From "The Bear" to "The Menu," this was the year pop culture faced the horrors of fine dining

2022's fictional and nonfiction works interrogated the unsavory underbelly of restaurants. But will things change?

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published December 30, 2022 12:15PM (EST)

Jeremy Allen White as Carmen "Carmy" Berzatto in "The Bear" (Matt Dinerstein/FX )
Jeremy Allen White as Carmen "Carmy" Berzatto in "The Bear" (Matt Dinerstein/FX )

There's a Gordon Ramsay clip that I just can't seem to escape. You've probably seen it, too: It features the chef holding television host Julie Chen Moonves' head between two slices of bread while yelling at her. "What are you?" he screams. 

"An idiot sandwich," she replies. 

The scene originates from "Hell's Cafeteria," a parody skit from an episode of "The Late Late Show with James Cordon." It satirizes Ramsay's own pugilistic and profane-laced television persona, which first achieved global attention through the 1999 BBC docu-series "Britain's Most Unbearable Bosses," and which he has continued to sharpen through programs like "Kitchen Nightmares" and "Hell's Kitchen." 

Since airing in 2015, the top YouTube video featuring the clip has garnered over 13 million views. It's become something of an internet meme — a GIF response at the ready every time someone says something inane on social media. Even Ramsay himself has cashed in on the popularity of the clip, releasing a short run of "idiot sandwich earmuffs," with slices of bread serving as the ear coverings. 

For a long time, verbal abuse in the kitchen, like the kind that Ramsay both perpetuates through his rant-filled programs and, alternately, satirizes in late-night appearances, has been framed as either something of a joke or a necessary evil to survive in an exacting industry (which Ramsay has ironically classified as being filled with "the rages and the bullying and violence"). 

For a long time, verbal abuse in the kitchen, like the kind that Ramsay both perpetuates through his rant-filled programs and, alternately, satirizes in late-night appearances, has been framed as either something of a joke or a necessary evil to survive in an exacting industry 

However, this was the year that prestige entertainment — from television to film to nonfiction books — focused its lens on the often-unspoken horrors of fine dining, including the verbal abuse and occasional threat of physical abuse that transpires in both the front and back-of-house. This comes after decades of essentially culturally elevating chefs to near-rock stardom, but is it possible that shining a light on the darker side of the industry could actually change it? 


Why are you so slow? Why are you so f**king slow? Why? You think you're so tough. Yeah. Why don't you say this? Say, "Yes, chef, I'm so tough."

In FX's "The Bear," this is how the nameless, fictional head chef (Joel McHale) berates protagonist Carmine "Carmy" Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) while he is working on the line at the very real Eleven Madison Park. While the series creators have remained mum with regards to who exactly that chef is supposed to represent, it's not a stretch to assume that it's meant to be a satire of Eleven Madison Park's real-life chef/owner Daniel Humm. 

As Genevieve Yam wrote for Bon Appetit, this scene proved particularly hard to watch for industry members. 

"I could barely get through 'The Bear,'" she wrote. "Not because I thought it was bad television—but because it was the most accurate portrayal of life in a restaurant kitchen I've seen in a while. It was so accurate that it was triggering: The details of spilling a whole Cambro of veal stock, your peers hiding your mise en place, and still others turning up the stove when you weren't looking. It reminded me a little too much of what it was like to fend for myself in a chaotic, cutthroat kitchen. After watching, I spoke with other restaurant workers. We all agreed the show is a stark reminder of our trauma." 

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These are the corners of the industry that The Food Network doesn't really touch, which is one of the reasons why Carmy's eventual admission that he is struggling with processing his experience in fine dining is particularly poignant. As the character tells his sister, "I'm fine, I just have trouble breathing sometimes and I wake up screaming."

This isn't just a back-of-house — or fictional — problem, though. In September, two months after the debut of "The Bear," Edward Chisholm released his nonfiction book "A Waiter in Paris: Adventures in the Dark Heart of the City." 

As Salon Food reported, Chisholm moved from London to Paris in 2011 and, despite having very little knowledge of the French language or culture, "he quickly fell in with a ragtag group of cigarette-fueled waiters at a fine dining restaurant." Through Chisholm's punchy prose, readers will be taken through his whirlwind career filled with demanding customers, squalid living conditions and panic attacks in the Pass.

He writes of his time in the kitchen: 

Presiding over this terrestrial inferno is the Chef. The only white man in the entire kitchen. A Corsican, and a giant of a man who wields a knife so large it probably once belonged to Hercules himself. With this he points, prods, slicks, licks and hits metal surfaces. He's a man full of frothing rage. Nothing is ever good enough. The little printer is constantly spitting out tickets which he rips off with such ferocity that it seems the machine will come off the wall. The orders he shouts violently into the ears of the cooks, as if he takes an intense pleasure from treating them with such disdain.

