In the new FX series “The Bear,” there are no breaks. There are too many messes to clean up, too many crises to settle.
The comedy-drama, now streaming on Hulu, centers on Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, played by Jeremy Allen White, who inherits his late brother’s sandwich restaurant along with its skeptical employees, who are wary of change. He also inherits dirty floors, broken toilets, piles of unpaid bills and a $300,000 loan his uncle wants to collect.
Carmy takes it all on to honor his brother’s memory, but he’s not exactly given a hero’s welcome. Although he’s an award-winning fine-dining chef, he has not earned the respect of his new staff. He gets hazed and his knives go missing; any attempts to change “the system” at the Original Beef of Chicagoland are met with displeasure.
“Don’t mess up our place,” one employee warns him, while his own cousin Richie, a longtime manager who is resentful he did not inherit the Beef himself, tells him, “This is a delicate ecosystem.“
At the Beef, there is no time for Carmy to slowly build trust with staff and repair tensions. Lunch orders need to be served ASAP. It’s a world in which shouting is normal ― “Hands!” “Corner!” “Behind!” ― in the claustrophobically tight quarters of the kitchen.
The Beef is a fictional restaurant, but the conundrums that come with being the new guard at an old establishment are universal problems.
The show shines at unpacking these queasy tensions of workplace hierarchies. There are years of history built into the loaded glances and passive-aggressive comments about competence that Carmy and his employees trade.
And with the high jinks and schemes it takes to win over customers and staff, “The Bear” makes what could be a stressful half hour funny and heartwarming, too. Everyone gets humbled. I laughed when prideful Richie has to cater a kiddie hot dog party with Carmy to pay back their uncle’s loan. Carmy announces to his staff that he knows exactly what a creaking sound in the bathroom means, and also gets a surprise spray of toilet water in his mouth.
Refreshingly, “The Bear” does not focus on any romance, either at work or outside of it. We get limited information about who any of the chefs are when they punch out and go home. This is a show about the frenetic demands of working in a cash-strapped restaurant, trying to get orders out on time. It’s about navigating your colleagues’ fears and anxieties, and the care you can show co-workers, with whom you spend more time than your own family.
Here are the most relatable work takeaways:
Too much immediate change by a new manager is not going to be taken well.
In an attempt to bring order to the Beef’s chaos, Carmy enlists the help of his newest hire, Sydney, played wonderfully by Ayo Edebiri. Sydney is young and ambitious. She wants more work to do, but she doesn’t want to do the task Carmy asks of her ― leading a fine dining-style French “brigade” chain of command for each cook in the kitchen to follow.
“It’ll create a toxic, hierarchal shit show,” Sydney warns. “With that type of system, I’d have less of a voice.” But Carmy says this is what’s necessary to change the Beef’s chemistry, and it’s what “real kitchens do.”
The old guard is skeptical when told of the news. Ebra, one of the longtime staff members, says the division of labor is just a hierarchy. Sydney unconvincingly tries to frame it as “more like regular chill-archy... because I’m the sous, right? I just follow orders, even if it leads to tension and chaos and resentment, and ultimately doesn’t work.”
Ultimately, it does turn out how Sydney predicted. Unwilling to take orders from a newcomer, the cooks make her chopped-up onions vanish and turn her burner up too high in acts of sabotage. Pissed off, Sydney declines their help to lift a vat of veal stock, and it spills everywhere.
The spectacular failure of the brigade reminds me of the critical mistake a lot of first-time managers make: They try to do too much, too fast, to make their mark on an organization, without accounting for how staff feel about losing their predictable routines. To do our jobs well, we all need certainty about when things will occur and how we can prepare for future challenges, as illustrated in a behavioral model developed by the performance coach Paloma Medina.
If Carmy really wanted his brigade to succeed, he would not have left it all up to Sydney to execute, as he later acknowledges in an apology. And he would have incorporated more staff input about what they most wanted changed in the first place.
In “The Bear,” chefs try to be better bosses than those they worked for. But as in real life, rudeness is contagious.
Throughout the series, Sydney and Carmy both allude to the toxic kitchen environments they’ve worked in and are trying to escape.
“I think this place could be so different from all the other places we’ve been at,” Sydney tells her new boss. “I don’t want to be wasting my time working on another line or tweezing herbs on a dish, or running brunch, God forbid.”
Carmy can relate. In one flashback, we see the tyrannical boss he worked under at a swanky New York City restaurant. This bad boss (played by Joel McHale) believes a pep talk consists of telling Carmy: “Why do you hire fucking idiots? Do you like working with fucking idiots? Say ‘Yes, Chef.’ ... You are bullshit. You are talentless ... You should be dead.”
Compared to this kind of bad boss, Carmy’s tolerance of his staff’s outbursts and eccentricities seems downright kind. He calls every staff member “Chef” as a sign of respect, and frequently asks “Are you good?” if he notices someone buckling under pressure.
But in the penultimate episode of the season, all of Carmy’s promises of being a better listener crumble on his own bad day. It’s a pile-on of errors: Sydney leaves the pre-order option on by accident, so they now need to fulfill orders of 255 beef sandwiches in eight minutes; pastry chef Marcus is so focused on making the perfect doughnut that he has not cut any cakes.
Carmy blows up under the stress and yells at Sydney: “I told you to be more fucking ready!” He brings up past grievances and kicks her out of her station, becoming the bad boss he promised not to be. This, in turn, causes Sydney to yell at staff, too.
“Hey, you don’t need to be screaming and shit. That’s not you,” one employee says to Sydney.
“You know, maybe it is,” Sydney replies, mulishly.
The toxic behavior spreads to the rest of the staff, and everyone is soon sniping at each other with sarcastic, mean comments. Research does show that if you are a bystander to rude behavior, you are more likely to become mean yourself. In a series of experiments, organizational management researchers found the more that people saw and were the victims of rudeness, the more likely they were to become rude and hostile themselves at work.
Sydney becomes the bad boss Carmy once had when she stands beside Richie as he prepares giardiniera, a task she thinks she should be doing herself. Sydney goes beyond critiquing his vegetable prep, telling him: “I see you for the loser you fucking are. And everybody knows it ... Your daughter probably knows it.”
The line is crossed, and now Sydney, who started the series as an ambitious, polite employee, has become an unforgivably mean boss under stress.
At its best, “The Bear” acknowledges how weird and tense it can be to spend hours of your life each day in close proximity to people who are so different from you. It can be supremely awkward to apologize, and your grievances can get personal. But unlike at many toxic workplaces, the staff here do the work of learning to be better.
After a cooling-off period, everyone at the Beef is willing to be accountable for their actions. Or as Carmy, Sydney and the rest of the Beef staff would say when giving their full attention to each other after a mess-up: “Heard, chef.”