It’s safe to say that The Bear is the show of the summer. It’s been more than a month since it first debuted, and still people can’t stop talking about its portrayal of grief, Italian beef, and everything in between(f). Much of the praise is directed toward the show’s realistic portrayal of restaurant life, from the grueling hours to the smallest details, like the style of aprons the characters wear. But the show really soars because of the talent of its ensemble cast, led by Jeremy Allen White as Carmy Berzatto, the fine dining chef who takes over the kitchen of a Chicago Italian beef joint after his brother’s death.
White’s no stranger to Chicago: He spent years traveling back and forth to the city to film his role as Lip Gallagher in Shameless. So it’s no surprise that he comes back here often, and on his most recent journey to the home of Takeout HQ, I was able to sit down with him to talk about restaurant kitchen dynamics, connecting with people in the service industry, and the pressure of cooking for loved ones.
The Takeout: You worked in kitchens to train for your role in The Bear. Did you work in any Chicago restaurants?
Jeremy Allen White: I didn’t actually work at Oriole, but I talked to the [chef de cuisine] over there, chef Jeff [Eichem], and I met chef Noah and just kind of got to pick their brains. I did work over at their sister restaurant, Kumiko, with chef Emery [Ebarle] and [co-owner] Julia [Momosé], which was really, really great. I spent a weekend there with them.
TO: What are some of the more surprising things you picked up from working in restaurant kitchens?
JAW: I don’t know if it was surprising—it makes sense—but I was taken aback by just the commitment and sacrifice of personal time and life. I got to work with chef Dave Beran at Pasjoli in Santa Monica; I got to work with a wonderful chef in New York, Dave Waltuck, who had a wonderful restaurant called Chanterelle in New York for a long time. And those guys at that level, chef Noah, they had to sacrifice so much to get there.
They were on call, working late hours for their chefs for so long, the repetition—it’s really intense. You’re not going to get to where they are if you don’t truly love it. It’s hard. So I think while I always respected the service industry, I only have more and more respect for these chefs.
TO: When you’re seeing these dynamics in the kitchen, what stood out to you about how people interact while they’re working?
JAW: What really struck me was like, there’s obviously a vocabulary to the back of house—and the front of house, kitchens in general—but if a kitchen is really functioning at its highest and most fluid, it’s quiet. You don’t need to speak because everybody’s movement is so dialed that you know where the person on your right is going to be at this moment and you know where the person on your left is going to be, and you know if someone is going to be behind you. Because if everybody’s excellent at what they do—and every restaurant I spent time at, everyone is that excellent—communication verbally isn’t really necessary, and that really struck me.
TO: That’s interesting, because when I think about the first time I really saw kitchens on TV, I think of Gordon Ramsay’s reality shows. A lot of people’s first thought might be, “I’m going to go into a kitchen and just get screamed at the whole time.”
JAW: I was nervous, for sure.
TO: I like that The Bear shows that, yes, that does happen, but it doesn’t always happen.
JAW: I talked a lot to the chefs I worked with about how they were brought up in the industry. A lot of them are a little bit older, and I think the service industry and restaurant industry is and has been going through a shift like so many industries have in these recent five, ten years. But some of these chefs came up through the time when I think it was more common to have a more volatile experience in the kitchen, and I was really interested in that.
I would ask them questions like, “Do you think you would be as good as you are if you hadn’t gone through that?” and most of them said no. But they don’t run their kitchens that way. So then I have to ask the question, “Are you doing some sort of disservice, in a way?” Yes, perhaps there was one line cook that would have become excellent if you were harder on them. But at the end of the day, you’re just going to traumatize more people than you’re going to help, so it’s obviously the right choice.
On the show, that’s the way Carmy came up. He was obviously in an abusive environment coming up; that’s not the kitchen he wants to run, but he slips, like everybody does.
TO: So much of the show is about grief and going through that. Carmy deals with grief in the kitchen because that’s where he’s comfortable, but food plays such a big part in everyone’s grieving process.
JAW: Yeah, comfort and being taken care of. I think that was something early on that I understood about Carmy, and I think like a lot of chefs I spent time with—this is a generalization, obviously; there are chefs with all kinds of personalities—but I found a lot of chefs that I spent time with to be a sensitive kind of person. They communicated best through their skill. Not that they were mean or difficult in any way, but in my opinion weren’t the most socially comfortable. And I think that Carmy is 100% that. He’s so handicapped socially and he has such a difficult time communicating, but I think he feels such relief to be able to communicate through food.
TO: It’s cool to see how people are responding to the show. I know so many people in the industry who are like, “It’s so great to see a realistic depiction.”
JAW: What’s interesting to me (and what I don’t think I realized when we were shooting) is, you know, not everybody was a line cook, but almost everybody you meet has been a server or a host or a hostess or a manager. This world is familiar to so many people.
TO: A lot of people seem delighted about you drinking out of a deli container as a very insider detail. Have you heard about any other little things like that that people have been excited to see?
JAW: The green tape stood out to a lot of chefs. What was really nice was [Courtney and Chris Storer] had an industry screening before the show even came out in Los Angeles and so many chefs there were struck by the moment in the pilot where Carmy finds his chef’s knife on the ground under the oven. Everybody was like, “That. Shit. Felt. Real.” Because if that really happened, a chef is going to lose their fucking shit.
TO: Were you a cook at home at all before this? If not, has that changed?
JAW: Before this, truly no. I definitely cook a lot more [now]. Between shooting the pilot and the rest of the first season I made a point of cooking something every day. I cooked almost all the way through the Frankies Spuntino cookbook, which is a restaurant in Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn, because Matty [Matheson] actually gave it to me. He thought maybe Carmy wanted to make his restaurant something like what Frankies felt like, so he was like, “I think this would be a good book for you to work on and cook through.” So I was cooking a lot. And then, the last two months, I cook breakfast for my daughters, but nothing fancy.
TO: Do you want your daughters to get into cooking as they grow up?
JAW: For sure. You learn so much, there’s so much that goes into it. Having Matty on set, he’s so knowledgeable about so many crazy niche, specific things because there are so many things that relate to the preparation of different dishes. I would love it if they got into cooking.
My oldest—my daughter Ezer is three—she thinks I’m a chef. I always tell her I am not a chef, but she’s convinced now that I am, in fact, a chef.
TO: My dad was a chef, and growing up, I would try to help him. He would kind of be like, just let me do my thing.
JAW: That’s a weird thing, too! It is weird how territorial you get. We shot episodes two through eight in late January, so around Christmastime is when I was really cooking the most. I cooked Christmas Eve for all of our family and I cooked Christmas Day, and it is funny how people want to hang out in the kitchen. You’re like, “Get out of my space! Stop talking to me, I don’t want your help, please leave me alone so I can focus.”
TO: So how are you preparing for the next season? Are you going to be cooking more in kitchens?
JAW: I definitely need to get back in there. I think I’ve gotten pretty lazy. I haven’t really been cooking for a couple of months and really need to get sharp again. I think I’m going to end up doing a movie in Toronto, so I’m going to go hang out at some of Matty’s restaurants, which will be fun.
TO: What would you recommend people eat or drink as a sort of pairing while they’re watching the show?
JAW: I think any heavier pasta dish, like a cream-based pasta. You can’t go wrong with an Italian beef. I love the hot dogs here, too. Chicago-style dog, you can’t go wrong.