I Worked in Michelin-Starred Kitchens. ‘The Bear’’s Depiction of Trauma Is Painfully Real

I Worked in Michelin-Starred Kitchens. ‘The Bear’’s Depiction of Trauma Is Painfully Real

“Why are you so slow? Why are you so fucking slow? Why? You think you’re so tough. Yeah. Why don’t you say this? Say, ‘Yes, chef, I’m so tough.’”

In The Bear, Hulu’s new TV series dramatizing—and nailing—toxic restaurant culture, the main character recalls a chef berating him. When I watched this part, I had to pause. I knew the show was fiction, but the scene could have been lifted straight from my memory. I used to work in Michelin-starred restaurants, and at the last restaurant I worked at, a sous chef asked if I was stupid and if there was something wrong with me for not understanding what they were asking me to do. I responded the only way I knew: “Yes, chef.”

I could barely get through The Bear. Not because I thought it was bad television—but because it was the most accurate portrayal of life in a restaurant kitchen I’ve seen in a while. It was so accurate that it was triggering: The details of spilling a whole cambro of veal stock, your peers hiding your mise en place, and still others turning up the stove when you weren’t looking. It reminded me a little too much of what it was like to fend for myself in a chaotic, cutthroat kitchen. After watching, I spoke with other restaurant workers. We all agreed the show is a stark reminder of our trauma.

The Bear follows Carmen Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), or Carmy, an accomplished chef who returns home to run the family sandwich shop after his brother’s death. Like many fine-dining cooks, Carmy is obsessed with perfection and success. He refers to everyone as “chef” out of respect, and trains his team to do things the fine-dining way, like cutting instead of tearing masking tape used for labeling your mise en place so the corners are neat. He’s grieving for his brother and coping with trauma from his days cooking at what his sous chef calls “the most excellent restaurant in the United States of America.”

I know that working and succeeding in fine-dining comes at the great expense of your physical and mental well-being. The hours are punishing, and the obsession with excellence is taxing. The high-pressure environment is a breeding ground for toxicity and abuse: That sous chef from earlier once burned me with a hot blow torch.

Riley Redfern, a former pastry chef who has worked at Coi and Eleven Madison Park, couldn’t get past the first episode of the show. “I know I didn’t get far enough in the series to see where it wrapped up,” she tells me, “But I was like, I can’t have this in my brain.”

Alix Baker, a former cook and a Chopped winner who is now a full-time private chef, tells me that even the trailer felt triggering. “I feel like I’d be watching the unhealthy work environment I chose to leave,” Baker says. She chose not to watch.

In one of The Bear’s scenes, the staff are cleaning up after service. One of the cooks, Marcus, asks Carmy why he needs to use a toothbrush to scrub the stove. “It’s about consistency,” Carmy explains. “We can’t operate at a higher level without consistency.”

Working in fine-dining restaurants, I also became fixated with “perfection,” or the version of it that was expected in these kitchens. I timed things down to the second. During service, one restaurant’s front of house staff placed a piece of paper bearing a new daily inspirational quote on the pass. To this day, I still have one featuring a quote from Aristotle, underlined with three Michelin stars and bordered with green tape: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.”

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