Jeremy Allen White hasn’t washed his hair for days, and he surmises that Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, the character that he places on FX’s The Bear, isn’t a fan of a regular shampoo, either. White is in the middle of a barnstorming media tour in Chicago and basking in the glory of an early renewal for a second season of the show that’s become a hit on Hulu.
White says he has no information on the direction of the new season. Hulu released the first in late June, and since then White has risen to the status of sex symbol — a motivated dirtbag of sorts — inspiring a New Yorker cartoon and (maybe) giving a boost to restaurant workers across the country in their romantic endeavors: “Happy to help,” says White, reasoning that Carmy is no dirtbag; he's just a genuine and nice guy.
“I’ve tried to not pay too much attention to anything,” White says, “but yes, that New Yorker cartoon really got me. I was like, ‘Wow, we’ve made it.’”
White’s character Carmy is the chef behind the Original Beef of Chicagoland, a spartan River North beef stand that’s been around since 1980. At Mr. Beef, an actual Italian beef stand on Orleans that partly inspired The Bear, the kitchen has no room for a full staff, especially one that uses the French kitchen hierarchy, something that Carmy brings to the fictional restaurant after stints at Michelin-starred fine dining spots like Eleven Madison Park in New York and Noma.
“I was just doing a little bit of press earlier at the Beef, shooting something and there was a cook there who works at Avec,” White says. “And she was just like, ‘You guys got it. You guys! I feel seen and understood and, and that’s just such a nice thing.’”
Restaurant workers across the country have embraced the show as an accurate portrayal of the everyday stresses of working in the hospitality industry. The show deals with anxiety as White’s character searches for support, something that’s not uncommon for restaurant employees working long hours and surrounded by beer and liquor. Additionally, Carmy — who is so Chicago that he sports a tattoo of the area code 773 on his arm — is also coping with the death of his brother (played by Jon Bernthal). The restaurant is a metaphor for dealing with that grief.
“What was interesting to me about the story of the first season of The Bear is like the message is telling people it’s okay to ask for help,” White says.
Last week, White (who enjoys his Italian beef wet and hot; that’s with jus and hot giardiniera, for the uninitiated) visited the River North beef stand that inspired the show as part of his media rounds. The Bear’s creator, Christopher Storer, went to kindergarten with Chris Zucchero, the owner of Mr. Beef. The show uses the restaurant’s exteriors, right next to Green Door Tavern.
The show hired several restaurant workers as consultants, including Chicago’s Sarah Mispagel, the pastry chef behind forthcoming Avondale restaurant Loaf Lounge, who brought her experience working at Sepia and Nightwood — as well as her chocolate cake — to the set. White hasn’t had a chance to try the cake, and said he’d like to check out Loaf Lounge after its opening.
The consultants helped the show nail the details including one that’s made the rounds: the use of a plastic deli container as a drinking cup. White isn’t sure who was responsible for the container’s inclusion, saying it was either Courtney Storer (Chris Storer’s sister, an experienced chef whose credits include Jon & Vinny’s in LA) or Toronto-based celebrity chef Matty Matheson.
There’s also something to be said about the actors’ chemistry in depicting the chaos of a restaurant. White and Ayo Edebiri, who plays sous chef Sydney Adamu, attended a two-week crash course at Pasadena’s Institute of Culinary Education. In Chicago, White also worked at Michelin-starred Oriole and companion bar Kumiko. Lionel Boyce (Marcus) took it further and staged at Copenhagen’s Hart Bageri: “I feel like we just all understood the world. And we were all acting in the same world, which isn’t always the case,” White says.
Edebiri and Boyce are both Black, and their characters give the audience a window to the creativity and sacrifice of workers of color, who are often the backbone to many restaurants. Next door to the Pendry hotel where White lodged is Venteux, a French restaurant where Whitney McMorris recently started as chef. McMorris, a Black woman, related to Sydney, especially a scene where she has to explain herself to workers at the restaurant on her first day. It’s an uphill challenge winning the respect of your peers, and it’s something McMorris has done in real life and something she saw Sydney do as well: “I think it was a perfect description of the reality,” McMorris says.
Many know White as Phillip “Lip” Gallagher from Shameless, a Chicago show that somehow avoided making Italian beef references. White says Lip would have loved the Beef: “I think he’d hang out there. I mean, maybe he was hanging out there and we just didn’t film it, you know?”
Chicagoans are often skeptical of how the city is depicted by outsiders, especially by people from the coasts, and some of those critiques were certainly directed toward the show, including beefs with how gentrification was depicted, accents, and more. White is aware of that, but he also defends Storer. “His understanding of Chicago was represented on this show. And it’s true — it’s just as true as anybody else’s understanding,” White says. “He is from Chicago. He grew up here. He loves Chicago. But I also understand how, you know, people are prideful over their city and if things don’t seem right to them, they speak out.”
White’s spent some time in Chicago over the last few years. He says he enjoys dining at La Scarola and drinking at seedy late-night tavern Richard’s Bar in River West. He says he loves the private and dark ambience of Morton’s on Wacker Place. Just don’t look for him to be sipping on Malört. As the interview concluded, after being asked if he’s tried Chicago’s celebrated spirit, White squints.
No one’s perfect.