The most talked-about TV show of the summer is certainly The Bear and there’s been plenty of discourse about almost every aspect of it, from the clothing — see, “Actually The Bear Is a Menswear Show” — to the internet’s thirst for the “Sexually Competent Dirtbag Line Cook.”
Now I want to talk about the cookbooks.
The show excels at building impressively multidimensional characters through the eight-episode first season, but the showrunners also hid various Easter eggs to add even more layers. Throughout the show, cookbooks serve as shorthand for viewers in the know, giving additional insight into characters and station, while also serving as a bit of set dressing for those who don’t know the NOPIs from the Nomas (which is fine, this is all food nerdery, anyway). The most obvious use of a cookbook as a plot device comes in Marcus’s storyline, as he ups his dessert game, diving deep into The Noma Guide to Fermentation. It’s a fitting nod to the “World’s Best Restaurant,” given that creator Christopher Storer said in an interview Marcus is based on chef Malcolm Livingston II, who worked as pastry chef at the Copenhagen destination.
There are smaller cookbook moments, too – if you’re paying attention. Volume 1 of Modernist Cuisine, the mammoth culinary encyclopedia infamous for being pretty much useless to home cooks, sits like a paperweight in the back office of the restaurant. But perhaps the biggest — and most fleeting — restaurant name check is the big reveal of Carmy’s culinary influences via a giant stack of cookbooks. The scene lasts but a few seconds during the final episode, as Carmy wakes from his cooking show nightmare and hears his brother’s voice alongside jarring quick cuts. “Come on, you’re better than this place,” Mikey says before the camera slowly zooms in on books haphazardly piled on Carmy’s apartment floor.
I freeze-framed this shot to stare at the stack. There were some expected books and authors — Anthony Bourdain, Tartine Bread. But then there were some unexpected inclusions, too, like Cooking at Home by David Chang and Priya Krishna, a book geared almost exclusively toward the home cook. I had questions about the books featured: Does this feel like a fair representation of a chef’s collection or a thrown-together pile of random books? And what does the collection say about the main character?
I reached out to Ken Concepcion, chef and co-owner of Los Angeles cookbook store Now Serving, to help unpack some of the titles picked out for the show. Here are some takeaways — about Carmy, the state of the cookbook industry, and the culinary world at large.
One of the most striking things about Carmy’s cookbook collection is that it overwhelmingly skews white. But Concepcion, who worked in the restaurant world, including at Wolfgang Puck’s CUT in Beverly Hills, for 12 years, says that’s par for the course. He points to the fact that fine dining has historically been a white, male-led industry, which has boiled over into the cookbook world. “I tag Carmy as early 30s, literally a rising-star chef,” Concepcion says. “So he probably has gobbled up every single fine dining chef’s book, which will illustrate it’s a very white list of authors, for the most part. But I think that’s indicative of fine dining in itself, and of publishing.”
In good news, Concepcion says there’s been a “sea change” in publishing in the last 12 years, with a larger focus on home cooking and home cooks, and a shift away from restaurant chefs. “The focus, especially in the last five years, has been people. The audience now loves food,” he says, noting that cookbook readers today want to learn how to make delicious food at home, not just replicate restaurant dishes. “So it’s a very different field, in addition to the last three years of seeing more of a diverse range of authors and food writers and chefs being selected.”
In regard to the lack of diverse voices in Carmy’s collection, Concepcion has a number of suggestions on how the chef could make some improvements — really, lessons for all cookbook lovers. Beyond being surprised that Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking and Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation didn’t make appearances in the pile, Concepcion’s recommendations aim to give more depth to the collection. He suggests adding in the Bay Area’s own Brandon Jew and Tienlon Ho’s Mister Jiu’s in Chinatown, and generally, more books about Asian cuisines. He’d also love to see books in the stack on Gullah Geechee cuisine, like Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor’s Vibration Cooking, or books celebrating Black foodways and history, like Toni Tipton-Martin’s Jemima Code or Jubilee. “Obviously, diversity would be great, but I also want to see diversity of American regional cuisines, too, like American South, Cajun, Creole, all that stuff,” Concepcion says. “I would love to hand him Mosquito Supper Club’s cookbook, and he would just get lost cooking okra for eight hours.”
Concepcion also name-checked a few standout titles, calling the inclusion of these books — Organum: Nature Texture Intensity Purity by Peter Gilmore and Grand Livre de Cuisine: Alain Ducasse’s Desserts and Pastries — a “big flex” since both are out of print and therefore difficult to acquire. “He definitely went to Kitchen Arts and Letters [in New York City] or Omnivore Books to get those when they came out,” he says. Or, he tracked down these tomes secondhand, which would have required a substantial investment. A quick fact-check of pricing shows the books go for $134 and $337 on Amazon, respectively. For what it’s worth, there’s also an amount of showiness in including three of seven books from the El Bulli collection, which clocks in at $625 from Phaidon.
