When the one and only Anthony Bourdain was asked to distil life’s wisdom into one sentence, the most rock ‘n’ roll of television chefs pointed to a musician: “The great Warren Zevon was asked, close to death, whether he had any important words of wisdom to pass on, and he said, ‘Enjoy every sandwich.’” That is a tall order, for every life does serve up some miserable sandwiches.
But a really great sandwich… Now that’s a song. A great roast beef sandwich, for instance, is a symphony of succulence and sass, a bold middle-finger to insipid leafy greens. With each bite the savoury juices of the meat whisper sweet nothings to our taste buds, forever corrupting and disrupting the palates —reminding us to live deliciously. For life is too short for bland bites.
There really is a lot to be said for a perfect sandwich. And The Bear (streaming in India on Disney+ Hotstar) says most of it.
Written and directed by Christopher Storer, The Bear tells the story of a rundown beef-sandwich shop in Chicago where the beloved owner has killed himself and his awkward savant brother—not as beloved, but coming with a Michelin-starred pedigree—has to step in and run the restaurant. The idea of an out-of-place maestro taking charge of a ragtag band isn’t new, but this show, like its precision-obsessed protagonist, is all about attention to detail. It gives us so, so much to admire.
It may be one of the best directed shows out there—the direction outstrips the plotting, certainly—and the style and the pacing are engineered to heighten viewer anxiety, in order to make each cut of a blade, each swirl of sauce, feel unbearably crucial. The first season, where Carmy Berzatto tries to impose high-end restaurant techniques on a modest but proud crew who are convinced they know what they are doing, is a pulse-poundingly breathless season of television.
The second one takes deeper breaths but continues to luxuriate in the details as we see characters from the first season—like Marcus Brooks, a bread-maker increasingly fixated with exquisite pastry—find, or at least attempt to find, their purpose. In one of the best bits, played by Lionel Boyce, Marcus finds himself in Copenhagen, living on a boat, tasting unfamiliar flavours and working on incredibly complex pastry, all while an experienced London chef marks his attempts wrong. As his hand steadies and the pastry chefs become friends, Marcus realises the Londoner is brilliant but, as with most chefs, not brilliant enough. He’s Scottie Pippen bettering himself by trying to keep up with Michael Jordan. That’s all most of us can do, make mistakes and try harder.
For perfectionists, the kitchen does not offer comfort. Carmy Berzatto is an unlikely hero—played by Jeremy Allen White, who looks like a compact, buff version of the Hindi film actor Paintal—a protagonist who literally doesn’t know the meaning of the word “fun”. He’s rousing his crew and pushing them to a higher standard, but doesn’t enjoy it. He does it because he doesn’t know any other way, with the idea of excellence hard-coded into his DNA. It’s a magnetic performance, White communicating every ounce of Carmy’s edgy discomfort without ever spelling it out, all body language and tiny facial tics. Even the way he takes a drag of a cigarette speaks volumes.
Carmy’s partner Sydney, played by the gifted Ayo Edebiri, is all ambition, quick to flay herself for under-seasoning a potentially thrilling dish, bitterly hungry to earn one of those iconic stars provided by a tyre company. Liza Colón-Zayas plays Tina, a once-surly line cook now pinching herself as she works towards becoming a sous chef, serving up a performance full of heart and fire. The superb Oliver Platt plays Jimmy, Carmy’s shady uncle, striking extortionate deals while financing the restaurant.
The character who makes The Bear growl is Richie, the hot-headed manager of the restaurant. The only one in the kitchen who carries a firearm as well as the only one to get stabbed in the kitchen, Richie embodies the hardness of the hustle. Richie is a loose cannon trying, in the new season, to be reasonable, and Ebon Moss-Bachrach throws everything into the performance, from barely suppressed rage to ignorance to fragility: he’s also just a father trying to score Taylor Swift tickets for his daughter. He calls Carmy “cousin” without being related, and that works. Brothers in arms.
The Bear is about grief, about loss, about ambition, about addiction. Ultimately, though, it is about food.
It is about how many people it takes to make a meal special, and how special those people need to feel in order to give their food that much care. The camera fetishises the slicing and the searing, and the eventual outcome is breathtaking. And, inevitably, pornographic. It is astounding to witness the alchemy behind great food, to see an immaculate dish come together masterfully, and The Bear brings together ingredients the way it brings together its ensemble: to give us something moreish. It slakes the appetite, hard. It’s ironic that a show this cinematic is also visceral enough to emphasise the gulf between food and a picture of food. Stop scrolling. Go find a great sandwich.