “It was cool to see a show that doesn’t glorify the work, but shows how it actually is sometimes. I don’t agree with all of the swearing. I never talk to my staff like that. That’s probably the one thing in the show that I didn’t like.”

The rest, he said, was mostly true to life. When sous chef Sydney spilled a vat of veal stock in the walk-in, for example, “It was painful to watch,” Tveit said. “I’ve spilled a whole thing of soup before and had to clean up a huge mess. I’ve been there.”

So has Molly Patrick, the 4-foot-11-inch former executive chef of the now-closed Blackbird who recently started her own catering company, Table + Thyme. She’s reached for something on the top shelf of the walk-in and had “the whole thing just fall on my head. That happened.”

She watched season one in one day after “seeing all these posts on social media. Everybody was commenting on it. I didn’t have Hulu at the time.”

She subscribed to watch “The Bear,” and it didn’t disappoint. “I think this is the best anyone has ever done depicting kitchens and restaurant life,” she said. “I’m anxious to see season two.”

The pressure and the pacing were “spot-on,” Patrick said. “It’s grueling. You question everything you’re doing.”

So was the depiction of work-life balance, “meaning,” Patrick said, “there is none at all. The push-back from employees, they got that right. And just how difficult it is to rebrand something iconic that’s been in a neighborhood for a while, it’s like that. You want it to be great, so you eat and breath the restaurant. It’s your entire life.”

The instances of sabotage such as purposefully turning up a burner too high or hiding other cooks’ prepped onions and knives also resonated.

“That’s a real thing,” Patrick said. “That’s something I’ve gone through.”

Those scenes reminded White of hazing he experienced early in his career in California.

“I saw all kinds of hazing coming up in the industry,” White said. “People would put Icy-Hot on my locker combo. They would freeze my knives. They would sabotage my prep or hide it until it went bad. All kinds of crazy things went on.”

It’s not like that so much anymore, he said. “In the last five to 10 years, there’s been an extreme amount of reform. Labor laws have tightened up. What you see in the show likely still happens, but in very small pockets. That doesn’t mean it’s acceptable behavior by any means.”

White entered the industry in the early 2000s. “For many years, it was kind of a gritty place to be,” he said. “If you cut your hand, you’d cauterize it on a pan or go home, and if you went home you might not be welcomed back.

“There’s a service to be done,” White said. “You got to put your head down and work as a team. No restaurant can work without everyone working together.”

White said he’s hoping the second season will delve deeper into characters’ backgrounds, particularly Sydney and Carmy. “I don’t feel like they did a great job of building a backstory.”

But the show did a good job of showing the importance of commercial quart containers and a hard-working sous chef, Patrick said. “You need a good sous chef.”

Regarding Richie, she said, in real life, “he would’ve been fired a long time ago.”

Something else the show got wrong: “There’s no way there were like 10 can openers in that restaurant,” White said, referring to a scene in the final episode. “That’s a comical inaccuracy.”

But, he noted, “What I love about the show is that it shows the struggles in the kitchen from almost everyone’s point of view, not just the main character. You get to see the strengths and the weaknesses of almost everyone in the kitchen.”

White, Patrick and Tveit are all looking forward to watching what Carmy does in season two.

“I hope he catches his stride a little more,” Tveit said. “I hope he opens a cool spot, and it’s not just the nitty-gritty life of line cooks.”

Meantime, he’s considering a new menu item: an Italian beef sandwich.

After watching “The Bear,” his mom suggested Tveit “figure out that beef sandwich from the show and run it as a special at Chowderhead.”

And, he said, “I think I am going to do that.”

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