Kitchen Confidential: How 'The Bear' Captures Intimacy Of Cooking Spaces
- Harsh Pareek
Updated : October 01, 2022 08:10 IST
To be in invited into someone's kitchen is to be invited into their most personal spaces. And The Bear seems to comprehend this better than most films or TV shows that revolve around cooking.
There is something to be said about the half-volley that is the delicate elevation of the ordinary, the everyday — enough for it to be thoughtfully examined, but not letting it stray into the artificially profound or the overstated... Deliciously tempting to take on and painfully easy to flounder — but catch it just right, and you will have a spectacle to cherish for a long time. Christopher Storer's comedy-drama The Bear finds the net rather beautifully.
The show revolves around Carmen Berzatto, a notable young chef from the fine dining world, who returns to Chicago after his older brother's death by suicide, to run his family's sandwich shop. Far away from the spotless workstations and an environment designed to be the epitome of efficiency, he is faced with mountainous debts, a dilapidated kitchen, and a challenging staff (to put it mildly). But as he works to put out one fire after the other, all the while trying to come to terms with his brother's legacy and his own past, he also sees the possibility for the place to be something more, something better.
The dopamine-buzzed direction, the gorgeous cinematography, the pulsating sound-mixing, the old-school-yet-de-nos-jours writing, the lived performances. The infectious energy and the breathtaking urgency. The familiar toils and tribulations of a working-class life. The pursuit for something purer, elusive: The show has quite a bit going for itself, never mind that certain notion of coolness and glamour associated with being a chef or working in a professional kitchen that has dominated the popular imagination for years now.
Equally captivating is the show's portrayal of physical spaces. The city, the restaurant, but perhaps most significantly the one space where the majority of the show takes place: the kitchen itself.
And if you cook — or even better, love to — you know kitchens are pretty wicked places.
Over the last few years during the pandemic, among the various fetishes the population developed at large, was the fascination with bookshelves. To have a well-stocked one in the background as you dwindled time away on a video call gave you the same giddy pleasure as a five-year-old might derive from a pirate hat.
But most enchanting were other people's bookshelves. What books did your favourite authors own? Were certain titles in the background a conscious statement for the masses? What did the books say about the social standing, intellect, humour, and bathroom habits of a certain individual? How were the books arranged (oh, those colour-coded arrangements)? So, in a time of unprecedented collective boredom, voyeuristic sensibilities took hold and the blurry images of books' spines became a window into someone's private life, ready to be dissected.
Unbeknownst to many, the most revealing parties were happening in the kitchens.
See, you can arrange and rearrange your bookshelves a million times. You can actually do the same for most of your living spaces. Make people wonder why you have a ceiling lamp that comes down all the way to your chest while you're sitting.
A functional kitchen — that is to say, where cooking takes place regularly — on the other hand, is one of the most intimate of living spaces, so much so, that most don't even think about it consciously. It's a relationship so taken for granted that the idea of its mere existence as something separate feels absurd. Your kitchen is how you live your life, how you like to live your life, stripped of all pretence, with everything you need within reach. Sure, you can make it look adorable in some cosmetic way, but you can only strip away so much functionality. It's the one space where you leave your deepest fingerprints (perhaps, literally).
So, when all your beloved chefs left their fancy studios setups and set up cameras at home kitchens, it genuinely felt like a window into someone's life. A sense of easy comfort and mild embarrassment that comes with meeting someone for the first time in your pyjamas.
To be in invited into someone's kitchen is to be invited into their most personal spaces. Something which holds true even more deeply in most Asian cultures, where kitchens are almost sacred (in some cases, even the place of worship), the last spot you would be allowed in at someone's home. At the same time, working with someone in a kitchen, (or just hanging out, as they work) can be a measure of unparalleled trust, conveyed by mere presence.
And The Bear seems to comprehend this better than most films or TV shows that revolve around cooking. Especially in how it juggles the professional and the personal — a kitchen that serves as a business, one that serves as a space for creative outlet, and the only space you associate with a loved one.
While the show firmly grounds itself in Chicago, its history and culture, its gentrifying and changing landscape, the kitchen remains a nonchalant nexus. A stage where life unfolds intimately, a witness to both, triumphs and tragedies. It is present almost in every frame, but never draws attention to itself. It's the everyday behind-the-scenes where the superficial holds no currency.
And just as the show cleverly refuses to pelt the viewer with food porn (as some shorthand for 'this is a show about food' or, well, just because it can), it also skilfully skirts around the cliché of making this space a character in itself. To get in the way, to overwhelm one with its presence, would be the antithesis of everything the space is supposed to be — who these characters are. A physical manifestation of not one moment in someone's life (when you bought that leopard-pattern couch), but of a mind forever on the move, day after day after day.
Over the course of the show, while most of the physical spaces around the restaurant remain unchanged, the kitchen is different. It's cleaner, organised, even inviting. It's the one space that shifts and moulds itself to reflect the new ideas and identities.
In the four-ish hour runtime of the entire first season, there is only one instance where we get to see Carmen's brother; it is a singular memory: his brother telling an absurd story of a night out in the city, as he cooks — absent-mindedly, happily, in the kitchen at home, surrounded by his closest loved ones.