Discover more from Tangent
Lessons from The Bear
Hello friends and welcome to new subscribers! It is always an honor have your attention.
This week’s essay contains some spoilers for this TV series. If you cannot watch a show once you know what happens, then turn away. Really. Don’t read this. Go watch it (and hopefully come back after).
If you don’t mind some spoilers, then you are in for a treat (and it will make you want to watch the show more).
The roaring of the ticketing machine. The orphaned phone wailing to be answered. Directions being shouted in preparation for a shelling. Gratuitous cursing heaved in desperation. It’s a clusterfuck.
“We are firing 76 beefs, 34 chickens–ok? 12 french fries, 12 mash, fucking now!”
Every episode of FX’s The Bear feels like a war zone. An inside look into the trenches of a place we take for granted: The Restaurant.
The show follows the story of Carmy (played by apparently dreamy1 Jeremy Allen White), a prodigious chef from the world of Michelin-starred restaurants, returning to Chicago to run his deceased brother’s sandwich shop. He partners with a promising new chef named Sydney (played by the charming Ayo Edebiri) to transform a band of misfits from cringy restaurant workers to charismatic fine dining team throughout its two seasons. All with personal trauma, existential crises, lots of swearing, and anxiety inducing scenes. It’s intoxicatingly addictive.
The show shines through its authenticity. Real world chefs have called this show “too real.” What I loved about its second season was the way it treated the supporting cast. They weren’t used as props for comedic relief nor shoehorned into ill-fitting scenes with vapid scripts to claim the show was “diverse.”
We saw the hero’s journey in each of them: The call to adventure, the mentor, crossing the chasm, the resurrection. By the end of season two, we aren’t just rooting for Carmy–we are rooting for the whole gang.
Through Richie, Tina, Marcus, and Sydney’s story arcs, we get lessons on transformation, loyalty, craft, and persistence.
Transformation is self-respect
The transformation of The Original Beef from Chicagoland from shithole sandwich shop to fancy restaurant is a metaphor for every character’s journey. We can find worth not only in what we do, but how we do it.
No one embodies this transformation in season two quite like problematic cousin Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). In one episode, he stages at the best restaurant in the world. After 9 hours of just polishing forks, he’s fed up and has a testy exchange with Garrett (Andrew Lopez), one of the restaurant’s managers:
Richie: You really drink this Kool-Aid, huh?
Garett: Yeah, I do.
Garrett: Because I love this, Richie. I love this so much, dude. Did you know that when this restaurant opened 12 years ago, it won the best restaurant in the world the same year? It's retained three stars because we have a waiting list that's long.
Five thousand people waiting at any given moment long. Do you see their faces when they walk in here? How stoked they are to see us and how stoked we have to be to serve them?
It takes 200 people to keep this place in orbit. And at any given moment, one of those people that is waiting in line gets to eat here. They get to spend their time and their money here. I'm sorry, bro, but we need to have some forks without streaks in them.
Every day here is the freaking Super Bowl. You don't have to drink the Kool-Aid, Richie. I just need you to respect me. I need you to respect the staff. I need you to respect the diners. And I need you to respect yourself.
Richie: I can do respect.
Our egos thrive in preserving the moldy walls, the fridge door that won’t close, the three day old meatball. It relishes in the familiarity of our current identities, even if our current identity is dysfunctional.
When people talk about healing as a way to live with less suffering, what it actually looks like is daily conversations with your ego where you say: “I need you to come along or fuck off. How I am right now doesn’t serve me, and I am worthy of evolving. I need to respect myself.”
Richie’s transformation is the confrontation of his problematic ego. The one that would lead him to engage in asinine power struggles. The one that would lead him to blatant acts of self-sabotage. By the end of season two, cousin Richie is nearly unrecognizable from pilot episode Richie. He’s healing because he is finally respecting himself.
Do Not Discard
One of The Bear’s most moving storylines this season was Tina’s arc. A proud middle-aged Latina who was part of the old guard before Carmy came and took over, Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) had a prickly relationship with both Carmy & Sydney, until she saw virtue in their ways by the end of the first season.
As Carmy & Sydney ventured forward to remake Original Beef into The Bear, the obvious choice was to source new talent that could operate under the standards and intensity of fine dining.
Yet, Sydney decided to offer Tina the position of sous chef and send her to culinary school while they renovated the restaurant.
This felt radical. Unexpected. Irrational.
Tina could have been easily discarded. But the show turned her into a heroine.
An iconic scene from this season was Tina attending a happy hour with culinary school classmates 20 years her junior. The crowning moment in the scene was when Tina belts out Before The Next Teardrop Falls by Freddy Fender. The entire bar erupts in cheers, including her classmates. They see her differently now.
The show confronts us with the tacit ageism in all workplaces and environments. We think that because someone has lived twice longer than us that they are half as fun, half as interesting, half as relatable. They are past their expiration date. I’ve been at fault of this foolish thinking.
Tina also confronted her ego. The one that told her “Don’t go to class. You are not like them. You are too old for this shit.” But she saw what she could be. A sous chef. She saw that Sydney had believed in her and wanted to reciprocate while pursuing her own excellence.
