In Episode 7 of Hulu’s "The Bear," a rare quiet morning at an Italian sandwich shop soon detonates into chaos. Overqualified sous chef Sydney Adamu (Ayo Edebiri) mistakenly left The Original Beef of Chicagoland’s pre-order option open.
With no end in sight, the restaurant’s to-go order machine spits out order receipts after order receipts. As the show’s protagonist Carmen "Carmy" Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) puts it, there are “78 slices of chocolate cake. 99 french fries. 54 chickens! 38 salads! And 255 BEEF SANDWICHES DUE IN EIGHT MINUTES!!!”
At this point, The Original Beef’s kitchen brigade is on a vigorous simmer. However, it isn’t long until things completely boil over. One staffer backs his butt straight into a knife, a tray of gourmet doughnuts is thrown furiously at the floor, and disillusioned Sydney unceremoniously quits.
Devon Matthias, 27, says he knows exactly what the critically acclaimed drama series is talking about.
"I’ve seen fires. I’ve seen knife injuries," Matthias remarked. "I haven’t seen someone get stabbed in the butt like in the show, but I’ve seen the breakdown, like just walkouts or some employee just like, 'I can’t handle it anymore.'"
For six years, starting in high school, Matthias worked in the food service industry, rising the ranks at Kopp’s Frozen Custard, which he describes as "a big deal for Wisconsin." "If you’re from Wisconsin, specifically southeastern Wisconsin. You know Kopps," he explained, noting that true Kopp’s-heads have a flavor list and sign up for text updates to know what flavors are available on any given day. The shop’s cult status meant that, like in "The Bear," the stakes were high for employees.
Speaking to TODAY Food, former and current restaurant workers mused over the accuracies of "The Bear" and, in particular, what the show got right.
Workers get injured all the time.
Robert Johnson, a Los Angeles-based manager of Night + Market Song, told TODAY that, in addition to cuts and burns, he’d seen all-out brawls in the kitchens he’s worked in. As a result, he thinks the Hulu breakout, which follows a James Beard Award-winning chef named Carmy’s return to his Chicago roots in an attempt to breathe life back into his deceased brother’s Italian beef sandwich shop, gets a lot right.
“I was at a restaurant once where it was a two-floor restaurant in a row house in Washington, D.C.,” he recalled. “A pipe from in between the two floors burst and it rained down onto the kitchen.”
Heather Slick tells TODAY she knows the deal.
“We had a fire on our stovetop one time, and it totally got (our chef’s) eyebrows. He was fine, but that was just like in the show how Sydney’s like, ‘We need to close,’ and (Carmy’s) like, ‘No, we’re not closing.’ It was always like that. Something catastrophic would happen, and the chef would be like, ‘No, we’re not closing,’” Slick explained, recalling how the chef at the small family-owned Mediterranean restaurant she worked at for two and a half years once severely cut his finger.
“He bandaged it up and cooked the whole night, and by the end of the night, he was sheet white,” she recalled.
Joshua Hull is a 40-year-old Pendleton, Indiana-based writer and brewer. Currently, he is a part owner of a horror-themed brewing company called Scarlet Lane Brewing Company. After high school, he worked for 16 years in the food service industry, starting out at a small local restaurant where he was one of three people handling the lunch shift and prepping for the dinner shift.
Speaking to TODAY, he explained burns, cuts and hangovers were par for the course during his time in the industry. Still, he never saw things get as bad as literal butt-stabbings.
“Unless you count folks being passed over for well-deserved promotions,” Hull quipped.
The back of house is all about pivoting on a dime.
“It’s so cheesy to say, but it’s almost like jazz,” Johnson told TODAY. “There is a through line that you are trying to (accomplish as kitchen staff) but a million other influences that could change it.”
“The Bear” depicts that never-ending carousel of outside factors and down-to-the-wire decisions. Take, for instance, Episode 5 of the series, which sees both a toilet explosion and an operation-halting blown fuse.
“Whether an ingredient (isn’t available) or somebody didn’t prep the right thing or somebody prepped too much. There’s a thing that you’ve got to kind of follow, but it’s all over the place. You’re still getting to the end,” Johnson explained. “The end of this song is service, and everybody’s getting their food in at the same. But to get to that place, it’s different every time.”
Yes, the staff really do kiss their mothers with those mouths.
Potty mouths abound in the series were brought to life by producer, director and writer Christopher Storer. Throughout the series, the kitchen staff at The Original Beef dish out biting insults that would make anyone else run to Human Resources.
Sydney and Richard "Richie" Jerimovich (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) are just two characters whose constant snipes and gripes trample into HR-violation territory.
“And there’s definitely some sexism,” Slick remarked, recalling her time working at that family-owned spot in Pennsylvania. “For us, everyone who was in the kitchen was male. All the servers were women. There were definitely instances of sexism that were not OK. (The women) all handled it more just like how the show is, took it into our own hands. I worked with like a lot of pretty tough women. So we really never backed down from it. We all supported each other.”
Good or bad, working at a restaurant can be like working with family.
Johnson, the L.A.-based manager who’s seen it all, says the series’ skeptical character Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas) is an example of the familial dynamic of a restaurant. You don’t always get along, but by some fate, you’ve been shoved into the sweltering, demanding and suffocating confines of a kitchen together. As such, you have to find a way to get along and find common ground.
“From the very beginning. (Tina’s) there, just like putting it out there,” Johnson noted, recalling how, throughout the first episode of the series, Tina gives hell to the staff around her. “Then, at family dinner (when it’s asked), ‘What are you thankful for?’ She’s like, ‘I’m thankful for you m*****f******.’”
“You are living, breathing and sweating with these people 10 to 12 hours a day,” Hull explained. “You work long hours and don’t have a regular social life, so the kitchen staff becomes the social life and the people you talk to the most.
"They become the people that know you best. They know your strengths, your weaknesses and whatever nickname you earned by doing something really dumb. There’s anger and tears … and failure. But there’s always bouncing back, and that is what it’s like to work in a restaurant."