“I know what it’s like to be a woman in the kitchen. I have been in this kitchen since before you were born so back the f*** off.”
This statement is made by Tina, played by Liza Colon-Zayas, a veteran member of the kitchen. The remark is one of many caustic, argumentative phrases spouted in a restaurant known as ‘The Beef,’ a Chicago establishment that’s been around for decades. These flares of anger shoot back and forth like pinball, making the situation constantly tense and bubbling like an overcooked stew.
And we’re dropped in the middle of it and expected to fend for ourselves. That’s how we learn about Carmine, played by Jeremy Allen White, a young brash, highly intelligent chef that’s ditched a position at one of the top restaurants in the world to take over the family business which was previously run by his brother Mike. The tall cranky man shouting, looming over everyone else in the kitchen is Richie, played with aplomb by Ebon-Moss Bachrach, Carmine’s cousin and self-proclaimed expert of what initially looks like an old, worn-out dining spot from another era. Mike has committed suicide and left the space, one burdened with debt, to Carmine to do whatever he will with it. A bit of information that’s shared rather bluntly a few episodes in:
“I thought you killed yourself,” says a family friend.
“No sir, that was my brother,” Carmy, as he’s affectionately called, responds quite matter-of-factly.
Before this, Jeremy Allen White was known for his role on Shameless. But this is his coming out party in a way. He plays Carmine with intensity and earnestness and never a time to smile. But it also makes him fun to watch. You know at some point he’ll break. Why he decides to take on this challenge of saving his brother’s restaurant is anyone’s guess until the finale when we learn a bit more about the relationship with his brother through monologue.
The rest of the cast is a sampling of the old and new. The new being Sydney, played by Ayo Edebiri, a youthful aspiring chef who’s followed Carmine to this stop to learn from the best and prove herself. The old are characters like Tina, a fussy protective line cook that learns to open herself up to new ways of preparing food; And Marcus, played by Lionel Boyce, a donut maker who seems fixated on creating a dessert menu to match anything Carmine creates.
Sydney is a go-getter and in my opinion the best character on the show, if not one of the best TV characters I’ve encountered in a long time. In real life, Ayo Edebiri is a stand-up comic, but what she brings to this role are intelligence, wit, and charm. Sydney clashes with Tina early on and you feel a sort of ‘I’ve had it rougher as a woman’ vibe coming especially from Tina. Additionally, Sydney and Marcus are the two primary black figures on the show, and the easy exchanges between them and a diversity of other characters that pop up add an authenticity to it all. These are Chicagoans grinding out a day’s work with humor and despite many clashes, affection.
Authenticity is kind of what makes the show run. Without it, I can’t see how a show like this gets off the ground. You believe you’re in the middle of it all, this storm of preparation and planning. These are characters who live and breathe food on some level.
Whether it’s Sydney who dreams in bed about concoctions of her own or Marcus who’s meticulously at work trying to find the perfect taste, you feel these characters are in the kitchen even when they’re not in the kitchen.
I also like Abby Elliot as Carmine’s oft-neglected sister, Natalie. It’s a role that requires a lot of nagging and repetition and I feel Elliot, a former SNL cast member, brings a sincerity to it that makes it believable. Grief is a theme in the show. The brother’s death looms large. Carmine seems to push it down while his sister Natalie looks to get it out in the open.
I’ve already mentioned that the entire show basically revolves around the goings-on in a kitchen. It makes everything else stand out with its own importance. We’re treated to a flashback of Carmine with his deceased brother Mike and Richie in a kitchen at home, trading jokes and telling stories. We also get the occasional hint of a dream that Carmine has when he’s confronting a caged bear on a bridge.
Other special moments in the show, a tight batch of only eight 30-minute episodes aside from the 48-minute finale, are Oliver Platt as an older uncle who’s owed a debt from deceased Mike. His reciting of a dream in one of the latter episodes is some of the best work I’ve seen on television this year. I’m also a huge fan of Oliver Platt. And Jon Bernthal plays Mike in the flashback. There are also great, humorous contributions from Matty Matheson, a repair man eager to join the kitchen crew, Chris Witaske as Natalie’s eager-to-please husband Pete, and Carmen Christopher as Chester, a guy who just likes to hang around.
The s*** really hits the fan in the last few episodes. We start to see the underbelly of Carmine’s perfectionist nature and it leads to chaos on top of chaos. For a show that’s less about story and more about attitude, the final episode opens things up for a second season with a lot of potential. I’m happy to report that the show will return in 2023. In a way, we’re just getting started.