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Ranking Carmy Berzatto and the screen’s top chefs

Ahead of its third season, the remarkable success of Christopher Storer’s Emmy-winning restaurant series The Bear has confirmed one indisputable fact: restaurants are the best setting for onscreen drama.

The mouthwatering food, the unchecked egos, the potential for spectacular triumph or crushing failure, the alarming proximity to fire and knives – The Bear, led by star Jeremy Allen White’s capable biceps, has shown that professional kitchens can usurp hospitals and police stations as the TV and film world’s ultimate high stakes environment, where tension can spring from the most unlikely source, like a kitchen printer spitting orders with relentless regularity.

It’s not like we didn’t already know this. Australian TV, especially, has long understood the kitchen’s appeal to viewers, primarily through reality juggernauts like MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules. Even 20 years ago, before The Bear was anywhere near a cub, Network Ten aired the short-lived drama The Cooks, about a crew of young chefs and kitchen hands navigating love and ambition in the restaurants of Sydney’s inner west.

“We got there first!” laughs actor Toby Schmitz, who played young head chef Gabe Francobelli in the series.

Kate Atkinson as Ruth and Toby Schmitz as Gabe in the short-lived Australian television series, The Cooks.

Kate Atkinson as Ruth and Toby Schmitz as Gabe in the short-lived Australian television series, The Cooks.Credit: Network Ten

The Cooks – which featured a multi-ethnic cast long before “diversity” became an industry buzzword, including early performances from Kate Atkinson, Bojana Novakovic, Nicholas Brown and Emma Lung as an Argentinian waitress (hey, it was the ’00s) – ran for just 13 episodes between October 2004 and January 2005 before it was dumped by Ten. Two decades on, amid The Bear’s success, it suddenly feels ahead of its time.

“That was definitely what we thought at the time, especially after it got nixed after a season,” says Schmitz. “I remember being incredibly bitter, and it was my first lesson in just how cutthroat TV executives, especially free-to-air ones, can be.”

He recalls various theories floating around at the time over why it was canned, from people saying it just wasn’t good (“I didn’t believe it”) to Ten fumbling its marketing (“I never remember seeing a poster”) to management changes at the network (“They had other priorities”). Like many cancelled shows, it’s now lost in the ether, unavailable on streaming beyond the rare episode uploaded to YouTube by randoms.

“I don’t know how to access it and I’ve thought about it a lot over the years because I remember it being pretty quality stuff,” says Schmitz.

Jeremy Allen White as Carmy Berzatto and Ayo Edibiri as Syd Adamu in The Bear.

Jeremy Allen White as Carmy Berzatto and Ayo Edibiri as Syd Adamu in The Bear.Credit: Disney+

Sue Smith, the show’s writer, says she’s spent years trying to understand why The Cooks didn’t work. “Look, it was a mammoth failure. Really, an immense failure. But when we conceived it, it was because the cooking shows, like MasterChef, were taking off. We thought if we meshed together a cooking show and a drama, there’d be interest. I mean, (the genre) had long existed – there were films like Babette’s Feast and Eat Drink Man Woman, and it seemed like a natural coupling.”

With The Bear, Jeremy Allen White has dined out on his method-y story of training for months at Michelin-starred restaurants to prepare to play Carmy Berzatto. But Schmitz says securing screen references at the time of The Cooks was a challenge. “I remember we all sat down and watched the Jamie Oliver series where he worked with underprivileged kids, and then we watched Stanley Tucci’s Big Night. Back then, they were pretty much the main references we had,” he laughs. “And then we each got given a copy of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. After that, it was time for practical work.”

‘Perhaps our rather loving take on the restaurant world just wasn’t what people wanted.’

Sue Smith, writer on The Cooks

Sydney chef Alex Herbert, then of Surry Hills’ Bird Cow Fish, was the show’s consultant, essentially putting her day-job on hold to help train the cast and set them up with boot camps at the top kitchens in Sydney to ensure the show’s authenticity.

“I reckon two-thirds of that show was set in kitchens and I remember a pretty gruelling three or four-week chef camp,” says Schmitz. “I had a terrifying few nights at Longrain in Surry Hills, which was an open kitchen. They were like, ‘Hello actor boy with your notepad, why don’t you f—in’ go crush herbs for three hours and then we’re gonna throw hot plates at you.’ I was terrified. But I learnt stuff too; I can chop a good onion and I reckon I could still make a gnocchi from scratch.”

On screen, the kitchen has range. On The Bear, it’s a site of teamwork and familial camaraderie, a cross-cultural collective coming together – or sometimes not, as we saw in last season’s finale – to work through personal grief and dormant tensions through a shared culinary vision. That’s maybe just the fancy kitchens, though.

