Food and film are made for each other: the heat, the pace, the drama, the shouting. That is not to say kitchen life always plays out accurately on the big screen. Volatile chefs at high-end restaurants are often the only version on offer: take forthcoming thriller-satire The Menu (in cinemas 18 November), in which a couple (played by Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicholas Hoult) go to a secluded island for some fine dining only to enter a dark funhouse orchestrated by a sadistic celebrity chef (Ralph Fiennes) instead.
Still, as sous chef Sydney Adams (played by Ayo Edebiri) puts it in new US drama The Bear, kitchens don’t have to be places where “everybody acts shitty”. The eight-part series, which has garnered rave reviews in the States for its portrayal of day-to-day life in the kitchen, sees high-end chef Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) return to Chicago to turn around the family’s failing sandwich shop after inheriting it from his late brother. It’s frantic and claustrophobic, with sharp knives and roaring flames in tight spaces, all set to a cacophony of “corner”, “behind”, “yes, chef!”
The anxiety is palpable, but does it ring true to professional chefs? To find out we convened a panel of culinary experts: Tom Kerridge, chef-owner of the two Michelin-starred Hand & Flowers, Erchen Chang, creative director and co-founder of beloved dumpling restaurant chain Bao, and Max Halley, chef-owner of the Observer Food Monthly award-winning Max’s Sandwich Shop. Here they give their verdicts on The Bear and five other TV shows and films set in the world of restaurants, assessing their accuracy, from plate-throwing to overly white T-shirts …
An award-winning chef returns home to take over the family sandwich shop – and its eccentric staff
Tom Kerridge I truly thought The Bear was brilliant, and I cannot wait to watch more. You don’t really see any creative food [in the first few episodes], but Carmy’s passion is captured through the script, the acting, the edit. It shows the chaotic environment that most restaurants run to; the tension of how the business works, the infrastructure of the kitchen, the pirate ship-like feeling with the different, slightly gritty, slightly leftfield characters, and the dark sense of humour. Because you’re working late, you’re working hard, and everyone is incredibly tired so there is no room for polite jokes.
My only criticism is that their T-shirts are too white. Otherwise, it’s one of the best things I’ve seen, and that’s not just because it’s my industry. While there’s often a lot of artistic licence taken to create something dramatic for movies or TV, The Bear feels more sustained. It portrays the kitchen in what feels like a real light. If I was 18 years old, I would think: “That would be cool to work there.” You believe sous chef Sydney’s journey, following this chef and wanting to be part of creating something. It’s a great series.
Max Halley Part of the problem of running a sandwich shop is that in everyone’s mind’s eye they see egg and cress. The truth is places like mine are quite serious restaurants masquerading as a silly sandwich shop. It’s not just one bloke out the back spreading butter on bread, and The Bear got this across.
I liked the relationship between Carmy and his brother’s best friend and restaurant manager Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). That felt like a very authentic, restaurant-business relationship. It’s almost like with siblings: you love them, but you also hate them more than anything else in the world. The phrase used in restaurants is: “There’s no friends in service.” You can’t say to someone when you’re knee deep in it on Friday night: “I’m terribly sorry, mate, but would it be all right if I asked you to go downstairs and get some ice?” You just have to say: “Get more ice!” There are so many things going on at the same time and, when there’s a good level of camaraderie, you can talk to each other like that. I think The Bear showed this really well, and also the panic and the intensity, especially when the restaurant starts getting busy. To successfully work in a restaurant, you have to get used to working with that feeling of panic. I don’t mean in the sense of the film Burnt, where it’s working with anger because I don’t believe in that at all, but where it’s intense but not nasty.
Pixar’s dazzling animation sees a neighbourhood rat realise his dream of becoming a chef in Paris
TK When I first watched Ratatouille, I was surprised at how classically accurate the kitchen scenes were. Kitchens don’t necessarily work like that now, but they did when I first started cooking; that almost Escoffier-like, French-style brigade system, big copper pans. The way that they work ticked a lot of boxes for, “Yeah, this is what it’s like.” Those little pinpoints – if you don’t work tidily, you don’t get stuff done and it becomes chaotic – felt very true. Of course, it’s a cartoon and miles away from reality, but they got some of the very simple and beautiful basics of what kitchens can feel like magically well.
Erchen Chang The feeling of the dining room versus the kitchen was quite realistic. However, when Linguini made the special soup … that doesn’t happen. When you create a dish, you need the name, the price, and to train your staff who are selling it, so it would never happen as instantly as that. Also, when Colette is teaching Linguini to keep his sleeves clean and his station clear, she says that Gusteau’s dishes always have something unexpected. Linguini writes down: “Always do something unexpected”, but Colette corrects him, saying: “No, follow the recipe.” People do probably dream of joining a kitchen and showing their flair, but menu planning takes so much time. You need to learn the restaurant style and then the dish goes through stages of testing before it reaches the customer. It isn’t: “Oh I want to be unexpected”, it’s teamwork. And we know the pressure of a critic coming for sure, because they have a voice, and their voice affects a lot of people.
Bradley Cooper’s hot-tempered chef pitches up in London to seek redemption and a third Michelin star
MH Even though it was a massively hammed up and fundamentally terrible movie, Burnt did pick up on elements of working in a kitchen. However, it made out like it’s quite easy to spot the Michelin inspectors – did they order a half-bottle of wine? Have they left a fork on the floor? – and it’s just not like that. You haven’t got a clue who they are. What they did get across, though, was the anxiety; there is that pressure where every table could lose you a star. The idea that you’re doing 1,000 covers a week and every single one of them could finish you off, that’s a very intense way to go about earning your living.
