Thank you for the hit TV series ‘The Bear” for daring to show audiences what it’s really like to run a restaurant. Spoiler: It’s ugly.
For decades, movies and shows have romanticized running a kitchen. Hulu’s summer hit finally gets it right — and as a restaurant wife (aka a work widow) I finally feel validated.
Twenty-three years ago, I met my husband, Shane, at a Cape Cod restaurant where he was the chef and I was a waitress. I was enamored by his work ethic, ability to put out hundreds of dinners a night and, yes, talent at making food that caused me to gain 10 pounds after a few months of dating.
Every night behind the line, he gave everything he had and thrived on the adrenaline and chaos of the kitchen. It made working with him fun. And there was something sexy about a guy who commanded the kitchen and lived and breathed his work with purpose and passion.
Our first date was a quick lunch at the beach in between the 80 hours a week he was at the restaurant. We laughed as we sat in the sand and ate sandwiches, but it was an early sign that our relationship would always be squeezed in between work.
While we were dating, I went to weddings and holiday gatherings alone, trying to explain to my friends and family that my boyfriend had to work on Thanksgiving, Easter and even Christmas (the restaurant wasn’t open that day, but he still felt compelled to check on it). They understood, and yet, they didn’t understand. Monica was a chef in “Friends” and she never missed a dinner or weekend with her tribe. Why did he?
Shane’s unwavering dedication was a hard thing to explain until Hulu’s “The Bear” introduced Carmen Berzatto, a talented chef hustling to keep his restaurant afloat with a willingness to sacrifice anything that gets in his way. “Carmy,” as he’s called, may just as well be a younger version of my spouse.
The industry strains relationships and runs amuck with mental health disorders and substance abuse. It’s one that leaves a lot to be desired for those of us on the outside, but it calls to the people who sacrifice everything to be a part of it.
Like so many chefs, my husband found a purpose and belonging in the restaurant, of which he eventually became part owner. He thrives off the thrill of doing what seems to be impossible: Serving more than 500 dinners in four hours, sometimes without a sous- chef. The challenge to prove himself by keeping pace has kept him going back for more.
“The Bear” shows the urgency of this hustle. Even pre-pandemic, 60% of restaurants were going out of business within their first year, and 80% within the first five. The food becomes secondary to the reality that even the best chefs and the best restaurants fail. It’s a constant struggle to stay afloat.
Yet our culture perpetuates a romantic version of the life of a chef. Culinary series like “The Mind of a Chef” and “Chef’s Table” showcase well-groomed professionals in pristine chef’s coats whose biggest decision of the day is whether to zest lemon or lime over a piece of grilled fish.
Considerably more accurate is a scene from “The Bear” in which Carmy’s sister, who co-owns the restaurant, says to him, “We never spend any real time together. This place is eating you alive. All of our time, money, work gets sucked up into this place. The only thing we get back is chaos, resentment. It’s bulls—.”
I’ve said it all to my husband countless times.
We skipped a honeymoon because our wedding occurred during tourist season on the Cape. That morphed into missed nights, weekends and anniversaries, our girls’ birthday parties and school events. “Not gonna happen,” he’d text minutes before an elementary school talent show.
There was no arguing, though. When you marry a chef, you marry the business. And it’s one that requires tunnel vision because there’s always something going wrong. The fryolator is broken, a dishwasher doesn’t show up for his shift or the dining room fan is leaking “black crap” all over the floor. There’s an urgency and panic when something happens that could take the restaurant down with a missed service or two.
“The Bear” shows a toilet overflowing and the staff scrambling to clean it up so they can open for business. My husband’s done that too, more than once.
For decades, he’s slept with his phone next to the bed “just in case.” In the middle of the night, he gets calls because a cook got hit on his bike and is in the emergency room or a balloon tripped the alarm system and he needs to meet someone from the fire department in the parking lot.
“You can’t make this stuff up,” he says as puts on a T-shirt and shuffles to his car.
Yet plenty of movies do. “Chef” (2014) and “Burnt” (2015) were great at capturing the electricity of the kitchen but terrible at showing the reality of being a chef and running a restaurant. After my daughters watched “Ratatouille” (2007), I felt compelled to explain that Remy’s kitchen was not like daddy’s kitchen. I didn’t want them to romanticize being a chef, and worse, I didn’t want them to be one.
Movies and shows that continue to misrepresent the restaurant industry make me look and feel crazy. They don’t show a stressed-out chef (insert my husband smashing his phone on the kitchen tile) trying to bank as much money as possible in the summer to get the restaurant through the lean winter.
It’s been a disservice to an industry of workers who are busting themselves to save their restaurants, salvage their relationships and create beautiful food that diners want to eat.
People often tell me they want to open a restaurant. “No, you don’t,” I say. They assure me they know what they’re getting into. They love food and watch the Food Network. I assure them they don’t. Now I tell them to watch “The Bear” before they make their decision. If they still go ahead with it, they can’t say I didn’t warn them.
,Amy McHugh is the author of a forthcoming memoir on parenting, perspective and messy new beginnings. She lives on Cape Cod with her husband and two teenage daughters. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Oprah Daily and Shondaland.
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