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Courtney Storer, culinary producer, 'The Bear'
Issue 43: On her path from restaurants to TV, what a culinary producer actually does, and how she helped guide the showrunners.
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Have you watched ‘The Bear’ on FX on Hulu? “A young chef from the world of fine dining comes home to Chicago to run his family's Italian beef sandwich shop after the suicide of his older brother, who left behind debts, a dilapidated kitchen, and an unruly staff.” It’s high-stakes and fast-paced. Current and former restaurant workers have said it’s basically the best depiction of working in a restaurant they’ve seen on screen, and food is a main character. It’s gotten mostly-excellent reviews for the acting, writing, production, and basically everything, and it was very quickly renewed for a second season.
But making a show that’s that realistic, you need a team who can help write and guide the show in the right direction. I spoke with Courtney Storer, a Culinary Producer on the show about her path from restaurants to TV, what a culinary producer actually does, and how she helped guide the showrunners.
Brianna Plaza: Can you tell me about your background and how you came to work on a hit TV show?
Courtney Storer: It’s wild. I've been in restaurants since I was a kid, like 16 years old. I always managed to find a restaurant job on the side, whether I was in high school or college, and then transitioning into corporate America. My first real job out of college was at UPS and on the weekends, I was working in an Italian restaurant called Natalino's. From a young age, especially growing up in an estranged family and dealing with a lot of family trauma, restaurants felt like family to me and offered me a lot of comfort. I really needed that in my life, so I was finding I would have all these corporate jobs but my heart was really in the food world.
I wanted to be a chef. But as I would look around, there weren’t a lot of women in the kitchen. When I was a server making crazy money and I would talk to the cooks, I would say, "Hey, I want to be a line cook." They'd be like, "You're insane. You make 10 times more money. You're not going to make the kind of money you're making." And I hated that answer just because I badly wanted someone to be like, "Hey, do you want to get back on the line and try for a day?"
It wasn't until I worked for a chef in Chicago who really pushed me and would let me plate things at quiet lunch shifts. Eventually I moved to Northern California and started working for Whole Foods corporate. There, I had another crossroads moment with the manager of the store who was like, "I see you trying to instruct the prepared foods department how to make things better. Are you a chef on the side or something, or do you have a chef background?" I was like, "No, I just love food." And he pushed me to go to culinary school. So, I went to night school at 28.
I excelled in culinary school and my instructors really encouraged me to take the next step and move to Europe and immerse myself because you learn so much in kitchens over there. In Europe, there’s a lot more pressure, a lot more technique, a lot of responsibility. Long story short, I started cooking in Paris, got my butt kicked for a year, was really bad, and came back to visit my brother (Chris Storer, Director/Producer of The Bear) in Los Angeles. He was like, "Don't go back to Chicago. Stay in LA. See if there are opportunities here for you. At least try it out here."
It had been 20 years since we really lived in the same city. We got to know each other as two people who love food and siblings that came together in a healthier way, because Lord knows that our family dynamics weren't the healthiest.
In the pandemic, I left Jon and Vinny’s, which is a really big restaurant in Los Angeles. I was the Head Chef there for a very long time and then became the Culinary Director. I was having some inner conflicts because of the pressure and burnout was very real for me. I was overwhelmed and my voice got lost. I wasn't an owner and ownership was really important to me, and it felt like I was head chefing but not having any ownership at the end of the day.
I left and started my own catering and doing private chefing. I love to teach people how to cook and it allowed me the space to actually help out when Chris started developing The Bear.
My story's kind of crazy. If I wanted to tell someone to be a culinary producer — I’m not 100% sure. I'm learning as we go. I have no idea how you would find this job. There aren’t a lot of shows like The Bear right now.
Brianna Plaza: What does a culinary producer do?
Courtney Storer: The culinary producer works on everything from the vibe to the food, to the overall aesthetic and movement. I think something that's really interesting is that the choreography of a scene is not just about having a roasted chicken. It's more: “What are they doing with the roasted chicken? How are they holding that roasted chicken in a pan? How are they using the tongs or kitchen towels? Where would the sink be? How are they taking things out of the oven?" My job was to work really closely with the writers, the directors, the photographer — everybody who is navigating in the space. It's not just the actors. It's me and Matty Matheson — who is also a producer on the show — talking through everything, scene-by-scene.
Would that really happen in a kitchen? How would Sydney move in that scene versus Carmy? Why would we show Sydney's response differently than Carmy's? It’s about the food, but also what the team might look like on the line or what tension might feel like. We really worked hard to jump in with feedback. There were many times where they let us jump in and we were like, "Whoa, wait a minute. He's holding that wrong.” There was a scene where Carmy's drinking out of a deli container, but before that he had a glass. And I was like, "Ah! No glass. You're going to break glass on the line. You need a deli container."
I was cooking a lot. I worked closely with the prop master, Laura Roper, and the set decorators, Eric and Margie. I think the magic was, "Hey, let's really make this food. So, if we get a chicken in, let's actually roast it. Let me show you how that will look differently when we roast it versus when it's cooked a different way." Then on the set, all the ovens, the plancha, the low boys — everything worked. It was a functioning kitchen. We really got to cook in that space and I like to say our X factor came from the fact that you could smell the food, you could feel the heat. It felt real.
