What ‘The Bear’ Gets Right About Chicago (2023)



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The show celebrates a kind of ambition — humane and independent — that’s often neglected by Hollywood. Maybe that’s why the setting is so important.

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By Nicholas Cannariato

FX’s “The Bear,” now in its second season, is about grief and family and food, but there’s something else there, too. Its protagonist, Carmen Berzatto, is an accomplished chef who has worked in the vaunted kitchens of restaurants like Noma, the French Laundry and Eleven Madison Park. When the show began, he had come home to Chicago after the death of his brother, who left him a struggling shop selling a local staple, Italian beef sandwiches. Carmy could have run the place like any of the hundreds of modest lunch counters in the city, or else he could have sold it and angled to return to the world of fine dining. Instead, we watched him attempt a third thing, turning the business into a new, forward-thinking restaurant. This is the other stuff the show is about: ambition, and Chicago, and the freedom the nation’s third-largest city can offer to follow your ambitions on your own terms.

“The Bear” is among relatively few TV shows that truly lean into a Chicago setting: In addition to copious shots of elevated trains and city skylines, there are nods to local culture hallmarks ranging from the obvious (Scottie Pippen, Bill Murray, Vienna Beef hot dogs) to the deeper cuts (Harold Ramis, Pequod’s Pizza, Margie’s Candies). Some of network television’s most popular procedural shows are set here — “Chicago Med,” “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago P.D.” — but like so many Chicago stories on TV, they use the city for its unmarked, adaptable qualities: It is a metropolis big enough to accommodate any type of person or story, big enough that viewers do not expect to be offered quaint local color, and yet not culturally defined in the American mind in the ways New York City and Los Angeles are. Chicago is in the sweet spot, asking for no explanation, happy to serve as a kind of median city. Insofar as it does have a national reputation, it is as an unpretentious workhorse of a place: the “City of the Big Shoulders,” the city Nelson Algren compared to loving a woman with a broken nose. (“You may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”) The sort of place a restless, plucky Midwesterner like Carmy would leave in order to pursue his ambitions, hoping to prove something to everyone back home — and the sort of place he would return to, stoic and remote, to dole out unglamorous sandwiches from a broken-nosed kind of shop.

Their ambitions revolve around the excellence of the work itself.

Leave it to a Chicagoan like me to note that there are, in fact, more than 20 restaurants in the city with at least one Michelin star. But “The Bear” captures something real about the city’s dining culture — and, more broadly, what you might call the geography of ambition. In one scene in the second season, Sydney Adamu, the woman who is now chef de cuisine for the new restaurant Carmy hopes to start, is discussing the menu with him when she notices his old chef’s uniform from New York, embroidered with his initials. He sees her looking at it. “New York — lame, right?” he says. Sydney replies: “I want to hate it. Like, don’t get me wrong, I do. But it looks sick, and I bet it felt really good wearing it.” It did, Carmy acknowledges; nobody here is going to deny New York’s cultural domination. But he goes on to talk about having earned Michelin stars, saying that his brain raced right past the joy of it to dread — that it felt imperative to keep them at all costs. “New York,” here, signifies a heightened awareness of status and image, stress and precarity, ruthlessness dressed as sophistication.

And Chicago, for “The Bear,” is depicted — accurately — as a place where the goal is not necessarily to win status or acclaim so much as to create something great and original, ambitious without pretense, committed to excellence for its own sake rather than prestige or fame. This is the kind of chef we see Carmy transforming into, and the kind of chef we’re shown surrounding him. When Sydney, planning for the new business, visits other restaurants seeking guidance, she finds people glad to assist; at the well-regarded eatery Avec, she gets crucial advice from the real-life restaurateur Donnie Madia, playing himself. The show casts the city’s restaurant culture as sophisticated but warm, human. It continually suggests that once you abandon the ladder-climbing it associates with the coasts, ambition can be more about playing the game on your own terms or not playing it at all — pursuing your ambition without the brutal expense or atomizing ultracompetitiveness of places closer to the cultural spotlight.

Chicago is in the sweet spot, asking for no explanation.

In another second-season scene, Sydney has a video chat with the pastry chef Marcus, who has gone to Copenhagen to hone his skills. She has been reading “Leading With the Heart,” a book by the former Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski — a gift from her father. Her offhand summary of its lessons is a little dismissive, but Marcus, a former athlete, gets it: The team “kept drilling,” he says, grinding slowly toward excellence. Marcus receives his own lesson about ambition when he asks Luca, the chef he’s studying under, how he got so good. Luca replies that after working with a superior cook, he realized he wasn’t the best and wasn’t ever going to be the best. He came to see this as a good thing: “I could take that pressure off myself. And the only logical thing to do was to try and keep up with him.” At some point, he says, doing great things is less about skill and more about being open “to the world, to yourself, to other people.”

This kind of ambition — humane and independent — is often neglected in Hollywood portrayals of driven people, but “The Bear” nails it. It’s something you encounter in the real Chicago, too. This really is a city where people are able to do unique and forward-looking things with food; where comic actors are funny in person long before they are (or aren’t) pulled to the coasts to be funny on camera; where large and underrecognized shares of Black and Latino cultural and business leaders have done their work; where there are rich and idiosyncratic scenes in theater and music and art and literature that seem to thrive regardless of whether any national spotlight will ever tilt in their direction.

In “The Bear,” even in the tense run-up to the restaurant’s opening, you don’t see Sydney or Marcus burnishing their egos or waiting for people to recognize how special they are. Their moments of triumph come not from critics or crowds but from the people around them: Marcus’s presenting a dish named in memory of Carmy’s brother, or Sydney’s lovingly preparing an omelet for Carmy’s beleaguered sister, Natalie, and then lingering, vulnerable, to see how it goes over. Their ambitions revolve around the work itself and the people with whom they do it. Carmy struggles his way toward the same sensibility, even when it scares him. Cooking, he admits by the season’s end, has, for him, been about routine and concentration, about single-mindedly pursuing a goal — an approach that helped him avoid the messiness of human connection, hiding his vulnerability behind the armor of his own accomplishments.

Carmy went back to Chicago because he had to. He stays because he wants to. For him, and for Sydney, and for Marcus, the point is to do a great thing, for its own sake, alongside people you care about, without much concern for image or status. “The Bear” seems to see this as a very Chicago thing. Resilient but vulnerable, ambitious but sincere, sophisticated but real, somehow too subtly original to be easily defined in the American mind — that feels like my city to me, too.

Opening illustration: Source photographs by Chuck Hodes/FX

Nicholas Cannariato is a writer living in Chicago. He last wrote about celebrity travel shows.

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