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Forks, Smudges, and Other Things That Give Us Purpose

Richie Jerimovich poses in kitchen with deep fryer basket in his hand

Richie "Cousin" Jerimovich (played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach) with deep fryer basket in a scene from The Bear (Frank Ockenfels/FX)

Warning: If you have not watched The Bear, both seasons 1 and 2, and you care about spoilers, you should close this story. 

Media portrayals of kitchen culture tend to focus on sheer intensity with plenty of $5 swear-jar words and a cutthroat pace. We see this play out in popular reality cooking shows such as Hell’s Kitchen, and now, in critically acclaimed comedy-dramas, like The Bear. The finely seasoned “dramedy,” places Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (played by Jeremy Allen White) in his late brother’s failing restaurant, with a resistant crew, insurmountable debt, and a struggle to wade himself through grief and back to his love for food. 

The healing and uniting powers of cooking and food have long been explored through media. Think Eat Pray Love, Chef, or even Disney’s Ratatouille. Like all of these films, The Bear pinpoints tough and uncomfortably relatable themes of family trauma and places it within a more easily digestible lens of main entrees and dessert (pun intended).

A recipe requires patience and effort. In most cases, you must follow the steps exactly as written, no skips allowed, and definitely no shortcuts. It’s a journey; an arc with many twists and turns and always a finale. Like a recipe, The Bear’s main cast offers us a glimpse into parts of themselves that require patience and effort to understand. We get to witness these characters develop as individuals, as they also develop as chefs. 

Perhaps the character who embodies this change the most is Richie “Cousin” Jerimovich (played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach). 

When we’re first introduced to Richie, he comes off as loud, politically incorrect to a fault, and notably resistant to the new ideas Carmy wants to bring to the Beef. He also butts heads with new sous chef Sydney (played by Ayo Edebiri), even finding himself quite literally stabbed in the back at one point. However, while we’re met with his rough edges at first, we are slowly introduced to all the additional layers of Richie that make him who he is: a father, a friend, and surprisingly, a visionary with formidable goals.

In season 2 of The Bear, we are transported back in time with Episode 6, “Fishes.” The Berzatto family and friends gather at Carmy’s mother Donna’s house for Christmas, while Donna (played by Jamie Lee Curtis) undertakes the arduous task of cooking a traditional Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes. Among those in attendance, are Richie and his then-pregnant wife Tiffany. Here we gain an understanding that Richie’s longing for purpose and achievement began long before Carmy gained control of the Beef. In the past, his primary purpose was to be an upstanding father and a provisional husband. To do so, he believes his best options lie outside of food and customer service. We see this with his pleading to Carmy's Uncle Cicero (played by Oliver Platt) to give him a chance and offer him a job. He says he wants to do much more with his life than just “wrapping sandwiches.”

We then experience a 180 within the following episode, “Forks,” and witness present-day Richie on a journey to become who he wants to be. Now divorced, lacking his lifelong best friend Michael, and begging for a meaningful reason to keep going, Richie is sent–against his will– by Carmy to intern at a high-end Chicago restaurant, a practice known in the industry as “staging.” For his one-week stent, the majority of his time is spent with 5 am wake-up calls, military-esque meetings, and polishing forks. However, further in the week, Richie is given the chance to actively participate in the guest experience and see in real time why the little details of his actions matter. Said best by a member of the restaurant's crew during one of the aforementioned military-esque meetings: “We can smudge things, but we need to own up to them with immediacy, integrity, and honesty.”

Through this experience, Richie applied his same attitude when previously asking Cicero for a job: “If you teach me, I will learn.”

We see him develop significantly, from a man strongly resistant to change to someone wanting to know how to change. He takes the time to ask those he’s shadowing questions, pays attention to the customer’s desires, and actively takes control of changing his life. He shifts to a place where he has respect for not only the restaurant but also for himself. This comes from his newfound connection to the part of food service that is arguably the second most important aspect, coming second only to the food itself: Acts of service and the guest experience. A realization that brings us to the conclusion that while Richie believed his purpose existed outside of the culinary industry, it had been there all along. He just needed direction to find his place within it

Richie’s story of personal and professional development is just one of many that we get to see unfold across the two seasons thus far. This is one of the aspects of the Bear that sets it apart from reality cooking shows, such as Hell’s Kitchen. While I thoroughly enjoy a good Gordon Ramsay scolding and a high-stakes cook-off, I also enjoy what The Bear provides: A deeper understanding and window into the rewards and challenges that come from working in the food industry. When watching Hell’s Kitchen as a viewer with zero experience in the culinary industry, all I can feel and think about is the intensity of the environment and how personally unfathomable a career in the Culinary world would be for me. However, shows like The Bear illustrate what happens after the chefs hang up their hats, and how the principles they carry with them can apply to all aspects of their lives. Like Richie must have enough respect to polish all the streaks from the forks, he must have enough respect to clean off the counter in his own kitchen at home.

If you have not watched The Bear yet and made it to the end of this review, I would recommend you give it a try. It conveys exactly why food is a part of our hierarchy of needs; beyond basic nutrition, food feeds our emotions, our memories, our relationships, and if you find that you yourself are like Richie, it can become the fuel for your inspiration.

Listen to the review, with clips from the show, on this episode of Earth Eats.

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