This storyline is jarring against the backdrop of how employees are treated nowadays. Numbers on a spreadsheet subtracted to pump up profits. We’ve abandoned the ability to have faith in people’s evolution, in their ability to redeem themselves. Discarding is the convenient choice. But as Tina’s arc showed us, there is value in sticking with someone and believing in them.
The Elevation of Undervalued Craft
My takeaway from Marcus’ storyline was how poorly we value craft in places like restaurants. Marcus (Lionel Boyce), stages at one of Carmy’s friends restaurants in Copenhagen2. His mission is to come back with three stunning desserts. Under the tutelage of Chef Luca (Will Pouter), Marcus hyper-focuses his talents, curiosity, and desire to succeed to go from talented baker to serious pastry chef.
Observation. Precision. Consistency. Chemistry. Alchemy. All of these are recurrent elements of the episode and Marcus’ journey. As I marveled at the extreme complexity of his craft, I realized how silly it is that we barely talk about all the hard shit that many blue-collar and service industry jobs have to do. Instead, we opt to glorify PowerPoint wizards and Excel gurus.
It’s not that it’s easy to present information in an engaging way, or bringing order to chaos via spreadsheet. But the chasm of discourse & value between these skills, and say, making impeccable desserts, is too big to be justified.
We’ve arrived at this irrational valuation of menial skills because it is part of the larger story we tell ourselves about accomplishment in our society: Go to school and learn “advanced skills,” to find a decent job. Find a decent job, so that those exotic Instagram-worthy vacations you see are within your reach. Afford these vacations by mastering keyboard shortcuts, follow up emails, and running meetings via Zoom.
We’ve glorified these skills because if we are excellent at these menial things, we are going to get that bonus, that raise, that will allow us to take that Instagram panorama of a sunset in Mykonos so we can make our exes that still orbit around our social media a bit more jealous.
But, there is worth in the barista who expertly makes latte art. The craft of a plumber that can ensure your house is functional. The fundamental work of teachers who get paid in crayons to develop the nation’s youth under a model that constraints them of any agency, tramples on kid’s creativity, and reduce schools to underfunded places to hold kids while parents work.
We’ve lost the ability to evaluate what crafts are truly important, remarkable, and meaningful.
Leading with the Heart
In Sydney’s storyline, she finds herself in a molting transition from failed chef to head chef at The Bear. All while carrying the baggage of living with her Dad, doubting Carmy’s level of focus and commitment, being a Black woman in the industry, and trying to unlock her creative potential.
I related to Sydney’s storyline the most. I would dive into books like Leading with the Heart to become a better leader. I would struggle with crippling doubt and anxiety while perfecting a dish menu that is authentic to me (I face that struggle every time I write). I do wonder whether the risks I’m taking are going to be worth it, or whether I will inevitably fail, succumbing to the valley of failed creators and dejected writers.
But Sydney’s story gives me hope. She wavers, she teeters, she throws up in the back alley of the restaurant. She never quits. She knows that she is called to make food. She knows that this is how she shows love. The tender scene between her and Carmy’s sister, Sugar (Abby Elliott) where she makes her a delicious omelet after noticing she hadn’t eaten all day is the raison d’etre for her cooking. Her vocation is to love through food.
She never loses sight of that. That’s why she feels like there is no other path for her and bristles when her Dad gently suggests taking a job at Boeing (yet another parallel between us).
By the end of season two, her arc is still developing (which is the only underwhelming thing about this season), but it was capped by finally receiving the validation she craved from her Father.
[Sidney throws up in back alley]
Sydney’s Father: Baby, are you okay?
Sydney: Oh, fսck. Oh, God. Hey. Oh. Sorry. Uh, yeah, I'm good. Sorry. You're not supposed to...
Sydney’s Father: I-I-I knew you were busy, and I was trying not to bother you.
Sydney: No, come on. No. Uh, it's fine. How was the food?
Sydney’s Father: Incredible. Absolutely... incredible. Baby? It's the thing.
I’m rooting for Sydney because that’s my way of rooting for myself without feeling so self-indulgent.
My friend Teo put it best: “It’s refreshing to see an ode to true apprenticeship in an era where companies are so quick to discard people, and where employees are expected to grow on their own time.”
It celebrates the precision of adding a tuille3 on top of a vibrant dish that will make someone’s night. The science in calling out ticket orders and directing kitchen operations where every second counts. The art in polishing forks.
The Bear delivers these lessons along with explorations on our ability to transform and triumph.
And that’s the beauty of TV shows–of stories–in general: We see glimpses of our broken selves and our ideal selves in the characters we follow. They remind us of our humanity and show us that it is ok to be imperfect. It is also ok to yearn to be a better version of ourselves.
These are the lessons this show screams at us in every pulsating episode.
Thank you for reading! If you like what I cooked up for you today, how about hitting that subscribe button?
Sorry, I just don’t see it.
One of the funniest scenes is when Marcus arrives at the houseboat he will be staying at, head barely touching the roof, as if he’s staying in the Smurf Village.
A Tuille is a baked wafer. A quintessential element of refined dishes.