Elsewhere, it can be a transient space, a coming-of-age purgatory. Take the underrated Restaurant (1998), featuring a mesmerising early performance from Adrien Brody, in which the kitchen is framed as a fizzy cultural melting pot, with young creatives – playwrights, actors, um, drunks – on a casual stop towards their true ambitions.

Rooney Mara and Raúl Briones Carmona in the upcoming kitchen drama, La Cocina.

Rooney Mara and Raúl Briones Carmona in the upcoming kitchen drama, La Cocina.

Of course, it’s not always sweet bonhomie in the kitchen. Sal’s Pizzeria in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) is ground zero for simmering cultural tensions, a detail also reflected in Alonso Ruizpalacios’ upcoming La Cocina, which stars Rooney Mara as a waitress in a testy relationship with a slowly unravelling Mexican line cook. The film’s simmering madness gradually turns more Bunuel than The Bear, with the kitchen – and the hospitality industry in general – depicted as the frontline for immigrant class struggle.

Smith wonders if the thing that held The Cooks back 20 years ago was the exact thing people now love about The Bear – namely, its warm depiction of the kitchen as a site of shared devotion. “That metaphor of food in life, the meaning of it as a kind of act of love, it seemed like a lovely thing to do and a sort of kind thing to do,” she says. “But maybe we mistimed it in that way, because the kinds of material that were starting to emerge were a lot tougher. Perhaps our rather loving take on the restaurant world just wasn’t what people wanted.”

Bradley Cooper as destructive chef Adam Jones in Burnt.

Bradley Cooper as destructive chef Adam Jones in Burnt.Credit: AP

The Cooks debuted mere months after Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares premiered, a reality series that helped cement the image of the tortured genius chef, the unhinged leader who throws plates and abuses staff in the righteous search for a perfectly cooked spatchcock. Ironically, it wasn’t until Burnt (2015) – a film executive produced by Ramsay, and starring Bradley Cooper as the maniacal Michelin star-chasing Adam Jones – was infamously pilloried by critics that the romantic image of the wild rock star chef reached its cultural nadir.

Now you’re more likely to see that sort of toxic kitchen environment villainised and satirised on screen. Take Joel McHale’s abusive executive chef in Carmy’s flashbacks in The Bear, the original source of much of his trauma. Or the psychotic Chef Slowik, played with a serial killer’s glare by Ralph Fiennes in The Menu (2022), whose main drive is mass revenge on foodies, as much as a great dish. Or Netflix’s recent Thai film Hunger (2023), which frames the professional kitchen as a torture camp; its most memorable scene is built on the horrible suspense of watching a poor kitchen hand getting verbally abused by a maniac while repeatedly failing to slice A5 wagyu beef thinly enough.

Horror show: Ralph Fiennes, with Anya Taylor-Joy, as the maniacal Chef Slowik in The Menu.

Horror show: Ralph Fiennes, with Anya Taylor-Joy, as the maniacal Chef Slowik in The Menu.

These are presented as horror hellscapes to escape rather than a place any ambitious line cook would desire to join. And yet, they highlight the versatility that the professional kitchen offers as a setting on screen.

“It’s a pressure cooker, really,” says Smith of the kitchen’s appeal to writers, directors and viewers. “It’s a confined space and there’s always a deadline, there’s always that meal service that’s got to be achieved. The people who work in that world, they work incredibly hard – quite damagingly hard, I think, because it’s such a hard life. They don’t run on particularly comfortable margins, so they’ve often got their backs against the wall, as our two restaurants did in The Cooks.

“I think any environment that forces people together under pressure will inevitably create good stakes for drama. But there’s also something incredibly romantic and sensual about cooking and food – there’s heat and there’s sweat and there’s a kind of intensity to all of it. So it lends itself to high-stakes drama, but also to romance, tenderness, sensuality and eroticism, even.”

Carmy Berzatto, TV’s most introverted chef yet.

Carmy Berzatto, TV’s most introverted chef yet.Credit: Disney +

Schmitz finds the restaurant’s onscreen appeal in one of those references he relied on way back on The Cooks. “I think the Bourdain book says it all: it’s sexy pirate town,” he says. “You get family and camaraderie, but you also get people on the fringe of society, like in all hospo, some who are maybe running from things. Plus, we all have to eat once a day, so there’s something very human about it.

“It’s sexy and dangerous,” he adds. “Bourdain went on for decades to illustrate that perfectly. It can be an adventure or as humble as a toastie with mum. A kitchen’s all-encompassing and we’ve had them since cave times.”

Ranking the screen’s top chefs

12: Swedish Chef, from The Muppets
I know what you’re thinking: this guy’s a clown. Think again: the Muppets’ “bork-bork-borking” resident head chef is at the forefront of cooking’s avant-garde. What other TV chef is regularly crafting dishes with tennis racquets, baseball bats, bells and, of course, countless rubber chickens?

