The Bear, The Menu, and Where Creative Crossroads Take Us

TV Features
The Bear, The Menu, and Where Creative Crossroads Take Us

A toast, dear readers, to the year of “Yes, chef!” Audiences hungry for crispy-seared drama devoured not one, but two tremendous achievements in food-based entertainment. Christopher Storer’s The Bear became one of FX’s buzziest 2022 programs based on its Chicago beef sandwiches, and Mark Mylod’s The Menu earned praise as a charred-black Michelin star satire. At their core are two head chefs—Jeremy Allen White as ex-Noma commander Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto and Ralph Fiennes as frustrated celebrity chef Julian Slowik—who battle the same creative-type demons that plague those who chose an existence of continual creation. The storytellers analyze the duo’s need for perfection, an endless cycle that eats away insides, and how it can be the literal or figurative death of overwhelmed creatives.

“Tortured Artist” stereotypes have existed since the inception of egos and the romanticism of creative professions. “Great art comes from great pain,” proclaims author Christopher Zara in his biographical collection about tormented creators aptly titled Tortured Artists. To me, there’s no better universal representation of the division between passion and obsession than media about culinary artists—chefs who conceptualize and execute exquisite dishes to be consumed seconds later by patrons who can deliver immediate feedback. The canvas is a plate, edible ingredients are their tools, and restaurants a representation of themes and metaphors from menu flow to quality standards. It’s the purest art form, with the gravest consequences, which always makes for compelling drama when the spotlight is cast on the caliber person and psyche it takes to wear a chef’s coat.

The Bear and The Menu are ultimately about kitchen heavyweights at their wit’s end, trying to rediscover their love of craft once more. Carmy abandons New York City’s fine dining scene to run his family’s greasy spoon Italian beef joint after his brother commits suicide, and is still plagued by memories of his abusive old executive chef (played with the utmost assholishness by Joel McHale). Julian organizes the most radical, boundary-pushing dinner service at his elite private island Hawthorne restaurant to prove he has one last showstopper in the chamber. They’re juggernauts of industry who’ve lost the passion that once stemmed from cooking, like many creatives who choose careers that require constant innovation, ingenuity, and it-factor appeal. These are men looking over a cliff’s edge, clinging to a branch that’s barely still connected to the ground.

On the surface, clear differentiation stems from the intention of each project. The Bear uses the chaos of unregulated kitchens to address the painful ripples of addiction and the complicated messiness of familial love. The Menu is a sickly comedic exploration of the toxic relationship between art, artist, and consumer. The Bear exists as a character study about an anxious chef finding himself in the hometown he fled, while The Menu is a double-edged commentary on those who drive creatives to despise the thing that once bred unparalleled happiness. Carmy and Julian reach crossroads as creatives with their backs against separate walls—a pivotal moment of either no return or retribution.

The Bear opts for a sweeter, cuss-filled reclamation for Carmy. Throughout the season, we learn about his strained relationship with brother Michael (Jon Bernthal makes some mean braciole) and desire to fix “The Beef” (the family’s restaurant) as a substitute for his sibling’s lost relationship. Carmy confesses to enjoying his morning pukes before Noma shifts because that’s the disgusting level of masochistic sacrifice we convince ourselves is required to get ahead as creatives. Punishment is a badge of honor as McHale’s malicious mentor breaks Carmy’s will until he starts reconnecting with his dysfunctional brigade at The Beef. The downgraded sandwich slinger learns hard lessons about fulfillment, self-preservation, and the loneliness of being at the top—but he extinguishes those proverbial flames that could burn the rest of his life down.

The Menu, alternatively, breathes oxygen into the inferno that overtakes Julian Slowik. He’s beyond disillusioned by the appalling reception of consumers who do not respect his plated brilliance, from the Instagram wannabes who think they’re on equal levels to snobby critics whose pretentious reviews bankrupt struggling establishments. He chooses revenge over introspection and would rather roast inattentive and wasteful diners who can’t describe their last meals at Hawthorne as human s’mores. Julian’s bright smile as a cheeseburger flipper is erased by the notoriety Hawthorne achieves, and the cold disassociation with love-based cooking that’s turned into an impossible quest for god-like consistency. Julian is so disgusted by the people he serves he’d rather die than have his game-changing breadless appetizer be mocked by talentless hacks. An extreme stance, but one that creatives who are pushed over the edge might consider as a “nuke it all” outro.

What’s integral to both chefs’ reaffirmation is that signature dish that tastes, smells, and warms like a comforting hug. Carmy describes a small bite with four different preparations of plums and the army of cooks required for each component, yet it’s a family-style spaghetti dinner that Michael once prepped with canned tomatoes that is his salvation. Julian uses molecular gastronomy sciences to present snows, foams, and other extravagant food transformations that defy traditional meal presentations, but doesn’t feel his chef’s spark for the first time in years until preparing Anya Taylor-Joy’s Margot (or Erin) a fatty, juicy, meaty cheeseburger. Both chefs ascended to kitchen roles that landed them atop “best in the world” lists, only to disassociate from humble beginnings where that initial adoration first starts. It’s the forever adage of never forgetting why you love whatever passion you choose, all told through scrumptious visual storytelling.

Of course, the outcomes of both chefs vary because Julian doesn’t change his mind about scorching privileged Brown graduates with zero loans—Hawthorne still explodes in a fireball, killing the art, the artists, and its audience. No one deserves the Hawthorne, nor does Julian understand why outside his own egotism. Julian becomes a warning to chefs, writers, filmmakers, or any other creative professional who gets lost in the comparison game, or loses that connection with their chosen medium’s soulful purpose. Carmy’s driven by those same desires to prove everyone wrong, to make a name for himself in a culinary industry that his brother Michael shut him out of, yet saves himself—he could have watched The Beef crumble, ablaze, in the first season’s finale. He doesn’t feed the voices where Julian does, making for two vastly different endings to eerily similar stories about the rotten mindset of the Tortured Artist.

To make a living as a creative is like jumping into a fire feet-first on purpose. The Bear and The Menu are two tantalizing explorations of the hardships that come from upgrading a high-demand talent to a lucrative career where accolades and praise can be found as much as failure and broken hearts. There’s so much passion behind Carmy and Julian—the passion that propels all creatives—and both characters are examples on opposite sides of the spectrum about what happens when said creatives lose control. As both restaurateurs eventually realize, getting back to basics can be a necessary restart—one in the nick of time, the other a few hours too late. Art is life, art is death, but it doesn’t have to be the latter. You’ve just gotta find a way to refire that passion instead of letting the flames swallow you whole.

Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.

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