Forgive me, fellow fans (chefs?) of The Bear, for I have sinned. When I ring Joanna Calo, the co-showrunner (along with creator Christopher Storer), executive producer, and director of the biggest surprise-hit series of the summer, she’s in the throes of writing Season 2.
“I’m literally sitting here typing words into the document,” she says with a chuckle. “That’s what I was doing when you called.”
While I deeply regret delaying prep, it was a pleasure to speak with Calo, a creative force behind The Bear with a résumé more stacked than Carmy’s, having also served as a producer and writer on Hacks, The Baby-Sitters Club (RIP), BoJack Horseman, and Undone.
If you’re not familiar with The Bear, well, please remedy that immediately. It tells the tale of Carmy Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), a talented fine-dining chef at places like Noma who comes home to Chicago to run his family’s Italian beef shop, The Beef, after his older brother Mikey (Jon Bernthal) takes his own life, leaving little bro the spot in his will. There, he’s forced to contend with his hothead, coke-slinging “cousin” Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach); new hire Sydney (Ayo Edebiri), a rising, classically trained chef armed with plenty of ideas for how to turn The Beef’s fortunes around; Marcus (Lionel Boyce), a baker with designs on pastry stardom; Neil (Matty Matheson), the fumbling repair man; Ebraheim (Edwin Lee Gibson), an old-school chef; and Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas), a line cook who marches to the beat of her own drummer. Like Carmy, they’re all struggling to process the death of their beloved former boss and keep The Beef cooking.
For Calo, The Bear’s unlikely success has been a dream come true—what are the odds that a truly original show with no-name stars could rise above the million other ones out there?—though filming in Chicago was plenty of fun too, as the cast chowed down on Chicago hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches.
“Everyone was ready to return to our coastal homes and eat salads [by the end], but we went hard while we were there,” says Calo. “Up until the last moment people got on airplanes they were eating multiple hot dogs. I think I gained 15 pounds the first week I was there. I had packed for two months and had to buy all-new pants. But I loved it.”
The Daily Beast spoke with Calo about The Bear’s left-field success, delicious food, and where things are headed in the future.
I don’t think many people saw The Bear coming. It was a bit of a sneak attack, and now it’s become the hottest new show of the summer. Has the reception surprised everyone?
Oh yeah. We thought it was good in that way you think when you’re making something it’s not total trash and you’re not wasting your life. [Laughs] And we just knew our cast was so good, and were seeing things behind the monitors, looking at each other, and going, “He’s so good” or “They’re so good together.” But I genuinely was afraid that people wouldn’t find it because it’s so hard to find things these days. I have a list of things that I’m supposed to watch and then I forget or feel overwhelmed by it. My highest goal was that people would find it on Hulu.
What was the genesis of The Bear? And what sort of hurdles did shooting during the pandemic introduce into the equation?
The idea originally was a feature that Chris Storer wrote a long time ago. I’ve actually never read the movie that he wrote because I joined on when he had two scripts in development at FX, but they were looking to bring on someone to specifically be the showrunner in regard to writing, and they wanted to bring someone on with TV experience. I read those two scripts, felt there was something special there and an electricity to the writing, and felt it was a world that I really loved—and that I knew we could add to the genre of that world. I joke sometimes with Chris, “How did this happen?” You say yes to being in development with things and it’s sort of surprising when things continue on, because so many TV development projects take years or just go away. That wasn’t the case. FX was really excited about it, and when Chris and I joined together it felt like, “OK. This is the team, now let’s go.”
The pandemic allowed us to work in a very specific way that contributed to what makes it good. It was all on Zoom—we weren’t meeting people out in the world—and the writers could be in different states. Once we were actually making it, we were very insulated to make it on our own, and FX was a really good partner in that they trusted us to go off and do it on our own. That’s what made it have a real voice.
It’s a very region-specific show, and I’m curious if it was always going to be set in an Italian beef joint in Chicago? Or is there a version of this that’s set in a meatball sub shop in New York?
Always Italian beef in Chicago because that was Chris’ specific experience. He had a childhood friend who ran a restaurant just like this and really grew up there. I’m not from Chicago—I grew up in Oakland and New Jersey—but my experience there made me feel like Oakland and New Jersey combined might be similar to Chicago.
Have you tasted a bunch of Italian beef sandwiches at this point? And what’s the best, in your opinion? Johnnie’s? Al’s? Or are you a casual Portillo’s person?
I’ve eaten them all. I will say that, like most people with Italian beef, so much of it has to do with emotion—and with your childhood. We made our own beef on the set, and also when we were shooting at the Mr. Beef on Orleans, Coco [Storer], who is Chris’ sister and one of our chef consultants, made one for me while Chris Zucchero, who is one of the owners of Mr. Beef, sat there and told her how to make it. That was the absolute best one I had. So, it was a little bit of love and a little bit of nostalgia. But I like it dipped and I like it hot.
