Actor Jeremy Allen White portrays the highs and lows of life as a chef in ‘The Bear’

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In the new FX series “The Bear,” actor Jeremy Allen White plays Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, a chef struggling both in and out of the kitchen. Carmy leaves the fast-paced and traumatic world of fine dining and returns to Chicago to run her family’s sandwich shop.

Good Food host Evan Kleiman has seen plenty of shows and movies shot in restaurants, but most of them make her cringe. She says she doesn’t think she’s ever seen a better or more nuanced depiction of the intense highs and crushing lows of working in a professional kitchen than what she saw in “The Bear.” She tells White about her new lead role.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

KCRW: I need to know how many beef sandwiches you ate to prepare for the role. Please tell me you’re not vegan.

Jeremy Allen White: No. I had spent quite a bit of time in Chicago filming the “Shameless” series. Portillo’s was kind of my go-to place for a while, because I had one or more every time I was there shooting this show. I probably had a dozen while I was there filming “The Bear.”

Do you have a special order?

I like spicy and tempered.

So when we meet Carmy, he is in pain. He mourns his brother. He has horrible flashbacks of PTSD not only for the relationship with his brother, but also for all the abuse he suffered while working in restaurants. What attracted you to the script and this character in particular?

We meet Carmy at his worst, most confused, most lost. It was really interesting to meet a character who is going through this most traumatic moment of his life. I was really interested in the culinary world and gastronomy. Not that I was incredibly knowledgeable, but a lot of people have a fascination. I think the number of people who are interested in this world has increased enormously over the last two decades with the birth of these celebrity chefs. I was interested and wanted to know more. And as I did, the world got more and more interesting.

I think for Carmy, my heart kind of broke for him. His identity was so ingrained in everything he had built for himself, and his identity as a leader, and being incredibly good and being successful. And his life outside of that seemed pretty empty.

I know the struggling actor serving tables is a trope. Did you have a lot of experience working in restaurants, front or back of house, before you started shooting “The Bear?”

I never had one. I started playing quite young and didn’t really have much success until I was older. I had an advertisement here and there, so no, I never worked in restaurants.

Ayo Edebiri plays Sydney in “The Bear”. She and star Jeremy Allen White took a crash course at the Institute of Culinary Education to prepare for their roles. Photo courtesy of FX.

I understand that you have done quite a bit of practical preparation for the role. You worked in several restaurants, including Pasjoli here in Santa Monica. Can you tell us about that experience, how long you were there and what they made you do?

It started even before I arrived in Pasjoli. I went to culinary school for two weeks at the Culinary Education Institute in Pasadena. It was a crash course for me and Ayo, who plays Sydney on the show. I learned a lot during that time. I was pretty bad in the kitchen. [I learned] how to hold a knife, how to move around the kitchen, when to put oil on the pan, when to heat it – the basics and the simple stuff.

Then I started going to restaurants. I spent about six weeks in Pasjoli. It all started where I was really just a fly on the wall. I really just wanted to watch how these cooks moved around the kitchen. Then I started coming during the day for preparation, where the margin for error is a bit smaller. If I screwed up, it could be fixed.

I got better with a knife. I learned a lot very quickly. Everyone was really supportive. As long as I showed up and was serious, they seemed ready to teach. After a few weeks of this, I was kind of pushed over the line with chef Dave Beran, who is a truly wonderful chef. He was from Chicago – he was a chef at Alinea for a long time. So he was really wonderful and he kind of gave me a boost. Eventually, I was cooking on the line and actually cooking the food that was served there. It was a real rush.


Creator Christopher Storer brought authenticity to the set of “The Bear” with foodie references and baseball cooking techniques. Photo courtesy of FX.

Did you connect to this experience? Did you enjoy it at all?

I gained a lot of respect for cooks and chefs in the process. I don’t think I fully understood the sacrifice and commitment involved in being a conductor – rehearsal is a craft that needs to be constantly perfected. I also think about this level. Or at any level, serving food is a kind of performance.

The more time I spent in the kitchen, the more I began to draw parallels between putting on a show, movie, or play and cooking a restaurant meal for your guests. There are performances involved in both. So I think I started enjoying certain parts of existing in the kitchen for the same reasons that I love what I do.

I’m curious how surprised you were with the inner life of the character the further you got into Carmy. He is such a real representation of not only a chef-owner who is pushed to the limit, but also one who juggles life’s issues. I think that’s true for everyone in every job, but especially in the kitchen.

Carmy has put so much into his job. And obviously he ran from things – his feelings, his family, where he grew up long before his brother killed himself. He is no stranger to burying himself in his work. He’s so wrapped up in that identity that everything is automatically so important. If he fails, I really think Carmi thinks he’s going to die. And if he can succeed, he will have the glory.

It was really obvious watching “The Bear” that whoever wrote the show worked in restaurants. I love this scene where Carmy explains to aspiring pastry chef Marcus how to properly cut a label of duct tape, which chef Thomas Keller is known for his thoroughness. It’s such an insider thing. Were there other small details like that that you had to pay attention to?

Christopher Storer, who is the creator of our show, is a truly wonderful cook, but I don’t know what actual restaurant experience he has had. But his sister is the very wonderful chef Courtney Storer, who was a longtime chef at Jon and Vinny’s in Los Angeles, and she was there often. We also had Chef Matty Matheson who is incredibly knowledgeable and is now a bit more of a restaurateur, but has also consulted on this for us. But I know a lot of Chris Storer’s heroes are our bosses. He has a real passion. It was like a nod to Keller for sure.

Because working in a professional kitchen is so difficult, staff often bond in ways that most people don’t. A psychologist would probably call this a traumatic bond. I think there’s a reason they call the staff dinner “family meal”. How would you describe Carmy’s relationship with her number two Sydney, played by Ayo Edebiri. She is incredible.

She is incredible. There’s something really wonderful about them having an almost instantaneous mutual respect for each other because Carmy thinks Sydney is talented, and Sydney thinks the same of him. They come from the same world.

Carmy ended up in this restaurant where nobody else knows [about his life] and it really feels invisible. When Sydney shows up, I think he feels seen and understood again. I can’t speak for Ayo but, I think Sydney feels the same – sometimes, also very invisible. And I think that’s where the conflict can come from. But they went through a similar wringer. I think there’s a mutual respect and a vulnerability that they allow each other.

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