‘The Bear’ dips into the kitchen culture of Chicago’s Italian beef joints
Extensive research on the making and eating of the classic sandwich led up to the hit show’s debut on Hulu.
Chicago’s iconic Italian beef sandwiches continue to put the city on the culinary map — this time via “The Bear,” a half-hour drama series now streaming on Hulu.
Jeremy Allen White stars as Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, a James Beard Award-winning chef who returns home to the Windy City following his older brother’s suicide to run their family’s sandwich joint, The Original Beef of Chicagoland.
An instant hit after its debut June 23, the drama has a 100% critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes and has been picked up for a second season. “‘The Bear’ has exceeded our wildest creative, critical and commercial expectations,” said Eric Schrier, president of FX Entertainment, which produces the show for Hulu.
LISTEN TO AN INTERVIEW WITH JEREMY ALLEN WHITE ON WBEZ'S "RESET"
The series co-stars Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Ayo Edebiri, Abby Elliott, Lionel Boyce and Liza Colón-Zayas as the less-than-enthusiastic kitchen staff at The Original Beef. The joint is pretty much on its last legs, with a mountain of overdue bills, unpaid vendors beating down the door, and a not-so-profitable cash flow.
The kitchen is a chaotic mess on so many levels for Carmy, who’s also dealing with a heap of unresolved emotional issues. His first order of business is to literally scrub the place clean and restructure the way the kitchen operates, which demands a new level of dedication from his crew. It’s a powerful lesson in a kitchen’s workflow. Think: dedicated stations.
“I don’t think a lot of people get how a kitchen works, with people doing one thing [at one station all day],” White said. “The repetition is something. I have so much respect for kitchen, cooks and chefs. It’s a huge sacrifice of time and commitment. And the repetition I’m sure can be daunting at times. But it’s such a beautiful thing. It’s like making a film or TV show — if you have a bunch of people together that are all very skilled at what they do and they’re on the same page of what the goal is and they’re all skilled enough, you can work together and perform.
“I see kitchens as a performance, too. These chefs, cooks — they’re performing for you every night. They’re not in your face the whole time but that’s what they’re doing. And that makes sense to me.”
Getting all the subtleties, all the nuances of Chicago’s Italian beef culture, as well as the look and feel of a real Chicago Italian beef shop was paramount to “The Bear” creator Christopher Storer. The kitchen’s interior, for example, will look eerily familiar to fans of The Original Mr. Beef on Orleans.
“Chris Zucchero [the owner of Mr. Beef] has been a dear friend of mine since we were kids, so I’ve spent a lot of time at Mr. Beef over the years. ... A lot of [the culture] is rooted in tradition and in family, which are the same themes the show deals with. Every family, or restaurant, has their own unique way of doing it. Their own recipes, their own secrets,” said Storer, who grew up in Chicago and admits Italian beef is really his favorite sandwich.
“It was a fun challenge to sort of imagine the history of the fictional family on the show and think, ‘They may have had an influx of cash here so maybe they added this or bought a new machine,’” Storer said. “I think it was really helpful for the cast and crew that the stage was not only a working kitchen, but really felt lived in from day one.”
It wasn’t just Storer, and White (who spent some time in the kitchen at Chicago’s Kumiko restaurant and a slew of other eateries in New York and Los Angeles to prepare for the role), who did their Italian beef due diligence by sampling the sandwich every chance they could while filming in Chicago.
Joanna Calo, co-showrunner, writer and director of the series, said there were a lot of taste tests conducted over the course of the series.
“During the writing process in Los Angeles, Chris and [his sister] Courtney Storer, one of our food consultants, would talk at length about the different ways to eat beef and the differences between all the spots, including Johnnie’s, Mr. Beef, and Portillo’s. The writers had the chocolate cake from Portillo’s delivered for inspiration. We all arrived in Chicago a month before production and I tried beef everywhere. I gained 10 pounds in the first two weeks, though most of that came from Kasama breakfast sandwiches, which I couldn’t get enough of.”
Storer made sure the entire cast was well-versed in restaurant operations, food prep, kitchen slang — every aspect of the industry that their characters would require to ensure believability.
“They trained at several kitchens and culinary schools,” Storer said. “In Chicago, the teams at Smyth and The Loyalist, Kumiko, Oriole, Mr. Beef and Elske were really wonderful to us and went out of their way to make sure we got it as close as we could to the real thing. You can actually see a lot of the team from Elske in the background of a flashback sequence.”
For Carmy, who’s a Michelin-starred chef, knife skills are often showcased both in real time and in flashback. White honed his knife skills during a long gap in filming.
“It’s funny, we shot the pilot about a year ago and then we shot the series in January. So there was a point in the pilot where they had stunt hands from a real chef for me. But I worked really hard between pilot and when we shot the full season. And then they took out the stunt hands and shot inserts and specials of me cutting and reinserted that into the pilot. So I believe all of the cutting at this point is me. ... It’s a lot of repetition and you can’t be afraid, which is hard with knife stuff. You just have to trust yourself and really go for it.
“I lost a couple of fingernails in the process of learning and took a little bit of skin off here and there, but nothing major,” he said with a chuckle.
White admitted his real-life cooking skills emerged because of the series. He says he now cooks more often for his wife, actress Addison Timlin, and their kids. His go-to dish is a far cry from a beef sandwich.
“There’s this restaurant in New York called Lucienne, and they do a steak au poivre that‘s really great. The peppercorn is so nice. So I was trying to mimic that sauce for a long time. And now I’m pretty close. I’ll get a New York strip or filet and I’ll do that once a week for my wife and I.”
White said he cannot wait to return to Chicago, where his love affair with the city began during his 11 seasons of playing “Lip” Gallagher on Showtime’s “Shameless,” set and sometimes shot on the South Side. He’s got his favorite spots to revisit.
“We went to Richard’s Bar [on Milwaukee Avenue, and one of Chicago’s oldest watering holes] a lot,” White said. “And La Scarola [restaurant on Grand Avenue]. You’d go to Richard’s and have a drink, go to La Scarola and have your meal and then go back to Richard’s and have another drink or 10 and then you go home. ...
“I grew up in New York and I live in L.A.,” White added. “And I love those cities. Chicago is another city that I now feel very at home in. I love the people there. And it’s a wonderful food city, obviously. And the city is keeping me employed, so I’m very grateful for Chicago.”