11: Artie Bucco (John Ventimiglia), from The Sopranos
The head chef of Vesuvio’s, and Tony’s childhood friend, might’ve been the sad sack runt of the gang, a self-pitying working stiff perennially lusting over Tony’s tough guy glamour. But, well, by the end he’s one of the honest few left living – and still pushing burrata on his annoyed customers.

10: Diana West (Natalie Abbott), from Aftertaste
Her boorish (and cancelled) uncle Easton might be the big deal superstar chef, but Diana’s the delightful, forward-thinking phenom. The aspiring pastry chef becomes a viral star after launching her career with a dessert celebrating her deflowering called Pop My Cherry Ripe – a “chocolate vagina” with a crème brûlée base made from (stolen) cow milk, roasted coconut, cherry gel and popping candy, provocatively served without utensils.

Erik Thomson as Easton West and Natalie Abbott as his niece and budding business partner Diana in Aftertaste.

Erik Thomson as Easton West and Natalie Abbott as his niece and budding business partner Diana in Aftertaste.Credit: ABC

9: Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper), from Burnt
Yes, he’s an insufferable douche, an ex-junkie hellbent on getting his third Michelin star whose leadership style involves regularly throwing plates and assaulting his staff. But view the film as a stealth comedy, and suddenly all those ridiculous scenes of Bradley Cooper chefsplaining the appeal of Burger King are hilarious.

8: Andy Jones (Stephen Graham), from Boiling Point
Look up the word “stress” in the dictionary, and there should be a picture of Stephen Graham as Andy Jones there. Not a fun time, this guy, unless you’re actively looking to self-induce a heart attack.

7: Kate Armstrong (Catherine Zeta-Jones), from No Reservations
Kate’s the sort of driven head chef who’s obsessive about her work to the detriment of the rest of her life (“Life is unpredictable,” Kate’s therapist tells her. “Not in my kitchen,” she replies – that’s the kind of person we’re dealing with here). But she pivots when her sister dies in a car accident and she’s forced to become her niece’s carer, at the same time as she’s dealing with the arrival of a free-spirited new sous chef at her exclusive restaurant. That ol’ story!

Catherine Zeta-Jones as the perfectionist Kate Armstrong in No Reservations.

Catherine Zeta-Jones as the perfectionist Kate Armstrong in No Reservations.

6: Abby (Brittany Murphy), from The Ramen Girl
This film – a sort of kitchen Karate Kid, featuring a hilariously warmhearted performance from the late Brittany Murphy – understands a universal truth: ramen is the ultimate cure for breakups, loneliness, everything. Also, Abby’s tears are delicious, apparently.

5: Amanda Shelton (Sarah Michelle Gellar), from Simply Irresistible
A struggling restaurateur with an intense hatred of rum raisin (“tastes worse than blue cheese and dirt,” she tells her sous chef harshly) receives a vat of magical crabs, perhaps inhabited by the spirit of her dead mother, and suddenly manages to cook dishes that send her customers into seemingly MDMA-induced rapture. Was this a real movie I watched or the world’s best drug trip?

4: Carl Casper (Jon Favreau), from Chef
After a viral altercation with a food critic costs him his job, a celebrity chef opens a food truck selling Cuban sandwiches, rediscovering his love of simple cooking. I always appreciated the scene where Casper buys his tween son a six-inch chef’s knife and tells him it’s now his responsibility to keep it sharp and clean. Old school parenting at its most heartfelt/irresponsible.

3: Carmy Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), from The Bear
He’s a James Beard award-winning chef who runs his kitchen with a certain vulnerability. More importantly, he’s made tight white t-shirts and chef’s crocs chic and we’re only just at season three.

Remy the rat from Ratatouille: cooking at its purest.

Remy the rat from Ratatouille: cooking at its purest.

2: Syd Adamu (Ayo Edebiri), from The Bear
If Carmy is The Bear‘s creative force, Syd is its cool and collected brains, as she showed during last season’s overwhelming finale when she took control at the pass while Carmy got himself stuck in a freezer. She’s also produced the series’ most viral recipe yet: her French omelette covered in crushed sour cream and onion potato chips.

1: Remy the Rat (Patton Oswalt), from Ratatouille
Yes, the animated rat wins for he represents cooking at its purest. I bet even, like, Massimo Bottura wishes he could cook with the soul of Remy. The way his ratatouille sends the bitter food critic Anton Ego straight back to his mother’s knee with just one taste – it’s an achievement all other onscreen chefs can only aspire to.

The third season of The Bear streams on Disney+ on June 27.

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