Service or Servitude?

The Bear and The Menu give us very different views of capitalism

Daniel W. Drezner

Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy in The Menu. Photo by Eric Zachanowich. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2022 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Eat the rich.” For a number of filmmakers, this has become not just a mantra for dealing with producers but a defining theme of their art. From Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness to Rian Johnson’s Benoit Blanc films (Knives Out and The Glass Onion) to Bong Joon Ho’s entire oeuvre, filmmakers of late have delighted in portraying the wealthy as leeches sucking the lifeblood out of the rest of humanity.

Perhaps the apotheosis of this trend was Mark Mylod’s 2022 film The Menu. Its plot is simple: Chef Julian Slowik, played by Ralph Fiennes, has been driven mad by the pressures of running a high-end restaurant on a remote private island, catering to a high net-worth clientele. With the help of his traumatized kitchen staff, Chef Slowik orchestrates a unique, invite-only evening of exclusive recipes that ends (spoiler alert) with him turning his guests—an affluent mix of the unctuous and the obnoxious—into human s’mores, killing everyone in the restaurant. Only Margot, a wayward call girl played by Anya Taylor-Joy, survives. The film’s use of haute cuisine as a means of satirizing the elite makes sense. The image of kitchen staff using tweezers to plate tiny morsels of conceptual food for well-heeled patrons is enough to encapsulate the absurdity of how different the rich are from you and me.

As it happened, The Menu’s release was sandwiched between the first two seasons of another study of an haute cuisine chef: FX’s The Bear, Christopher Storer’s exploration of a chef returning to his Chicago roots after he inherits his deceased brother’s Italian beef joint. The show’s protagonist, Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto, played by Jeremy Allen White, aspires to revamp the menu and upscale the restaurant. He faces considerable hurdles along the way, particularly when it comes to dealing with his blue-collar kitchen staff.

That kind of plotline would seem ripe for populist satire. The show could have mocked Carmy’s elitist aspirations and sided with his salt-of-the-earth kitchen staff, including his “cousin” Richie Jerimovich, played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach. Indeed, in the pilot episode Richie scolds Carmy for being “so woke.” But what makes The Bear so interesting is that it takes the opposite tack from The Menu. Carmy’s quest to transform the restaurant is portrayed as noble. The Bear provocatively argues that it is possible for someone to serve the market and serve one’s soul at the same time. It does not want to eat the rich; it wants to nourish them—and everyone else.

On the surface, there are plenty of parallels between The Menu and The Bear. Both protagonists are elite chefs who partner with wealthy benefactors to create restaurants. The chefs devote almost all of their time to managing their kitchens. They are equally obsessed with all aspects of making and serving food, from ingredients to recipes to plating. They are both scarred by family traumas in which alcoholism plays a significant role. And the personal lives of both characters are badly crimped, in no small part because of their obsession with greatness.

That is where the similarities end. The message of The Menu is not limited to eating the rich—it is about devouring everyone even vaguely connected to them. The New York Times review of the film opens with, “There is nothing subtle about The Menu,” and indeed almost every character behaves horribly. The dinner guests at Chef Slowik’s last supper include three finance douchebros, an egomaniacal actor who admits to being “a name-dropping whore,” a philandering husband, a pompous food critic and her obsequious editor, and a wealthy food groupie who invites Margot (the call girl), knowing full well that the chef’s plans call for her to be killed at the end of the meal. In his peroration introducing one course, Slowik tells his patrons to “think of yourselves as ingredients” and laments being “fooled into trying to satisfy people who could never be satisfied.” He tells his rapt superfan Tyler, played by Nicholas Hoult, that he is “why the mystery has been drained from our art.” Slowik tells the other guests at the end of the film, “You represent the ruin of my art and my life.”

The Bear does not want to eat the rich; it wants to nourish them—and everyone else.

If the One Percent are portrayed as soulless parasites in The Menu, those serving the One Percent come off little better. Slowik admits that “my restaurant is part of the problem,” but his pathology runs much deeper than that. Before one course he exposits that his sous chef Jeremy will never be his equal: “He aspires to greatness, but he’ll never achieve it.” That knowledge leads Jeremy to blow his brains out in full view of the guests. Katherine, another member of the kitchen staff, later explains that Slowik sexually harassed her, and then ostracized her in the kitchen after she rebuffed his advances. Elsa, Slowik’s second-in-command, assaults Margot in a fit of jealousy. As for the rest of the restaurant staff, they all willingly participate in Slowik’s grand murder-suicide soufflé. The very last words of the film are the entire staff crying in unison, “We love you, Chef!” as the restaurant and everyone inside it burns up in purifying fire. The moral of the film is ostensibly that success in the marketplace requires horrible, amoral behavior that drains the joy out of everything.