I was in Chicago recently and went to Al’s and Portillo’s—and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit the trip was partially inspired by The Bear.
I was staying in Ukrainian Village right by Kasama, and that is the thing I ate the most. I ate Kasama breakfast sandwiches probably 20 days out of the 30 or so I was there. I ate so many Kasama breakfast sandwiches. And my husband and I were lucky enough to eat the fancy prix fixe dinner at Kasama.
I dated a girl in Chicago, and we enjoyed getting Portillo’s and chocolate cake, so the show resonated with me. Not far from Ukrainian Village is one of my favorite restaurants in Chicago, Giant. Have you been there?
I have been to Giant! Oh, it’s so good!
I love that place. That blue crab salad on the waffle fries with the tangy cocktail sauce?
Yes! Delicious. Spectacular. Amazing food there. In a way that reminds me of The Bear, there are amazing hot dogs, such good beef sandwiches—I had great sub sandwiches from Lucia’s—and then places like Kasama and Giant.
And also the steakhouses, like Bavette’s.
Everyone on the show went to Bavette’s all the time. The first time I had dinner in Chicago we went to Bavette’s. I think I’d just found it on Yelp, and it was magical.
“We were so lucky with casting. We were so lucky that people were available, that people would read, and I think we found the nicest, most talented actors in America. That’s literally how it feels. And so much of that was a mandate to find people with kindness.”
Did you get the chocolate cream pie dessert?
I don’t remember! What I remember are seafood towers and the greatest service I had ever received.
They’re on top of their game there. To go back to The Bear, I’m curious about the casting of the show—specifically the casting of Jeremy Allen White as Carmy. I’ve seen Burnt, and the problem with that movie is that Bradley Cooper’s character is such an unlikable asshole in it that you’re never really onboard with him. But the casting of Jeremy seems so crucial to its success, because you’re always gonna root for those big, puppy-dog eyes.
We were so lucky with casting. We were so lucky that people were available, that people would read, and I think we found the nicest, most talented actors in America. That’s literally how it feels. And so much of that was a mandate to find people with kindness. There’s a very toxic chef culture, and usually people who want to be chefs have these other qualities—for reasons hopefully we’re exploring—but I think we also know that people who cook are cooking for others, wanting to share, and wanting give love and create family. We knew kindness was at the center of all of that, and we wanted them to have both. A big thing for Carmy is he’s using his cooking to not process the difficult things he needs to process, but because of that he’s able to—most of the time—be a version of himself that he wants to be. That obviously falls apart, as it always does when you never process it, but he falls into that trance.
Most kitchens aren’t as racially harmonious as the one in The Bear and that seemed to me like wish-fulfillment. Was that the intent? To deliver this idealistic vision of what a kitchen could be?
I think this is wish-fulfillment, and it’s a place that most of them have worked in for so long where it’s this buy-in of, We’re people outside of this, and we’re working so hard to churn shit out that we barely have a chance to do anything but bullshit with each other. Chris and I have had work experiences where it’s played out a bit like this. I worked in the distribution downstairs basement area of a clothing company, and it was like the show in that it was people from all different backgrounds and this place where we were doing the most cartoonishly mind-numbing work but able to fuck around with each other and talk about our dreams. We were so far below everyone else that the realities of the world didn’t exist, to an extent. But I also believe that with the Richie/Sydney stuff, we were hoping to poke a little bit at the obvious conflict there would be between a young Black woman and an older, old-school white guy. That was always supposed to be a place where there would be a problem, and where these two characters would struggle to coexist.
It’s quite hard to nail down where exactly Richie stands on the political spectrum, because there’s a scene where he lambastes all the fanboys in line and mockingly refers to them as incels, QAnoners, and “Snyder Cut motherfuckers.”
My guess is that Richie does not vote. I think he’s [libertarian], and he thinks QAnon is stupid—but mainly because the internet is stupid. Richie really does like science-fiction, and so he thinks that he’s the true sci-fi fan.
Richie has major flip phone energy.
[Laughs] Yes, he does.
It’s interesting that you have a “Snyder Cut” dig in The Bear because there was a big exposé this week about the Snyder Cut in Rolling Stone that placed a lot of the blame for the online vitriol on Snyder himself.
You know, every good villain needs an origin story.
Did you send Jeremy and Ayo to chef boot camp—and make Jeremy go to Noma?
Jeremy and Sydney—I’m sorry, Ayo—went to the Institute of Culinary Education and did a boot camp. Then they both staged at different restaurants. Jeremy was at Pasjoli in Santa Monica, and he tells this story better than me but he legit went to work, took it very seriously, and eventually put out meals there. Ayo was at different restaurants in New York and also spent time with Coco Storer, Chris’ sister, who was the chef at Jon & Vinny’s and is a legit and impressive chef in her own right. We didn’t really want the rest of them to have training or move in the same way. But we did send Lionel [Boyce], amazingly, to Galst Bageri in Copenhagen, and he spent a couple of weeks working there, getting up in the middle of the night and baking.
