Culture change is a slow process. I have experienced it several times in different companies and organizations, where processes are failing or employee morale is exceptionally low. Attempting to do meaningful work can feel futile, and optimism is worn down by the fatigue that comes with working in a place that seems broken.
When I’ve found myself in such a scenario, the thought of quitting has come with the guilt of being part of the problem: Staff turnover is often at the heart of workplace dysfunction, as the people who could improve the place are the same ones it grinds to dust. On bad days I’ve told myself that it’s “just a job,” and on the good ones I’ve indulged in the feeling that improving a business means something more—changing the lives of co-workers and the people we serve. I believe most of us have been there at least once in our lives, deciding the “right” thing to do: working harder in hopes of changing a place, or leaving it to its decline.
I grappled with that thought as I watched The Bear, a tense new FX series available on Hulu. It’s one of the best shows of the year so far—it currently boasts a perfect 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes—and it’s one that will stick with you after its short eight-episode run. The show is about a young chef, Carmy, struggling to keep a family-run restaurant, the Real Beef of Chicagoland, solvent. Carmy inherited “the Beef” after his brother’s death, and although Carmy is something of a culinary prodigy—a high-end chef who worked in the best restaurants in the world, won multiple awards, and was named Food and Wine magazine’s Best New Chef—he suffers from grief and anxiety. And the restaurant is hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
Carmy is committed to turning the place around, but the Beef is a failing neighborhood staple that serves sandwiches to working-class locals, not an upscale restaurant like he’s used to running. Carmy wants to save the restaurant but also make food he’s proud of—two ideas that might not be compatible, but both of which would mean changing the kitchen hierarchy, their recipes, and the customers they serve. It puts Carmy in the position of being a hotshot interloper to his crew of recalcitrant kitchen staff, and the Beef in the middle of an internal culture war. On one side is Richie, a chaotic longtime employee of the Beef and close family friend who is losing his footing in the restaurant; on the other is a young sous-chef named Sydney, who shows up with ideas for new processes, services, and recipes.
In our real lives, most of us are Sydney, working to make things better, or Richie, working to keep them the same. Few of us are Carmy.
Watching The Bear is like a waking stress dream (think Uncut Gems or Whiplash meets Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential), but it’s refreshingly original in how it plays with its character tropes. Carmy is the troubled genius who nonetheless values respect; Sydney is the mentee who believes in him, but is learning that she needs to speak harshly sometimes; and the two of them are surrounded by a stubborn crew who will follow their leaders into success or failure, but who are also charming and have unexpected depth as characters. While Carmy’s struggle with grief is the center of the series’ emotional conflict through line, I found myself paying the most attention to Sydney.
Sydney is a proxy for the audience, thrown into the chaos of the kitchen where your hand isn’t held. She grows from a soft-spoken newbie asking for a chance to a woman who will yell “Fuck you, do your job” to someone falling behind. The core question of the series evolves from whether Carmy can overcome his anxiety to save the family business to whether he can cope with his grief and move aside for someone like Sydney to change the restaurant before it breaks her.
When Carmy and Sydney meet in the first episode, Sydney stumbles through an introduction and hands her résumé to Carmy, who reads her employment history out loud. By the end of the scene, you have an idea of the power dynamic to come:
“Alinea, Smoque, Avec, that’s some serious heat. What’s UPS, that’s in Chicago?” Carmy says.
“Uh, United Parcel Service,” Sydney stutters. “The mail … paid my way through culinary school.”
“CIA?” Carmy asks, referring to the Culinary Institute of America. Like him, Sydney is clearly overqualified for the Beef. “Okay, so what are you doing here?”
Sydney explains that it was her dad’s favorite restaurant and that they used to come every Sunday. But when Carmy offers the job, she poses her own question.
“I know who you are,” Sydney said. “You were the most excellent CDC [chef de cuisine] at the most excellent restaurant in the entire United States of America. So what are you doing here?”
By episode 7, “Review,” the most stressful of the series and one of the best 20-minute episodes of TV I’ve ever seen, Sydney is far from soft-spoken.
“Fuck you, Richie,” she yells. “Fuck. You.”
When another chef asks if she’s okay, Sydney snaps at her too.
“Yeah, I’m fucking okay, Tina.”
“Hey, you don’t need to be screaming and shit,” Tina says. “That’s not you.”
“You know, maybe it is. Maybe it really is. I don’t know what you’re going to learn in this shithole of a place.”
The episode gets a thousand times more intense from there, just one frenetic scene after another as Sydney spirals into rage and hopelessness. I won’t spoil whether Sydney quits—you should certainly watch The Bear yourself to find out—but I struggled with whether to hope that Sydney stays or leaves. Every business has a Sydney, and in my experience, few Sydneys are ever successful at changing a toxic environment. But there’s an even worse outcome that’s possible in real life: capable, hardworking optimists sometimes can compensate for a toxic workplace and bring success to the leaders responsible for fostering the toxic environment. Such success is temporary, though, so Sydneys become enablers, incentivizing leaders to find more hardworking optimists to use and discard without ever confronting the need for change.
The “right” thing to do, then, may not be to work harder in a toxic or broken place, but to leave it to its own destruction. It depends, I guess, on how much you believe in Carmy.
Thanks to everyone who responded to last week’s Humans Being, about emergency contraception and abortion. Many readers shared their least favorite medical questions (my inbox is flooded; I’m still catching up), and I learned a lot about many of your personal experiences with routine medical care. My favorite response came from John, one of the relatively few men who replied (about 80 percent of the responses were from women), who wrote, “You don’t spare yourself much, do you? It made me think … and wince. We men spare ourselves a lot, I think. I’m glad I’ve never needed to think about having an abortion; I’m glad I’ve never given birth.”
I think you’re right, John, and I wanted to try to step out of that safety by sharing uncomfortable things. Also, an alternate title for Humans Being could be “Jordan Doesn’t Spare Himself,” brought to you by The Atlantic.
For anyone interested in my sparing myself even less, there’s my new memoir, Piccolo Is Black: A Memoir of Race, Religion, and Pop Culture. If you like Humans Being, you’ll like this book. I hope you read it.
This week’s book giveaway is a hardcover of Impact Players: How to Take the Lead, Play Bigger, and Multiply Your Impact, by Liz Wiseman. If you want to maximize your Sydney powers with a leadership book about standing out in your career, this one’s for you. Just send me an email telling me the longest you’ve ever stayed in a toxic work environment and whether you regret it, and I’ll send the book to a random person who hits my inbox. You can reach me at email@example.com, or find me on Twitter at @JordanMCalhoun.