Jeremy Allen White worked in the kitchen of a Michelin star restaurant to train for The Bear
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Jeremy Allen White didn't just have to sharpen his acting skills for his next starring TV role — he had to sharpen his knives as well.
After playing Lip Gallagher for 11 seasons on Shameless, the actor returns to the world of Chicago for FX's new half-hour comedy series The Bear (all eight episodes premiere Thursday, June 23 on Hulu). White stars as Carmen "Carmy" Berzatto, a brilliant young chef from the fine-dining world who is forced to return home to run his family sandwich shop — the Original Beef of Chicagoland — after a heartbreaking death in his family. A world away from what he's used to, Carmy must balance the soul-crushing reality of trading in Michelin star restaurants for the small business' kitchen filled with strong-willed and recalcitrant staff and his strained familial relationships, all while grappling with the impact of his brother's suicide.
To play the highly talented chef, White went full method in the restaurant world. "He had to work extremely hard," co-showrunner Joanna Calo tells EW. "Jeremy is very good with his knife now."
White laughs as he tells EW just how "extensive" his training had to be to believably play a chef as good as Carmy. "I was completely clueless in the kitchen before this show, and then I progressively got to kind of mediocre," he says. "I went to two weeks of cooking school. I worked in several really wonderful restaurants in Los Angeles, Chicago, and in New York. It was really amazing — I'd never studied a skill that much for any other job, and it was really great to have months of training to learn about character and learn about Carmy through a skill that he'd also studied."
The restaurant he spent the most time in was the Michelin star-rated Pasjoli in Santa Monica, Calif. "The chef there, Dave Beran, was a chef at Alinea in Chicago, and he opened another small, tasting menu restaurant before Pasjoli that also got a Michelin star," White says. "He's a really serious guy, very good at what he does, and he let me spend a lot of time there. He let me cook on the line during busy nights. It was pretty incredible that they really let me in."
White's training wasn't the only way in which The Bear strove for authenticity in portraying restaurant culture. Celebrity chef Matty Matheson serves as co-producer and also appears on the series, and the showrunners took note of everything he told them. "We were very lucky in that we had access to a lot of chefs and had them come in, and specifically Matty Matheson really gave a lot of himself," Calo says. "The stories are insane, not only about what people are willing to put themselves through, but just the work ethic and the ways in which that ethic can both soothe and sort of help you evade any emotional processing, which kind of was perfect for our show. But also there's so much love there and a lot of kindness to each other, and those kitchens do become family. The stories that Matty would tell always involved a lot of violence and insanity and then also love."
In addition to his on-the-job training, hearing Matheson's stories about what it takes to actually survive in the restaurant world helped White understand Carmy on a deeper level. "I was really struck by the commitment and the time," he says. "I have such a tremendous amount of respect for people in restaurants now. It's these 12-, 14-, 16-hour days that these people are putting in to really perfect their craft, and that was just really bolstering."
Calo made sure to infuse that high stakes, extreme stress, never-stop-working attitude into The Bear. "The stakes are so high and so consistent, and I was really excited to show that through the pace of the show, and it continues throughout," she says. "There was something really, really exciting about the anxiety that I felt reading the scripts, and I think that transfers over onscreen. You realize the incredibly thin margins that all of these restaurants, even incredibly successful or wonderful restaurants, are hanging on by a thread. They can't stop. If they stop at all, if they give up at all, it just all goes to s---. And there's something really insane living in that pace, and then thinking about how many people actually live that way in our country is fascinating to me."
On top of the normal stress of running a restaurant that could fail at any moment, Carmy is also forced to deal with estranged family and processing his grief at the same time. "You meet Carmy in the most vulnerable time of his life," White explains. "He's in this state of constant trauma; his brother passed away right before you meet everybody in the pilot. He hasn't been home for a long time, and you meet Carmy when he's returning home and facing his past and really faced with the task of trying to figure out his relationship with his brother and what's he trying to do with this restaurant. Does he want to wreck it? Does he want to make it something else, or have it stay what it is? Is he mad at his brother? How mad? There are just so many questions about family."
He's also going to have a hard time connecting with his new kitchen staff, because the way he's used to running a kitchen is not the way they've been operating for decades — not even close. "His skill and his experience is going to inspire some of those people, and it's going to continue to rub other people the wrong way," Calo says. "And they're all confined in a tiny little space, so that's 100 percent what the show is, seeing how he's going to affect all these people."
After wrapping Shameless only a year ago, White was hesitant to play yet another young guy struggling in Chicago on The Bear. "That was something that I was being cautious about at first when I talked to [creator] Chris [Storer], because I'd just been on this show where Chicago played such a huge role in Shameless," White says. "I was nervous about taking on something where, I don't know, audiences might have thought that I only exist in Chicago, and all this other stuff that at the end of the day I think was really silly. I told Chris I was kind of nervous about it, and then I talked to my wife, and I read the script again, and the story's so excellent. That environment is important to The Bear's story, but I think I needed to get out of my own way a little bit in comparing the shows because the shows are totally different, though the environment remains the same."
But he boiled it down to one important fact: Lip and Carmy are two completely different characters. "Lip and Carmy have similarities in the environment they grew up in, but I think what's interesting about Carmy is he got out," White says. "At a really young age he was able to escape and chase his dream, and then he is brought back. What was really interesting to me about Carmy was the return and having to face his path in a way that Lip on Shameless never really had an opportunity to do."
Calo adds that no one has seen White like this before. "I think anyone who saw Shameless knows that Jeremy is very talented, but this is just an amazing performance and it has everything," she says. "And I think you'll just be shocked by everything that he brings to it — including his knife skills."
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Yes, chef: Jeremy Allen White and Ayo Edibiri star in this dramedy about a Chicago restaurant.