But how head chef Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) went straight to three Michelin stars and the idea that you can get three stars after one visit from the inspectors is ludicrous.
EC When the chefs were in cooking mode it felt quite real and fluid, but in terms of the shouting and throwing plates … If you’re operating at a very high level, I don’t think there’s time to do that. Also, those plates cost a lot and then you must wait two weeks to a month to replace that same plate … I don’t think that’s going to work. Obviously, it’s more entertaining when you’re watching a movie to have a steely chef, but not all kitchens are like that. I do a lot of dish development, and you do squeeze your brain and try new things over months, and things don’t work until one day you have an epiphany. But it’s less about the personal struggle and it’s much less egotistical.
Captured in a single take, this intense drama sees Stephen Graham’s chef on the edge experience the longest dinner service of his life
TK Boiling Point is 100% accurate but in a weird, inaccurate way. There is a sense of artistic flair because they are making a film, but right from the beginning you feel nervous. And there can be that sense of tension in restaurants because they are high-pressured, there are constant moving parts and there is no down time. Boiling Point captured that very well. I thought the way the chefs behave in the kitchen, the way they hold their oven cloths, the way they walk and talk was very good. Vinette Robinson, who plays sous chef Carly, was outstanding; if I didn’t know any better, I would think she was a chef who turned to acting.
However, all those nightmare things that happen in one service [a visit from the hygiene inspector, an unexpected critic, a diner having an allergic reaction] I’ve witnessed or been involved with, but that’s spread over 31 years of cooking, not in one service. It’s not a popcorn-and-chill kind of movie, but you buy into it from the word go.
EC This is truthful in many ways; going to work in the dark, the pace of the kitchen starting slowly and building to its peak, a critic or a chef coming in and you don’t have, for example, the turbot. You do need a strong heart to navigate your day. However, there are a lot of fights, which I would say doesn’t happen as much – especially in our kitchen – so that aspect is intensified.
The tension [between front of house and the kitchen] was quite realistic, though. Sometimes a chef’s idea isn’t conveyed to guests; if they aren’t told how a dish is prepared – if it’s rare for example – then they don’t know what they’re getting. The kitchen skills were mostly fine, but the duck was already cooked and had been sitting around for a long time. I understand why because they filmed the entire film in one shot, but I think it made it less realistic.
Italian brothers Primo and Secondo attempt to save their struggling 1950s New Jersey restaurant with a blowout dinner
EC It’s such a good film, but what I couldn’t get my head around was that the restaurant only had one chef, Primo (Tony Shalhoub). I was trying to count how many seats they had in the restaurant, and it’s close to 40. They wouldn’t be able to function if they were full, but I guess they only had two or three customers. I think everyone now is craving regional food and people want to learn or try new things, whereas this setting is very much about people not knowing what Italian food is and thinking spaghetti always comes with meatballs. I do resonate a little with the struggle; some people always think certain foods need a sauce – do you have mayonnaise or ketchup? No, you don’t eat this with that – so it does annoy me.
I loved the family vibe in Big Night; Secondo (Stanley Tucci) is more about the business and wants to go more American, while Primo wants to stay true to his Italian heritage. What’s realistic is that they understand and appreciate each other. For example Secondo gets in the kitchen and starts cooking. My partner, sister-in-law, and I, especially at the beginning of opening our restaurant, would do each other’s roles.
MH What I love about this movie is that it’s like a home kitchen. There’s a French farmhouse table, which the food hygiene inspectors would never let you have in the kitchen these days. The restaurant industry is tough, and it shows the struggle: you might be knocking out the best food in the world, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be busy. You can really see how your business is going; if you’re looking out into an empty restaurant, you know you’ve got a problem.
At the end of the day, I think anyone is allowed to cock up their dinner in any way they like, especially when they’re paying for it. So, you want spaghetti on the side of your seafood risotto? I come from the school of “just say yes”.
Lenny Henry stars as the head chef of a countryside French restaurant who offers up endlessly inventive insults for both his staff and diners
TK I started cooking in 1991, so I look back at Chef super fondly. From watching it and the reality of cooking, the kitchen – the space, the set-up, that structured, French brigade-style lead with a bit of chef dominance from the front – felt very real. There were not enough chefs in that kitchen to create the food they produced, but that’s because it’s a sitcom. I remember the relationship between head chef Gareth (Lenny Henry) and his wife Janice (Caroline Lee Johnson) who works front of house very well. When I first set up The Hand & Flowers, my wife, Beth, was front of house. It’s hard to have those defining roles in a workspace and switch back to husband and wife or partners; it’s always difficult to manage where those lines blur. Family-run businesses are incredible, though, because you’ve built something on foundations you’ve created together.
MH Chef, of course, is a comedy, but weirdly I think out of all these films and TV shows, it’s the most accurate portrayal of what it is like to work in the restaurant business. Well, life’s a comedy, isn’t it? I have always found working in restaurants an absolute hoot; you’re working with people from all over the world and with different backgrounds, so you’re exposed to so many cultures and therefore senses of humour. I know there are a lot of bad stories about the restaurant business, but there’s also a lot of joy. I thought Chef was the best depiction of that; it showed the financial troubles and the difficulties, but it also showed what fun it is, and how funny a lot of the people you work with are. The writers must have worked in the restaurant industry at some point. Gareth is a nice mix of extremely tender and nice, and occasionally a massive bastard, which is probably all we can ask for from anyone we work with.
The Bear is on Disney+ from 5 October.