‘The Bear’: Inside Sydney’s Food Tour and Season 2’s Love Letter to Chicago

[This story focuses on The Bear season two, episode three “Sundae” but contains some full-season spoilers.]

Midway through its second season, The Bear loads the viewer up with an abundance of high-profile actors: Jamie Lee Curtis, Bob Odenkirk and John Mulaney, to name just three. And while the bone-chilling holiday episode (titled “Fishes,” as in “feast of the seven”) rightly warrants more attention than you can throw a fork at, it’s certainly not the season’s first offering featuring familiar faces.

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On that front, look no further than three episodes earlier: “Sundae,” The Bear season two’s veritable love letter to the Chicago food scene, from director Joanna Calo, who is also co-showrunner and executive producer. Sure, every episode of The Bear is a love letter to the Chicago food scene. But “Sundae” is the cherry on top of the … well, you know.

Much of the episode centers on Ayo Edebiri’s Sydney Adamu, chef de cuisine at the developing The Bear, as she tours a diverse array of the Windy City’s finest restaurants for inspiration. Over the course of her journey, Syd eats at several real Chicago restaurants — some of them institutions, some of them up-and-comers and one of them fictionalized for the show.

“It was this very cool project of figuring out, ‘Who speaks for Chicago?’” Calo tells The Hollywood Reporter, speaking in her capacity as the episode’s director. “There are so many places we didn’t get to go to, obviously, but we tried to cover all of our bases of what it’s like to eat and be inspired in Chicago.”

In crafting the episode, Calo and company used the real restaurant locations and real restaurateurs in speaking roles (such as One Off Hospitality’s Donnie Madia) to not only build on the Hulu drama’s hard-earned authentic portrayal of life as a food professional, but also to honor the city that’s as much a part of the Bear cast as Syd, Carmy (Jeremy Allen White), Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and the rest. Below, THR speaks with Calo about directing the episode and how Sydney’s “Sundae” came together.

How did the world’s awareness of The Bear impact the work done on season two?

From the very beginning, as soon as we understood how people felt about the first season, I said, “Well, no one’s going to like the second season because once you have an idea of what you want for the second season, we can’t make all those people happy, so let’s just do whatever we want because we’re going to fail no matter what.” Releasing ourselves from the fear or trying to guess is probably what ultimately helped it feel, even though very different from the first season, really similar to the first season, in that it had an energy that’s all its own.

Part of the energy is leaving the kitchen, and seeing more of everyone’s lives, with episode three as a big example: Sydney’s culinary tour of Chicago. Please tell me Ayo Edebiri didn’t have to eat all of this food in a single day.

Not one day, but she ate a lot and I’m so proud of her. (Laughs.) It wasn’t easy, but she was always down. It was [shot in about] three days. Because of the way the schedule worked out, we really had to knock out the location work, so she ate a lot of really good food. Luckily, it was really delicious! But it was way too much food.

How did you choose which restaurants to feature in the episode? Does it start with the creative, or the practical realities of where you’re allowed to film?

We were incredibly lucky in that we were able to go where we wanted for the most part. People opened their kitchens to us. And so it really became less about the creative and more about: What are these iconic Chicago places and what are the up-and-coming Chicago places? And that ended up being this really special collaboration of Donnie Madia, who is this amazing figure in Chicago, and in all of the culinary world. People are inspired by [his restaurant] Avec, and the design and menu of Avec. And so starting with Donnie, that also connected us to [the restaurant] Publican. And the writers of the episode went ahead to Chicago before we landed there and spoke to [Publican chef Rob Levitt] and heard some of his stories, and then we wrote them into the script. And then we went and got the real Rob to tell us the story, which is sort of a weird ouroboros. We knew that if we could just get in there and get him talking, we could capture something special. We wanted the audience to have the same experience we were getting to have. Then Kasama was always high on our list because we ate there constantly during the first season. The food that Kasama is doing is special and part of this new wave of Chicago food. The apartment I stayed in for the first season just happened to be literally around the corner, so we ate there every day. We realized it was one of the greatest restaurants in America.

The Bear
Ayo Edebiri as Sydney and Jeremy Allen White as Carmy in season two episode “Sundae.”

How do these restaurant choices map onto Sydney as a character and what she’s looking to puzzle out for her own ambitions?

Once we realized that we were going to be able to go to all these locations, we started thinking about the menu for The Bear [the restaurant]. Chefs are inspired all the time and it doesn’t end up making it onto the menu. But if we’re trying to tell this really specific story about creativity and how it connects to the project she’s working on, we really wanted to draw a throughline from her ribs dish last season to some dish she would be pitching to make it onto the menu of The Bear. And that’s why we started circling around this ravioli idea. We know we’re getting beef from Publican, and that Avec has an amazing spare ribs and hummus [dish]. Lao Peng You has all of these dumplings that are so good. And then we have the fake French restaurant, Verdana, which we actually shot at Giant, where they have this amazing crepe. We were attempting to tell a story about creative inspiration for an idea and how it can come from all these places, and that Sydney would want to eat all of these different foods and combine them.

[Culinary producer Courtney Storer] said, “This is what she would do.” It’s like a day off for her, which we turned into this need for creative juice. But this was very much originally conceived as “Sydney’s Day Out.” You go to the market, taste the spaces, buy things, eat things. It was interesting to us, that this is commonplace for chefs.

What went into filming at the actual locations?

Jason Sterman and Brian McGinn [from Netflix’s Chef’s Table] came and produced with me. Brian also did some of the B-unit capturing of the kitchens. So we could be doing scenes, but then he’s setting up for just beautiful food and beautiful kitchen movements. I will say, we happened to shoot in incredibly kind kitchens. That doesn’t mean they weren’t being extra kind because we were there, but I think Donnie really lives by creed of hospitality and about taking care of the family that is in his restaurant. That that’s part of why we wanted to talk to Rob; even though Publican I think has a similar ethos, he had had some really good horror stories as well about shitty partners and bad behavior and failures, and those are his true stories and we were able to get him to tell those stories on camera and then use them to amp up Sydney’s fear of both her own failure and her fear about her partnership with Carmy.

How about turning these restaurateurs into actors, essentially?

That was fascinating. Again, I had Brian and Jason with me, and this is what they do, so they gave me some good advice. But the truth is, you just have to try to make people feel as comfortable as you can. It’s hard, though. Some people naturally can do it. Claire, one of the GMs at Avec, was a star. She could just completely be herself on camera. There were some other people where it was a little harder for them, and we just tried to give them as much time as we could. The actors on The Bear are so fucking good and charismatic, that we wanted to make sure we showed the very best side of these real people. What I tried to do was give those people who were less comfortable as much time as I could, and surprise them with prompts or say, “I loved that part, say that part again.”

Are you able to compartmentalize The Bear right now while pencils are down for the writers strike, and work can’t move forward on season three?

I really am, and [creator Chris Storer] is too. Taking a break isn’t the worst thing in the world. I hope we can resolve things, especially after such a strong showing from all the writers. It would be wonderful to end this in a powerful way. The writers really deserve to feel like a powerful force to be reckoned with.

Interview edited for length and clarity. The Bear season two is now streaming on Hulu.

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