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Jeremy Allen White as Carmen Berzatto in “The Bear.”
Jeremy Allen White as Carmen Berzatto in “The Bear.” (FX Networks)

Chefs Make Us Eat Their Inner Lives

I have reviewed the fine dining restaurants ‘The Bear’ alludes to. I do not like them.

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I am a restaurant critic, and in 2018, I ate at what had just been named the best restaurant in the world. Osteria Francescana, in Modena, is run by the famous chef Massimo Bottura, and to dine there feels like eating his internal life. His memory of a childhood holiday in Normandy was lamb, kelp, and cider; his description of autumn in Northern Italy was mushrooms, chestnuts, and truffles. It was not unpleasant, but it was odd, with an intensity I just don’t want from food. 

I kept eating because the meal would cost the newspaper I was writing for a fortune, and it would be rude not to, but my digestive system was a victim and a pawn. The dish I liked best was the lasagna. It was a tiny moment of sanity—too tiny. A portion for ants.

But that is the tasting menu restaurant for you: an invitation to a chef’s inner life. It isn’t about you and the food you love: it’s about them and their desire to impress and remake the world on tiny plates. That is what I think when I watch The Bear, which has just reemerged for its third season.

It follows Carmen Berzatto—a highly trained chef, played by Jeremy Allen White, who has returned home to Chicago to turn his recently dead brother’s sandwich shop into a restaurant worthy of a Michelin star. People loved the sandwiches: they queued around the block for them. They only admire Carm’s would-be Michelin-starred food. There’s a difference and I think it’s this: the first satiates the diner. The second satiates the chef. 

In flashbacks, we see that Carm got his start at a restaurant in New York City. Its kitchen is like an operating theater. I think it’s based on either Per Se or Eleven Madison Park, tasting menu palaces that Michelin stars fall on like snow. The former is run by Thomas Keller, who has a cameo in this season of The Bear. Working in this restaurant, Carm is tortured by the head chef. In Season 3 they meet again, and he tells Carm he needed to be tortured to be great. 

What becomes of this torture? I have reviewed both restaurants. Per Se, I hated. I thought it pretentious and loveless, a glossy cave above Columbus Circle, preening with self-love, serving quite repulsive food. Sitting before Keller’s plates, I thought: What does this food, so tiny and overwrought, have to do with me? Why am I eating a panic attack that isn’t my own? When I got back to the hotel, I threw up.

Daniel Humm’s Eleven Madison Park was better: that is, I didn’t feel actively hated there. It was just weird. The duck with lavender flying from its ass was good, but unnecessary. I don’t know what Humm’s variations of turnip were trying to do. Perhaps Humm was trying to save the turnip—but why elevate it above all root vegetables?

Food can do anything—Massimo Bottura told me that—and I want chefs to do less with it. I love these guys, I admire them, I pity them. But for all I have eaten, the meal I loved best was red snapper, pulled from the Caribbean Sea, and cooked in a shack only half rebuilt after a hurricane. It had a simplicity and an honesty to it. That is, it was happy to be itself.

Tanya Gold is an award-winning freelance journalist. Follow her on X @TanyaGold1. And read her piece for The Free Press, Dubai Paid Beyoncé $24M. She Gave Them Her Integrity.”

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