CHICAGO — Much of FX’s new drama “The Bear” is set in the dingy kitchen of The Original Beef of Chicagoland, an old-school, family-run Italian beef joint modeled after River North spot Mr. Beef.
The restaurant’s owner Carmy, played by Jeremy Allen White, is a fine dining chef who’s returned home to run The Original Beef after the untimely death of his brother, and he’s trying to up the family restaurant’s game.
Chicago-centric TV shows and movies don’t always reflect the rhythm and personality of our city (looking at you, “Emily In Paris”). “The Bear,” however, has been racking up rave reviews for its accurate portrayal of Chicago’s grit. For his part, White has years of experience playing a Chicagoan — he starred in all 11 seasons of “Shameless,” largely based out of the South and Southwest sides.
We talked to a few experts about what the FX show gets right — and wrong — about Chicago.
Right: Restaurant kitchen culture
Working in a Chicago kitchen can be grueling.
Tensions are high at The Original Beef: When something goes wrong, like when there’s a fight outside the building or they can’t keep up with orders, Carmy starts screaming, food goes flying and the whole staff is in chaos mode.
They don’t show it when they’re interacting with customers, but Carmy and his staff are constantly stressed out as they hustle to make food within the constraints of a small, family-run business.
Chicago chef Won Kim said the show, while exaggerated, accurately portrays what it’s like to work in a restaurant kitchen in Chicago.
“This idea of trying to attain something that’s great — these are the things that go through our heads,” Kim said. “How do we make everything quicker? How do we save money? … It’s never life or death, but it certainly feels that way when you’re in the weeds and everyone’s yelling at you and you suck for that one day.”
The sweet moments, where cooks get props from Carmy or sous chef Sydney (played by Ayo Edebiri) for hitting the right flavor profile, also rang true, Kim said.
Chicago pastry chef Sarah Mispagel, who consulted on the show and provided the cakes and donuts, said the scene where Carmy eats a donut off the floor stood out to her.
“It’s really disgusting how relatable that is,” Mispagel said. “I’ve seen chefs with James Beard Awards eat my food out of the trash just because they’re defeated and tired. I’ve eaten steak off the floor. You work 14 hours, and someone drops a steak, and you’re like, ‘Sure, I’ll eat that.'”
The diverse kitchen staff also hits the right note. Most of the kitchen staff on “The Bear” are people of color, a faithful reflection of Chicago restaurants and the city’s population as a whole.
“This show has more minority actors, which I think is spot-on about the kitchen,” Kim said.
Right: Sports fandom
It may be a cliche, but it’s true: Chicago is a sports town and sports are omnipresent in the show.
Creator Christopher Storer weaves sports nostalgia and sports rivalries into the fabric of the story. Characters make references to the Bears and White Sox great Minnie Minoso; a Blackhawks jersey hangs behind the counter; and tons of worn Chicago sports posters adorn the walls of the restaurant.
In one episode, Carmy’s straight-laced brother-in-law gets teased for being a Cubs fan because The Original Beef’s customer base is mostly working-class Sox fans, a common gripe in segregated Chicago.
Close but no cigar: Gentrification
Gentrification fears run deep in “The Bear.”
Carmy’s bombastic cousin Richie (played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach) accuses Sydney of trying to change the vibe of the restaurant and “push out the working man.” Richie also mourns the changing neighborhood after a nearby bar closes.
Comedian and podcaster Ashley Ray questioned people being shocked by gentrification in River North, however.
“You cannot make a Chicago show that is completely at odds with the neighborhood it is set in unless the show isn’t for Chicagoans,” she wrote.
Toss Up: Hometown pride
We all know someone with a Chicago flag or some other Chicago symbol tattooed on their body.
Carmy’s 773 forearm tattoo got our attention since Chicago was a 312 town until ’96, when 773 was added because the city needed more numbers.
We know South Siders whose switch to 773 defined their childhood. But would a 312 tattoo or flag remind you more of the Chicago-obsessed guy you see at your local beef stand? You make the call.
Wrong: Restaurant health inspections
Chicago restaurant inspectors doesn’t use a grading system.
Carmy and the crew are crushed when a health inspector makes a surprise visit to the restaurant and gives them a “C” grade. A battered Carmy puts the inspection report in the window.
But that’s not how health inspections work in Chicago. Inspectors don’t give letter grades — they fail restaurants if they find violations that pose a threat to public safety. And restaurants aren’t legally obligated to put reports in the window. Inspectors will slap a neon green sign on the restaurant if they strip the business’s license, though.
Wrong: Italian beef rolls
Chicago loves its Italian beef and holds the classic sandwich to high standards, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a traditional Italian beef spot in the city that bakes their own rolls.
In the beginning of the show, before Sydney suggests outsourcing, all of the sandwich rolls at The Original Beef are baked in-house. Carmy has one of the restaurant workers, Marcus (played by Lionel Boyce), improve the elasticity of the bread so it’s perfect.
But that’s not how it’s done at Italian beef joints in the city, said Chris Pacelli, owner of Al’s Beef, a Chicago fixture since 1938.
Pacelli said they outsource rolls so they can focus on cooking flavorful Italian beef — something Carmy’s team ultimately does.
Al’s got their rolls from iconic Chicago bakery Gonnella for many years. But when Gonnella stopped doing bread deliveries in 2020, Al’s struck up a partnership with Two Figs Bakery in suburban Franklin Park, Pacelli said.
“I don’t have that kind of room to do baking. You need a big facility,” Pacelli said. “If they’re making their own bread, that’s Hollywood doing it.”
Wrong: Italian beef isn’t fine dining
Italian beef spots aren’t fancy.
In “The Bear,” Sydney tries to get fine dining dishes on The Original Beef’s menu. She manages to get her risotto dish in front of a food critic despite pushback from Carmy. Marcus also spends a lot of the show perfecting his fine dining-level chocolate cake and donuts. But Pucelli said Al’s Beef — and other Chicago spots like it — would never go high-end.
“I’m not a fine dining restaurant. I’ve had countless people trying to talk me into it. I’m not a brick-layer either,” he said with a laugh. “I know what I know, and I’ve learned through the years: Do what you know. So we do what we do the best.”
Wrong: The accent
Chicago accents are all about “dese, dems and dose.”
We weren’t sure if Richie’s Chicago accent was a good one, so we asked Pacelli, a Chicago native who has the strongest Chicago accent we’ve maybe ever heard.
“He sounds Hollywoodish,” he said. “If he’s going to play it right, he’s gotta learn all the ‘dese, dems and dose.'”
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast”: