Jeremy Allen White as Carmy (FX)

The Bear, FX’s restaurant business dramedy, follows James Beard-winning phenom chef Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) and his efforts to turn his family's Italian beef restaurant, The Beef of Chicagoland, into a functioning business (in the first season) and then a fine-dining establishment called The Bear (in the second). The show is known for its depiction of workplace and family tension—many episodes are at least 95 percent screaming. But something else also animates it: a critique of the kind of success defined only by prowess and external validation. This might be unexpected, because these markers of success are what many, including those in the restaurant industry, crave: recognition, awards, elite status, money. Instead, the show patiently argues for a different vision of success, one founded on hospitality and acceptance of the other.

Midway through the second season, with the clock ticking on the transformation of The Beef of Chicagoland into The Bear, Richie Jerimovich, a family friend of the Berzattos, played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach at his hangdog best, has been sent by Carmy to “stage”—essentially, to intern—at a fictional Chicago restaurant modeled after real three-Michelin-starred Alinea. At first, Richie sees this thankless job—at which he polishes thousands of forks a day—as punishment for clashing with Carmy. In one scene, we see a surly Richie wiping an endless stream of forks, stuck in drudgery while the rest of the restaurant is humming with activity.

Just because he must polish forks, however, doesn’t mean he does it well.

“Do you think this is below you?” his supervisor Garrett asks. When Richie asks why Garrett cares so much, he replies, “It’s because of how stoked they are to see us and how stoked we have to be to serve them.”

Richie had never thought of his work as a service before. Suddenly, each perfect fork seems less like drudgery and more like a gift, one tiny piece of an immaculate experience. And performing a service can be healing—Garrett is a recovering alcoholic who found purpose in acts of service. After his experience staging, Richie is a changed man, and he shows up to work at The Bear rejuvenated and clad in a suit. “I wear suits now,” he responds to his bewildered colleagues who wonder what happened to the lost, purposeless Richie they knew. His newfound self-respect emerged from losing himself to the reality of the other. He also realizes that Carmy was not punishing him, but trying to help attune him to this fact.

But Carmy, the main character of the show, fails to learn that same lesson. His understanding of excellence centers around himself. When his sous chef Sydney (played alternately understated, ambitious, and anxious by a sparkling Ayo Edebri) asks Carmy what he did when the restaurant he managed in the past earned three Michelin stars, he smiles and says, “The first ten seconds felt like a sort of panic ‘cause I knew I just had to keep ‘em. And your brain does a weird thing where it bypasses any sort of joy. It just attaches itself to dread.” The theme of Carmy’s career, he reveals to Sydney, is that his version of success and failure revolves around what he and his prodigious talents can achieve or not achieve. No one else is in the picture.

One of the show’s recurring shots is of Carmy staring, dissociated, as his stovetop erupts into flames. It’s as if all of his past stresses, failures, and trauma are combusting, blackening the pots in front of him and threatening the safety of his restaurant. The viewer wants to scream at him—Do something!—but it’s clear that he can’t. It isn’t until a coworker jumps in with a fire extinguisher that Carmy’s trance is broken. As the image of the stove on fire recurs throughout the show, one wishes that Carmy’s suffering could jar him into some sort of solidarity with the people around him, but instead he burrows deeper down into the fantasy of isolated self-reliance. Carmy’s version of success is standing amid the flames, “bypass[ing] any sort of joy” on his way to dread.

In the world of The Bear, success is determined not by what one lone genius can do with a dish, but what one screw-up can do when he finds his purpose—hospitality to everyone around him.

The final episode of season two is a masterpiece of choreographed stress. It’s family and friend night at The Bear, a dress rehearsal for the restaurant’s opening, and everything conceivable goes wrong. This time, there aren’t enough forks, tensions are high on the line, one chef is revealed to be a meth user, and in a coup de grace, Carmy gets locked in the walk-in refrigerator, a direct result of a broken door he was supposed to fix but didn’t. His team is stranded without him.

The two versions of success play out through the rest of the episode. Carmy’s begins and ends with him stuck in a fridge. He laments how “no amount of good is worth how terrible this feels,” and he forswears any joy-giving things in life in favor of a single-minded focus on his restaurant. But it’s Richie’s approach that saves the day: he steps up, the team puts aside their differences to rally, and they manage, without Carmy, to serve their guests well.

 

Garrett, who inspired Richie’s worldview, observes, “Restaurants and hospitals use the same word: hospitality.” We might add religious orders to that list. In their book Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love, Daniel Homan O.S.B., and Lonni Collins Pratt distinguish between a capitalistic kind of hospitality—hotel-room mints and cruise ships—and the dangerous business of welcoming the other, no matter the cost. In Benedict’s time, this meant welcoming the stranger in from the dangers of the road. In our time, it means making oneself available and being exposed “to all sorts of frightful dangers of attachment and rejection.”

The medieval Rule of St. Benedict, which offers life guidance for monks living in Benedictine monasteries, includes an approach to hospitality that situates the one being served as the person of Christ the stranger. The Rule outlines how guests are to be treated with utmost respect precisely because they are guests, not for any reason other than their basic humanity. This forms the basis for a hospitality unconcerned with superficial niceness, but instead a complete openness to the other. As Homan and Collins Pratt describe it, this radical “hospitality is openhanded.” It is a “lively, courageous, and convivial way of living that challenges our compulsion either to turn away or to turn inward and disconnect ourselves from others.”

Benedict insists that “once a guest is announced the superior and the brothers are to meet him with all the courtesy of love.” The characters on The Bear would likely scoff at that idea. When orders are piling up and the profitability and reputation of the restaurant are at stake, “courtesy of love” seems like a useless concept. But the Rule reminds us that love is done, not just felt. Feelings do not feed the guests on the monastery’s doorstep any more than they keep plates on tables or water glasses filled.

In The Bear, that radical hospitality extends not only to the patrons of a restaurant, but to the chefs themselves. Sharing time, space, and effort with each other is an act of love. When it’s done only for profit, it quickly curdles into something meager and limited. But when it’s done for the sake of service itself, it becomes much more than a few Michelin stars. The characters on The Bear are not nice. They are rude, loud, antagonistic, selfish, and often cruel. But it is also true that the hurt leads to eventual forgiveness. In the restaurant industry, which can be unforgiving, rough, and stressful, grace is the last thing one should expect. Yet in the world of The Bear, success is determined not by what one lone genius can do with a dish, but what one screw-up can do when he finds his purpose—hospitality to everyone around him.

Jack Nuelle is a PhD student in Systematic Theology at Loyola University Chicago. His work has been published in America, the National Catholic Reporter, and Image Journal’s “Good Letters,” among others.

Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.