Did you enlist any famous chefs for help on the show? Because I know Jon Favreau had Roy Choi as a consultant on Chef, and the late Anthony Bourdain and others consulted on Treme.
There are some secret heavy-hitters. Some people came and talked to us—and talked to Chris—and told us some beautiful, sad and difficult stories, and I want to keep that private because I don’t want someone to then feel like they see someone’s story reflected. We also had Matty Matheson, who’s on the show and is also one of our producers and was our official chef consultant, and then Coco came on to also help. Matty has more followers than anyone, as he’s told me, so he’s pretty famous.
“It was not intentional in any way, but I’m not too surprised. We saw the T-shirts…We all saw the T-shirts while we were making the show.”
Jeremy referenced a TV chef who backed out of the TV chef scene of the show, so then Jeremy did it himself instead. The internet believes it was Giada De Laurentiis.
Even more… I mean, Giada’s not too far off. I have the tear-stained, desperate pleas to this woman on my desktop still.
They must feel pretty bad now about not doing it.
I don’t know! I think there were some brand-confusion issues.
As far as surprises go, are you taken aback by the online thirst for Jeremy and Carmy? It’s reached pretty astronomical levels.
[Laughs] It was not intentional in any way, but I’m not too surprised. We saw the T-shirts…We all saw the T-shirts while we were making the show. I think Jeremy is very attractive—I professionally think he’s very attractive—but he’s also such a good actor. There’s so much emotion in his eyes, and how could you not fall in love with that? It’s turned into a funny thirst-trap meme situation, but I think he’s just giving old-school movie star.
Trauma plays a big role in the show, because everyone at The Beef is processing the death of Mikey—Carmy, of course, more than anybody. How do you feel the show explores trauma and the processing of it?
To connect this to what we were talking about before, it’s a group dealing with trauma and that group happens to do a job that takes up a hundred and twenty percent of their time and energy. That part feels very real to me. For the most part, we try to deflect trauma, pain and everything, and we had an opportunity to do something super grounded where we show how people actually deal with trauma—where you suffer silently, and then you sort of explode, and then it starts to get better. That felt more real to us than to have him have all of this insight up top. The Al-Anon slowly starts to bring it out of him.
I wanted to discuss the end of Season 1—specifically where Jeremy cooks the huge pot of spaghetti and then serves it to everyone. Was that an homage to the end of Big Night?
I think the idea was that it’s very thematically connected to his family trauma—trying to let the fact that his brother really loved him soak in, and then give that back out. The spaghetti is his mother’s recipe, which is something that he has a lot of issues with, but it’s also something that his brother wanted for him—“make this and it’ll make people happy.” He’s withholding against the spaghetti because he’s angry at his mom, and angry at his brother, and also thinks he’s better than that as a chef because he’s gone away, been educated, and doesn’t need to make that shit. But the love he gets from the tomato cans and the letter he puts in there and tries to share it with the people around him.
I read an interview with Jeremy and Ayo where they said they didn’t think the spaghetti cans ending would work—until they saw a cut and realized it did. Was that always going to be the ending?
Spaghetti cans was always the end! That’s a Chris Storer original. There was something Spielbergian and big-Hollywood-movie of it that I loved.
And there is indeed a machine that can put the lids back on.
There is indeed a machine. [Laughs] You can buy one on Amazon. I was just telling my friend this: “It’s called a can sealer, buy it on Amazon, and hide things for your wife in tomato cans.”
So, it ends with the gang not paying Cicero the $300K and instead using the money from the spaghetti cans to renovate the restaurant and reopen as The Bear.
Do you think that’s a good idea?
Well, it does seem like something an impulsive chef would do, which is not be very fiscally responsible and instead let passion guide them.
Yes. And what I learned from talking to chefs and restaurateurs is, even if you have money from other investors you can get in trouble there, too. We’re going to explore The Bear… I don’t want to say too much. But the thing I loved about Season 1 was getting into the specifics of the chef world that I hadn’t seen before, so we want to do that with what comes next.
We also haven’t delved into Sydney’s backstory and seen flashbacks of her journey. I’m curious if Season 2 will explore more of that and also the backstories of other members of the kitchen staff.
We hope so. That’s something we wanted to do in the first season, but you only get so many episodes! We want to know more about everybody.
Do you see this being a branding opportunity? I’ve always thought that Quentin Tarantino should’ve opened a chain of Big Kahuna Burger spots after Pulp Fiction, so I’m curious if you maybe see a real-life The Bear opening at some point, because Sydney’s plan sounds very intriguing.
He really should have. If anyone was gonna do it, it would be Coco. So, we’ll see if we can convince her. Maybe Ayo and Coco can open The Bear, because I think people are only going to become better chefs as we film more episodes.