Bay Area viewers likely also noticed numerous local authors in the mix. As fans know, Carmy worked for two big-name restaurants, Healdsburg’s French Laundry and Noma in Copenhagen. Fittingly, then, an outsized number of cookbooks hail from the Bay Area: the aforementioned Tartine Bread, as well as a handful of Chez Panisse books, Christopher Kostow’s A New Napa Cuisine, Rich Table, and SPQR. And though it initially struck me as odd Carmy would have so many books from a region where he worked, Concepcion set me straight. “When you’re working in restaurants you’re like, ‘Oh, my friend’s a sous at Manufactory, so I’m gonna pick this up’ or ‘Another friend is a cook who worked on a few recipes at NOPI so I’m picking that up,’” Concepcion says. “So not only do you follow what interests you or what chefs you want to be inspired by, but you also want to support, even if you never cook from the book.”
As for the home cooking cookbooks, Conception had a simple answer to account for their presence. “Every cook and chef has a family member or a parent that will give them a cookbook,” Concepcion says. “I’m not saying anything about David Chang — but that feels like a gift.”
Here’s the full list of Carmy’s cookbooks in The Bear, or as many as could be identified.
From the left, starting beneath the ashtray:
The Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual, by Frank Castronovo, Frank Falcinelli, and Peter Meehan
NOPI: The Cookbook, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ramael Scully
The All-New, All-Purpose Joy of Cooking (seventh edition), by Irma S. Rombauer
The Essential Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century, by Amanda Hesser
Hartwood: Bright, Wild Flavors from the Edge of the Yucatán, by Eric Werner and Mya Henry, with Christine Muhlke and Oliver Strand
POLPO: A Venetian Cookbook (Of Sorts), by Russell Norman
The Edna Lewis Cookbook, by Edna Lewis and Evangeline Peterson
Chez Panisse Vegetables, by Alice Waters
Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery Course, by Darina Allen
Larousse Gastronomique (second English edition), by Prosper Montagné
Kitchen of Light: New Scandinavian Cooking with Andreas Viestad, by Andreas Viestad and Mette Randem
Art Fare: A Commemorative Celebration of Art and Food, edited by Debbie Van Mol and Mary Cummings
Institut Paul Bocuse Gastronomique: The definitive step-by-step guide to culinary excellence, by Institut Paul Bocuse
The Escoffier Cook Book and Guide to the Fine Art of Cookery, by Auguste Escoffier
POK POK The Drinking Food of Thailand: A Cookbook, by Andy Ricker and JJ Goode
A New Napa Cuisine, by Christopher Kostow
The Family Meal: Home cooking with Ferran Adrià, by El Bulli
South: Essential Recipes and New Explorations, by Sean Brock
Tartine Bread, by Chad Robertson
Moro The Cookbook, by Samantha Clark and Samuel Clark
Bianco: Pizza, Pasta, and Other Food I Like, by Chris Bianco
Goose Fat & Garlic: Country Recipes From Southwest France, by Jeanne Strang
Rich Table, by Sarah and Evan Rich, with Carolyn Alburger
Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen, by Edward Lee
SPQR: Modern Italian Food and Wine, by Shelley Lindgren, Matthew Accarrino, and Kate Leahy
Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy, by Diana Kennedy
Mainstreet Ventures: Distinctive Recipes from Distinctive Eateries, by Simon Pesusich
Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen, by George Lang
Far Flung and Well Fed: The Food Writing of R.W. Apple, Jr., by R. W. Apple Jr.
Tartine All Day: Modern Recipes for the Home Cook, by Elisabeth Prueitt
English Seafood Cookery, by Rick Stein
Serious Eater: A Food Lover’s Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption, by Ed Levine
Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, by Marcella Hazan
Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook, by Anthony Bourdain
The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food, by Judith Jones
Lessons in Excellence from Charlie Trotter, by Paul Clarke
The Year Of Eating Dangerously: A Global Adventure In Search Of Culinary Extremes, by Tom Parker Bowles
Grand Livre de Cuisine: Alain Ducasse’s Desserts and Pastries, by Alain Ducasse
Organum: Nature Texture Intensity Purity, by Peter Gilmore
elBulli 2005-2011 (a collection), by Ferran Adrià, Albert Adrià, and Juli Soler
The Tummy Trilogy, by Calvin Trillin
Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child, by Bob Spitz
The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, by Fergus Henderson
My Pantry: Homemade Ingredients That Make Simple Meals Your Own: A Cookbook, by Alice Waters and Fanny Singer
The Violet Bakery Cookbook, by Claire Ptak
The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution, by Alice Waters
Food in England: A Complete Guide to the Food That Makes Us Who We, by Dorothy Hartley
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, by Michael Pollan
Pierre Gagnaire: Reinventing French Cuisine, by Jean-François Abert
The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern, by Claudia Fleming, with Melissa Clark
Cooking at Home: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Recipes (And Love My Microwave), by David Chang and Priya Krishna
Ama: A Modern Tex-Mex Kitchen, by Josef Centeno and Betty Hallock
Urban Italian: Simple Recipes and True Stories from a Life in Food, by Andrew Carmellini and Gwen Hyman
Signature Dishes That Matter, curated by Susan Jung, Howie Kahn, Christine Muhlke, Pat Nourse, Andrea Petrini, Diego Salazar, and Richard Vines
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