Upon returning home from a family reunion trip two summers ago, I was welcomed back by the presence of two very conspicuous solid lines on the white plastic Covid-19 test in my hand. I had not (to my knowledge) had Covid since the pandemic had started. It was bound to happen at some point, I thought to myself, reflecting on how I managed to make it through unscathed after a full year of living in my EmWool triple, eating with groups of 12 or more people in the Ratty, and dancing shoulder-to-shoulder in stuffy basements on the weekends, forfeiting any morsel of personal space in the process.
The upcoming week of confinement to my room instantly catalyzed a Google search for a new TV show to watch. I was expecting a How I Met Your Mother-esque sitcom to pique my interest, but nothing in my usual genre seemed appealing. Instead, I clicked on a Rolling Stone article entitled “‘The Bear’ Is the Most Stressful Thing on TV Right Now. It’s Also Great.”
I was an instant fan of the show, tearing through the first season more quickly than I’d like to admit. It somehow captured the pace, exhilaration, and pressure of working in a restaurant, while simultaneously invoking the always-adored “found family” trope among the Beef kitchen crew. In short, it follows protagonist Carmy, a renowned chef who is navigating tragedy and attempting to recover his family restaurant with the help of its tight-knit staff. The show is a recipe for success—a perfectly crafted cocktail of elbow grease, laughter, chaos, tragedy, and fulfillment. I had never seen a show quite like this one, in which food is a catalyst for love, frustration, and everything in between.
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“Hands! I need hands!”
The constant restaurant vernacular in the show transports me back to a beautiful Friday night at Benjamin’s. It’s the middle of June; every seat from the bar to the patio is filled. I step back and take in the scene.
At one table is a reunion, friends exchanging fond college memories, reliving the glory days over beers and burgers. At another is a first date, two teenagers, timid but excited, discussing their favorite movies over sodas and sandwiches. The tables I appreciated the most were those of celebration: elderly couples rejoicing over decades of marriage, toasting to many more with a glass of wine. The kids’ birthdays, too; it was a treat to gather the rest of the waitstaff to sing and watch eyes light up at the sight of an enormous ice cream sundae being placed on the table.
The buzz of my pager disturbs my moment of observation. I race to the kitchen and take in its palpable collective stress. The success of the experiences outside—the birthdays, the reunions, all of it—hinges on each person here, whether they’re chopping vegetables, washing dishes, or plating entrees. In between the servers and chefs roaring “Corner!” and “Behind!” I meet the runner and she meticulously fits six beautifully-crafted plates on a large tray. I transport them to the dining room as fast as I possibly can, serve them, bus them, take orders for other tables, serve them, bus them, and get sporadically interrupted by requests for new silverware or extra dipping sauce. This cycle repeats until closing, every Friday and Saturday night.
I loved being a server; despite the often-insolent clientele and million-degree kitchen, it was an invigorating job. I became quicker on my feet, I could memorize a long list of specials in under a minute, and I could quell the frustrations of ill-mannered guests. But my biggest takeaway from those three summers was an understanding of the capacity of food and drink to foster memorable moments. I gained a profound appreciation for food by being on the side that created this experience for others.
In the show, this phrase was used as a way to gather the restaurant staff to eat together. For me, it evoked memories of nightly family dinners at home. My parents, my sister, and I recounting our days at the dining table, usually an outpour of the latest drama in school and funny workplace interactions of the day, often getting competitive over Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! playing on the living room TV.
Every night, I eagerly looked forward to what my mom had prepared. After having a ham sandwich or pasta for lunch, it was nice to come home to the more complex flavors of her malai kofta and kaali dal, knowing she put her whole heart into every meal. And eating together with my family brought a very specific bliss to my life. This joy that comes from eating food, alone or with others, is universal. National Geographic published a comprehensive photojournal illustrating the several contexts in which food has fortified individuals and communities. It places a spotlight on the wonderful impact food can have in our lives—from Buddhist priests laughing in unity while eating soup, to a man over the moon about a massive fish he just caught, to toddlers giddily blowing out candles on a birthday cake.
Growing up I often found it difficult to connect with my Indian roots—attending a Catholic school in suburban Rhode Island didn’t exactly make it easy. But with food it was simple, a way to bring there, here. And this feeling is not uncommon. A reporter from CNBC wrote an article explaining the change in attitude she had towards her heritage as a result of connecting with her grandmothers through food. There exists an ABCD (American-born confused Desi) internal tug-of-war feeling—too American in some contexts and too Indian in others. Resonating with my Indian side through food has been instrumental in dissolving this battle.
There were a considerable number of moments in The Bear that illustrated the stark contrast of the environments inside and outside of the kitchen. A scene of the season two finale captured this particularly well. The restaurant itself is a perfect scene: families and friends of the staff gather together to enjoy food prepared by the people they love most. The camera visits each table and it’s a heartwarming view. Then, in a somewhat abrupt manner, we see the goings-on behind the kitchen doors: a tumultuous, sweltering atmosphere full of people undergoing immense stress and perspiration to create an enjoyable experience for those outside. Chits of orders coming in at an astonishing rate, everybody paying acute attention to each request and responding with “Yes, chef” while completing several other tasks in the same moment. This intense yet careful labor reminded me that preparing food, while frantic and often exhausting, was a meaningful way to do something for others.
After I had finished the show, I implored my mom to teach me Indian cooking beyond the basics. While I can no longer have nightly family dinners in my home dining room, I have the ability to bring a portion of the warmth and comfort of that tradition to my current life. I’ve seen firsthand how putting such effort, care, and love into a meal can shape an event or experience. Today the aroma of chicken kheema swirls through my Young Orchard dorm, and the kitchen is messy and chaotic. But friends are arriving, and I am inundated with the coziest feeling.