Some of the satire in The Menu is clever. Slowik’s evisceration of Tyler the foodie by exposing his complete inability to cook is particularly satisfying.

In the end, however, Margot’s indictment of Slowik—“even your hot dishes are cold”—applies to the entirety of The Menu. Seth Reiss and Will Tracy’s screenplay, as well as Fiennes’s icy performance as Slowik, serves up a simple, totalizing class dynamic. Early in the film Slowik asks Margot, “Do you want to die with those who give or with those who take?” The film’s class analysis never runs deeper than that dichotomy. Its attitude toward the wealthy is unconcealed disdain. Slowik refuses to serve his guests bread because, as he explains, it is the food of the common man, which they are not. Later, Slowik refers to himself with complete self-loathing as a “shit shoveler” and a “service-industry worker.” The Menu’s overall critique of capitalism might have been well received by film critics, but in the end the film is cheap, two-dimensional, and not entirely thought out. It is a movie about good food paired with horrible people, regardless of their economic station in life.

The Bear, by contrast, combines similar ingredients to those featured in The Menu but produces an altogether different flavor. This is clear in even the tiniest details. In The Menu, Slowik’s subordinates yell “YES, CHEF!” in unison, unsettling both the guests and the viewer with the slavish devotion and rigid hierarchy that the phrase seems to express. “Yes, Chef!” is also heard frequently in The Beef, the restaurant in The Bear. But Carmy says it to his staff as much as they say it to him. As he explains to Richie in the show’s pilot episode, “I call people ‘Chef’ as a sign of respect.” By the end of the first season, it catches on among the crew, with everyone at The Beef calling each other “Chef.”

Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Richard 'Richie' Jerimovich in The Bear. Courtesy FX

Similarly telling is the way Carmy’s staff’s attitude toward his ambitions changes over time. He wants to elevate the restaurant into a high-end joint. Led by Richie, the workers are initially skeptical of this plan and suspicious of the young new sous chef, Sydney, played by Ayo Edebiri. Over time, though, Carmy’s methods start to persuade. A critical moment in the first season comes when line cook Tina, played by Liza Colón-Zayas, confronts Richie after he complains yet again about the changes being made. Tina drags him outside and says, “My game has improved three hundred percent in two months. This place is organized and clean and smooth. . . . This is real and alive and good.” Similarly, pastry chef Marcus, played by Lionel Boyce, begins a deep dive into improving his desserts. Carmy’s ambition to make something better suffuses to the rest of his crew throughout the show’s first season.

In the show’s second season, the show takes an even bigger swing. Carmy enters into a partnership with his uncle, shutting down The Beef and remodeling the place into a fine-dining restaurant named The Bear. This ambition injects real tension into the storyline; it is unclear if an upscale restaurant can turn a profit in the post-pandemic 2020s. And where The Menu focuses more on the evils of capitalism, The Bear gets into the nitty-gritty about how any restaurant turns a profit. Carmy and Sydney talk about things like the cost of goods sold, and even before the restaurant opens, Carmy and his sister, Natalie, also called “Sugar” (she becomes The Bear’s business manager) decide that they need to raise their planned prices if they want to make a profit. This isn’t depicted as greedy or nefarious—just a thing that is necessary to stay afloat.

Progressive critiques of businesses large and small often include sentiments like “catering to an affluent clientele is bad” and “it's greedy when businesses charge a lot of money for their services.” The Bear sidesteps these sentiments by stressing the small profit margins and high failure rate of the restaurant sector.

Given these pressures, it would have been predictable if The Bear had suggested that the necessary consequence of running a high-end restaurant was exploiting workers. Instead, Carmy and Syd invest in their employees so that they can step up their games. Tina and Ebraheim, played by Edwin Lee Gibson, are sent to a culinary academy to sharpen their skills. Marcus is sent to Copenhagen to learn more about making desserts. Richie is sent to stage—a term always pronounced in the French manner—at the best restaurant in Chicago. In the language of economics, The Bear is suggesting that profitable businesses need to invest in their human capital.

