Chicago’s signature Italian beef sandwiches continue to put the city on the culinary map — this time via “The Bear,” a half-hour drama series now streaming on Hulu.
Jeremy Allen White stars as Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, a James Beard Award-winning chef who returns home to the Windy City after her older brother’s suicide to run the family sandwich, The Original Beef of Chicagoland.
An instant hit after its June 23 debut, the drama has a 100% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes and has been picked up for a second season. “‘The Bear’ exceeded our wildest creative, critical and commercial expectations,” said Eric Schrier, president of FX Entertainment, which produces the show for Hulu.
The series stars Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Ayo Edebiri, Abby Elliott, Lionel Boyce and Liza Colón-Zayas as the unenthusiastic kitchen staff at The Original Beef. The joint is pretty much on its last legs, with a mountain of overdue invoices, unpaid salespeople pounding on the door, and not-so-profitable cash flow.
The kitchen is a chaotic mess on so many levels for Carmy, who also struggles with a slew of unresolved emotional issues. His first task is to literally clean up the place and restructure the way the kitchen works, which demands a new level of dedication from his team. It’s a powerful lesson in kitchen workflow. Think: dedicated stations.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand how a kitchen works, with people just doing one thing [at one station all day]”, said White. “Repetition is something. I have so much respect for the kitchen, cooks and chefs. It’s a huge sacrifice of time and commitment. sure, can be daunting at times. But it’s such a beautiful thing. It’s like making a movie or a TV show – if you have a group of people together who are all very good at what they do and who ‘they’re on the same page about the goal and they’re all competent enough, you can work together and perform.
“I also see kitchens as a performance. These chefs, cooks – they play for you every night. They’re not in your face all the time, but that’s what they do. And that makes sense to me.
Getting all the intricacies, all the nuances of Chicago’s Italian beef culture, along with the look and feel of a real Chicago Italian beef store was paramount to “The Bear” creator, Christopher Storer. The kitchen interior, for example, will look oddly familiar to fans of The Original Mr. Beef on Orleans.
“Chris Zucchero [the owner of Mr. Beef] has been a dear friend of mine since we were kids, so I’ve spent a lot of time at Mr. Beef’s over the years. … A lot of [the culture] is rooted in tradition and family, which are the same themes the show deals with. Each family or restaurant has its own way of doing it. Their own recipes, their own secrets,” said Storer, who grew up in Chicago and admits that Italian beef really is her favorite sandwich.
“It was a fun challenge to kind of imagine the fictional family history on the show and think, ‘Maybe they had an influx of money here, so maybe they added this or bought a new machine,'” Storer said. “I think it was really helpful for the cast and crew that the stage wasn’t just a functional kitchen, but felt really lived in from day one.”
It wasn’t just Storer and White (who spent time in the kitchen of Chicago’s Kumiko restaurant and a slew of other restaurants in New York and Los Angeles to prepare for the role), who did their due diligence in matter of Italian beef tasting the sandwich whenever they could while filming in Chicago.
Joanna Calo, co-showrunner, writer and director of the series, said that many taste tests were carried out during the series.
“During the writing process in Los Angeles, Chris and [his sister] Courtney Storer, one of our Food Consultants, spoke at length about the different ways to eat beef and the differences between all the places including Johnnie’s, Mr. Beef and Portillo’s. The writers had chocolate cake delivered from Portillo’s for inspiration. We all arrived in Chicago a month before production and tried beef everywhere. I gained 10 pounds in the first two weeks, although most of it came from Kasama breakfast sandwiches, which I couldn’t get enough of.
Storer made sure the entire cast was well-versed in restaurant operations, food preparation, cooking slang — every aspect of the industry their characters would need to ensure credibility.
“They have been trained in several kitchens and culinary schools,” Storer said. “In Chicago, the teams at Smyth and The Loyalist, Kumiko, Oriole, Mr. Beef and Elske were really great with us and went out of their way to make sure we got as close to reality as possible. You can actually see much of Elske’s team in the background of a flashback sequence.
For Carmy, who is a Michelin-starred chef, knife skills are often showcased in both real-time and flashback. White honed his knife skills over a long period of filming.
“It’s funny, we shot the pilot about a year ago and then we shot the series in January. So there was a point in the pilot where they had a real boss stunt for me. But I worked very hard between the pilot and the shooting of the full season. And then they took the stuntman’s hands out and pulled inserts and specials from me cutting and reinserted them into the pilot. So I believe the whole cut at this point is me. … It’s a lot of reps and you can’t be scared, which is hard with knife stuff. You just have to trust yourself and really go for it.
“I lost a few nails in the process of learning and peeled off a little skin here and there, but nothing major,” he said with a laugh.
White admitted that his real-life cooking skills emerged thanks to the series. He says he now cooks more often for his wife, actress Addison Timlin, and their children. His favorite dish is far from the beef sandwich.
“There’s this restaurant in New York called Lucienne, and they have a pepper steak that’s really great. The pepper is so good. So I tried to imitate this sauce for a long time. And now I’m pretty close. I will get a New York strip or net and do it once a week for my wife and me.
White said he can’t wait to return to Chicago, where his love affair with the city began during his 11 seasons playing ‘Lip’ Gallagher on Showtime’s ‘Shameless,’ shot and occasionally filmed on the South Side . He has his favorite places to revisit.
“We went to Richard’s Bar [on Milwaukee Avenue, and one of Chicago’s oldest watering holes] a lot,” White said. “And The Escarole [restaurant on Grand Avenue]. You would go to Richard’s and have a drink, you would go to La Scarola and have your meal, then you would go back to Richard’s and have another drink or 10, then you would go home. …
“I grew up in New York and live in Los Angeles,” White added. “And I love these cities. Chicago is another city in which I now feel very comfortable. I love the people there. And it’s a wonderful gastronomic city, of course. And the city keeps me a job, so I’m very grateful to Chicago.