* Light spoilers for “The Bear,” season 2 below
Before he co-founded One Off Hospitality, Donnie Madia was struggling at his job at the Chicago Board of Trade and looking for a different career path. That led him to spend a year working at Mr. Beef, the River North sandwich shop that inspired FX’s The Bear.
“I learned an important craft,” Madia tells Eater. “I learned how to work with people, talk to people, give good service and create an environment for people to come back and visit me again week after week after week. I started to really love the restaurant business and then it became a part of my life.”
A little like how “Uncle” Jimmy (Oliver Platt) helped Carmy and Syd in The Bear, Mr. Beef owner Joseph Zucchero helped Madia open his first restaurant, Blackbird, in 1997. He loaned him money (which Madia and his partners paid back) and introduced him to his alderman, his insurer, and other investors. The two were friends for over 30 years until Zucchero died in March at the age of 69. In June 2020, Madia and One Off made the hard decision to close Blackbird during the pandemic.
When Madia was finally able to break his silence about One Off Hospitality’s role in the new season, he posted about the experience on Instagram and included a tribute to Zucchero: “We lost him too young,” Madia says. “I think he personified Mr. Beef.”
One Off is the James Beard Award-winning Chicago restaurant group behind the Publican and Big Star, and Madia has earned a reputation as one of the city’s most beloved hospitality ambassadors, a fashionable owner who still busses tables and greets customers. As a restaurant veteran who serves as a mentor to many, his role advising Syd in Episode 3 made sense.
The Bear creator Christopher Storer also spent time working at Mr. Beef and the Board of Trade and became friends with Zucchero’s son, Chris, who has made several cameos on the show. The connection led Storer to reach out to Madia to help his writers better understand what working in a kitchen is like. Before the ongoing WGA strike, Madia welcomed the writers to run food and stage in the kitchen or front of house at One Off restaurants, while actors picked up tips on how to carry plates. Publican Quality Meats provided the cuts of meat used on set.
The show’s writers visited Avec three or four times over the course of the last year to talk to chef Dylan Patel, One Off Hospitality Director of Operations David Barriball, and Avec General Manager Claire McDonal. Some of the stories they shared about recent staffing struggles and higher prices for ingredients related to the pandemic were integrated into this season’s plots.
The partnership grew from behind the scenes to in front of the camera. Both Avec and Publican Quality Meats figure prominently in Episode 3 of Season 2, when chef Sydney Adamu (Ayo Edebiri) visits several Chicago restaurants looking for inspiration for her new menu and advice from industry veterans.
Madia sat down with co-showrunner and director Joanna Calo and some of the show’s other directors and writers for a brainstorming session about hospitality and service in order to develop the dialogue for his scene with Edebiri.
“They set up the scenario and then just allowed me to free associate what was important to me when I started a restaurant,” Madia says. “They really do their research. They’re intense. They want to get the story right and they don’t want to make any mistakes.”
The shoot at Avec also featured Patel and McDonal running through a pre-service briefing for the restaurant’s staff. There was no script — the crew just started the cameras and asked them to hit key points like introducing a dish, talking about a wine, and giving a server a compliment.
Patel made all the food for the scene, spotlighting the short rib hummus that’s been on the menu for a year and a half and has become one of Avec’s most popular dishes alongside their signature chorizo-stuffed Medjool dates created by chef Koren Grieveson. Patel has experience cooking on camera, but that usually involved just two or three people holding a mic and camera. For The Bear, he had a team of 20 in the kitchen.
“I think everyone in the industry has a soft spot for that show,” Patel says. “We all went to Big Star afterward and had some margaritas. It was a good day.”
While celebrity chef Rick Bayless said The Bear’s portrayal of the restaurant industry will dissuade people from working in kitchens, Madia disagrees.
“It’s really important for our city and it’s important for people to know there are these great jobs in our industry,” he says. “These are careers. These are callings. The Bear wants to be authentic because they present the value of what we do.”