The Bear also takes a very different perspective than The Menu on the relationship between producers and consumers, emphasizing the joys of craft and service. Sydney says, “Any good restaurant starts with dedication to service and taking care of the customer.” Real-life Chicago restaurateur Donnie Madia cameos in the second season, telling Sydney that the key to running a successful restaurant is “that your hospitality and service is overwhelming.” In episode 9 we see Sydney’s pleasure in preparing an omelette for Sugar. In that small scene, the viewer learns what Carmy later confirms—that Syd “loves taking care of people.”

Episode 7, called “Forks,” which centers entirely on Richie’s time at the fancy restaurant, is where this theme moves into the foreground. Richie starts out his staging week truculent and resentful toward Carmy for committing him to this menial exercise. His initial assigned task—cleaning forks for the wealthy clientele—does not help. His supervisor, Garrett, played by Andrew Lopez, eventually dresses him down and tries to explain why the kitchen staff is so exacting: “Do you see their faces when they walk in here?” Garrett later explains that as a recovering alcoholic, he embraces his job wholeheartedly because it aligns well with the “acts of service” essential to recovery. Promoted to the front of the restaurant, Richie begins to comprehend the satisfaction that comes with superior service. When he asks the expediter, played by Sarah Ramos, how she can juggle the welter of incoming orders day after day, she replies, “Every night you make somebody’s day. . . . That’s how I can do this.”

Over the course of that episode Richie embraces the ethic of service. The show makes it clear that through this (admittedly quick) transformation Richie can serve himself as well as others. The better he performs during the staging, the more liked he is by his co-workers. He starts to tidy up his home. Once he returns to The Bear, he dresses better—“I wear suits now”—and shows a much keener understanding of how to treat his co-workers and his customers. Richie’s newfound skill is on display in the show’s second season finale. With Carmy trapped inside the fridge, Richie takes over the ordering and Sydney the cooking. What could have been a meltdown turns into a virtuoso performance.

Progressive critics might look to The Menu to suggest that regardless of the joys that come from pleasing customers, the rigors of winner-take-all competition dehumanize the workers and lock them into a blue-collar existence. The Bear references that possibility in the form of harrowing flashback scenes of Carmy’s sous-chef days in New York, where his boss, played by Joel McHale, acts like a pure sadist. But it also serves up a well-earned rebuttal to those critiques. The employees of The Bear have some issues with work/life balance, but the show suggests that that has as much to do with family pathologies as capitalist pressures. As for the pressures of competition, Marcus’s sojourn to Copenhagen offers one rejoinder. Carmy’s friend Luca, played by Will Poulter, mentors Marcus and explains how he got to be so good: “Honestly, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. . . . At a certain stage it becomes less about skill and it’s more about being open . . . to the world, to yourself, to other people.” In his explanation, Luca reveals how one can prosper from competition even if the other guy is way better.

As for being trapped in a low-paying sector, the evidence suggests the opposite. A few years ago, the Brookings Institution found a high degree of upward mobility in the food service industry because “many people gain the skills that enable them to climb the ladder in those sectors.” The Cato Institute’s Scott Lincicome goes even further:

The industry also features a disproportionate share of minorities, women, immigrants, and ex-cons—many of whom also work their way up to leadership roles. Indeed, food service is commonly cited as among the handful of industries with “great potential” for upward mobility, and the National Restaurant Association estimates that about 90 percent of restaurant managers and 80 percent of owners started out in entry‐​level positions. As a result, numerous stories abound of chefs, mixologists, managers, owners, and other major players starting on the bottom rung and climbing, often quickly, their way to the top.

This is true in The Bear as well—Marcus’s first cooking job was at McDonald’s. By the end of the second season his confections are dazzling Carmy and Sydney.

It’s possible, of course, to enjoy The Bear while loathing capitalism—it’s wonderfully directed and written and features uniformly excellent acting. But one of the things that makes it truly distinctive is how convincingly it cuts against the grain when it comes to engaging with the marketplace. It does not just buck the “eat the rich” genre exemplified by The Menu—it consciously offers a more positive path for surviving and thriving in a capitalist world. The Bear argues that striving to excel in work can also help you find a sense of meaning in life.

At the start of the second season, Richie asks Carmy, “You ever think about purpose?” This question of purpose recurs throughout the season. In the “Forks” episode, Garrett challenges Richie, saying, “Let me give you some purpose.” By the end of the second season, Richie and the entire show’s supporting cast are in a better place than they were in the pilot, guided by their newfound mission. Capitalism can certainly cause men to lose their souls, but The Bear suggests that it can also cause some people to find them. After decades of vitriol directed against neoliberalism, that might be the most radical message currently airing on television.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He is also the primary cook for his family.
Originally published:
September 12, 2023

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