Brianna Plaza: Obviously actors act, but holding a knife properly and understanding how a kitchen flows is very intuitive to cooks or people that have worked in restaurants. How do you make sure that they actually look like they know what they're doing?
Courtney Storer: The really special thing about this cast is how much they were into what we were doing. Everybody wanted to learn more. They, on their own time, worked in kitchens. Ayo and Jeremy went to culinary school for a couple weeks. Jeremy went to a couple restaurants in LA and worked. Ayo went to the farmer's market with me a couple times and prepped with me for catering events at my house. I got to show her how I move, how I have to hold different types of weight because of my body shape. And talk to her about the times that I couldn't reach something, but was so frustrated with the team, I didn't want to annoy or bother anyone or take up any space, so then I'd spill things.
There was training, yes, but they had to put a lot of time into it themselves. Holding the knives, getting the right knives, getting them knife kits before we started filming so they can actually get more comfortable. There's a certain amount of knife skills, but it was more that they needed to see by examples. And that's why being in kitchens was so helpful for all of them because they got to really watch and observe how people move. I think they really saved that in their minds and applied it.
Brianna Plaza: How much of your particular background shows up in the show? Did you provide any personal input?
Courtney Storer: I was in the writer's room with the team very early on. I was like their little springboard. A lot of times, I'd take them on a really detailed walk-through of a memory. Like the veal stock scene — that happened to me. In fact, it was way worse. I poured it all over my entire body during service and I worked the whole service covered in veal stock. Literally nobody helped me clean it up.
I definitely had a lot of stories for them and made sure even in filming, I'd be like, "Actually, I don't know that would happen or go down like that. I would be way more pissed."
Brianna Plaza: What's the process for developing a recipe for the show? And how did you decide which dishes appeared on screen?
Courtney Storer: When you see chicken piccata, braciole, red sauce, Italian beef, hot dogs, all that stuff is food that Chris and I grew up around. We grew up in this big Italian family that became really estranged. I think we both came back together by recreating those things in our personal lives. Obviously, I have a career in food, but to make something read that heartfelt and real, you have to pick something that tells a story. That’s why those dishes were picked — because they carry a big weight for me and Chris.
I was telling Joanna Calo (Showrunner on The Bear), "Braciole is really important in our family but it's also this living, breathing dish. It takes all day to make. You have to be patient." And she's like, "It looks like a bleeding heart." And I'm like, "Exactly." That is so powerful because there's so much behind the braciole that is painful for Chris and I, but it's also healing. It can be both things, both things can be true.
Italian beef is a food we grew up eating several times a week. I love that sandwich still to this day. I'm so excited for all of the excitement in Chicago because beef is having this renaissance. If we had picked a cuisine that we weren't as familiar with, it might not have read the way it did on The Bear. Chicken piccata is what Chris and I make instead of turkey on Thanksgiving, because Thanksgiving is hard for us. That's our new tradition, so we picked that dish for the show. There was a lot of thought behind those things and that’s why it came out the way it did.
The show is a specific magnifying glass on one part of Chicago. We weren't trying to say, “This is a Chicago show that's going to cover everything about Chicago,” because Chicago is more than just Italian food. There's incredible food in Chicago that includes more than what we shot. What we wanted to do was focus on the crazy menu that this place had. And they don't have a pizza oven, so pizza wouldn't have made sense. The restaurant is confusing. We wanted it to be confusing. Why do they have roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, greens, and mortadella sandwiches?
I think that with Chicago, there's so many ways you can go, but this was the story of Carmy, specifically. This is his universe, surrounded by and inspired by in his life. Beef, braciole, chicken. Those were his hometown dishes. Obviously, he's a chef that worked at a place like Eleven Madison Park in New York, so that would indicate that he knows a lot about a lot of food, but he was able to step back and just focus on these dishes.
Brianna Plaza: What was the most fun recipe to develop for the show?
Courtney Storer: Honestly, I had a lot of fun. For me, this didn't feel super hard. It felt so fun.
The most fun thing I would say was the fact that Matty and I cooked over 250 pounds of beef for the show. It was insane and crazy. What you see in the show is 1/10th of what we shot. I'm like, "Where did all that beef footage go?" There were just flames everywhere. We had a blast. I mean, we had so much fun on this set, just cooking. It was really, really fun.
The set decks and the prop masters were like, "Whoa, you want that much food all the time?" I think negotiating with the whole team is like, "Guys, I know this feels and looks crazy and we have a huge refrigerator full of chicken, but we're going to use it." The team would look at me like, "You're crazy". And we're like, "No, no, no, we need that much stuff." And then we do it and they'd be like, "Wow, that was amazing." People don't realize that in an Italian beef restaurant production is crazy, there’s so much volume every single day, and we needed to be able to try and show that.
Brianna Plaza: There have been so many articles about the show. How do you take their criticism and praise into future seasons of the show?
Courtney Storer: We didn't know how the chef community was going to take it. We either got it right or we didn’t. I know the chef community and it can be difficult and this world is really precious and special for a lot of us, me included. I lived and breathed it. I still live and breathe it. We wanted to make sure we could get it as right as we could. Even before we knew that there was a season two coming, there was conversation about where the story would go. I think all the feedback and the questions of where it goes can go a lot of different ways and we have to really work diligently to make sure we do the characters and story justice as they evolve.