Chisholm recounts a time when he had to ask the Chef to recook a steak for a customer who wanted it more done, much to The Chef's anger.

"When he turns back and sees me still there with the plate of steak in my hand I glimpse the exact moment when he's consumed by rage: pure, total hatred," Chisholm wrote. "Within an instant he has me up against the wall with his free hand on my throat and the point of the giant knife near my eye...Panic overcomes me as I still can't breathe. I try in vain to remove his hand, which only angers him further, making him increase the pressure. His breath smells of cigarettes and cognac, and the wall smells of meat."

He continued: "Time has never passed so slowly. I'm about to black out when… 'Cramé, chef!' shouts the cook nearest to us. Burnt." 

"The Menu," Mark Mylod's November horror film, plays with the idea of a chef driven to violence, too, albeit in a wildly different way. The dark comedy written by Seth Reiss and Will Tracy centers on the exclusive restaurant, Hawthorne, run by the eccentric Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). A dozen customers — including foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and his unimpressed date Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), critic Lillian (Janet McTeer) and a movie star (John Leguizamo) — pay obscene sums of money to partake in a precious and singular culinary experience. The night grows weirder and weirder until violence breaks out. 

But "The Menu" doesn't just satirize the way fine dining kitchens operate; it also skewers the way in which chefs are increasingly fetishized by those seeking an aspirational experience. As Gary M. Kramer wrote for Salon, "Mylod's film is a shrewd clapback on privilege, hubris and pretension."

"The diners all get their just deserts; Chef's taco course includes tortillas imprinted with each customer's sins," he said. "Chef and his staff, led by the unflappable Elsa (Hong Chau), maintain precise control over the evening, as secrets and lies are exposed, and some unsavory things happen." 


Despite the fact that media surrounding food is broadening its lens to interrogate some of the more unsavory parts of the industry, it's going to be tough to divorce those same aspects from professional kitchens at large. 

As Salon Food reported in October, the culture of silence surrounding one's feelings or struggles is baked into the very system used as a framework of organization in professional kitchens, known as the brigades de cuisine, or brigade system.

"It's an oppressive system that exists within hospitality — and it's existed for way too long — but it still penetrates our industry to this day," Hassel Aviles, the executive director of the industry-based mental health nonprofit Not 9 to 5, said.  "It is oppressive because it asks people to repress their humanity in the name of efficiency."

As the name suggests, the brigade system is militaristic by design. It's a dynamic hierarchy in which each member has a very specific role, from the plongeur (dishwasher) to the chef de cuisine (chief of the kitchen). Like the military, its adherents emphasize personal discipline as the key to achieving a collective goal; often, there's the mentality, which is reminiscent of boot camp, that staff need to be broken down in order to be built back better. 

"It is oppressive because it asks people to repress their humanity in the name of efficiency."

That is the element of the brigade system that tends to captivate the most attention from those outside the industry, especially in Hollywood depictions of kitchen life like FX's "The Bear," the Bradley-Cooper fronted "Burnt" or even Disney's "Ratatouille." Through these depictions, as well as nonfiction projects such as Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential," Gordon Ramsay's aforementioned "Kitchen Nightmares" and the 1990 book "White Heat" — in which chef Marco Pierre White infamously detailed his habit of putting cooks inside trash cans to punish them, among other forms of intimidation — the hot-headed but brilliant chef archetype was cemented in pop culture as a kind of culinary bad boy.

Even among top chefs today, fostering toxic and abusive kitchen environments with no real repercussions is unfortunately common. Read, for instance, Hannah Sellinger's 2021 Eater essay about working under Momofuku's David Chang. She described his "wall-punching, desk breaking, violent threats and screaming" as well as a time a young cook was "brought to tears by Dave's rage for cooking what was deemed a subpar family meal." 

"I will scalp you," Chang screamed.

Chang himself has been relatively open about the fact that he was verbally abusive in his kitchens. His rage is an undercurrent through his memoir "Eat a Peach," in which he details his depression and bipolar disorder. What's unfortunate, however, is that the ugly effects of Chang's mental health challenges don't look that different from what some chefs still classify as paying one's dues while working on the line. 

 It's a step in the right direction that mainstream culture is spotlighting the ways in which our fetishization of the bad boy chef image — and the heralding of the traditional brigade system as the unimpeachable industry standard — especially following the first wave of the pandemic, when restaurant workers' jobs were simultaneously lauded as essential and disrespected by increasingly hostile customers. 

Perhaps next some cunning filmmaker can envision a fantasy film in which professional kitchens operate without abuse. 

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By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Commentary David Chang Gordon Ramsay The Bear The Menu