‘The Bear’ season 2: Behind the scenes with culinary producer Courtney Storer and actor Liza Colón-Zayas

Hosted by

Culinary producer Courtney Storer (left) assigned homework, including breaking down a whole branzino, to actress Liza Colón-Zayas, whose character, Tina, was promoted to sous chef in season two of The Bear. Photo by Dae Narciso.

If you're in the restaurant business and haven't watched The Bear, stop reading right now and go watch this show. If you're in the restaurant business and have watched it, we're sorry, because it probably triggered some PTSD for you. (Or is that just us?) Either way, the FX series, now streaming on Hulu, depicts the experience of cooking on the line with more realism and honesty than any TV show we've ever seen. A big part of that is the show's culinary producer, chef Courtney Storer. Her brother, Christopher Storer, created The Bear. The siblings grew up in Chicago and reconnected in Los Angeles, where Courtney had worked at various restaurants, including Animal and Jon & Vinny's.

On The Bear, Courtney is responsible for creating the food we see, which is a character in and of itself. She also works with the actors to bring verisimilitude to the cooking scenes. One of those actors is Liza Colón-Zayas, who plays Tina, a character who takes her own journey through the brigade system as part of the chosen family on the series. 

More: ‘The Bear’ star Jeremy Allen White on capturing the joy and pain of being a chef

With many writer-producers declining to promote shows due to the ongoing strike, Good Food notes that Storer and Colón-Zayas participated in this interview before the WGA and SAG went on strike.

KCRW: Liza, your character, Tina, has come a long way from the beginning of season one where she was feeling pretty defensive. Did moving up give you more of an opportunity to work with Courtney this season?

Liza Colón-Zayas: Yeah, that was the cool part. I was super busy and couldn't train as much as I wanted to because I was doing a show on Broadway. But having Courtney, her patience, her skill, her generosity, was amazing to be in my kitchen. Like Tina, in a way, here I was, starting with the basics. Courtney was phenomenal in helping me get a grip on the slicing and dicing, the fileting of the fish, making stocks.

How comfortable were you in the kitchen before you were cast as Tina?

Colón-Zayas: I was comfortable in my kitchen. That was about it.

Liza Colón-Zayas (right) appeared on Broadway as she prepared for season two of The Bear. Photo courtesy of FX.

I just have to tell you what a fan I was of your performance in the first season. I felt like your character was so real. And what she experienced happens to people working in kitchens all the time when they move from one restaurant to another or another chef comes in. They go through this arc of feeling like they know what they're doing to being told they don't know anything, and how humbling that is.

Colón-Zayas: I absolutely can relate because I think that chefs and great cooks are artists. [It's] your passion, your heart and your soul. And yet, once you reach a certain age, like actors and actresses, without those accreditations from working at Michelin kitchens or being trained in that way, I think that Tina certainly had a right to be defensive. I feel that the way she expressed herself was really rough around the edges but this is a person who was a product of their environment.

And an adult.

Colón-Zayas: And an adult. And life experiences. And when you roll into a situation where you think you may be instantly dismissed because you don't come with the reputation or the credentials, it's tough and you can be easily dispensed with. So I think all of those fears were having their way with Tina.

Courtney Storer: Even just hearing you say that, I think that's what's so interesting about kitchen dynamics. I don't think I've met anybody who's cooked at a Michelin level, entry level, whatever kind of kitchen, that hasn't felt out of their element when they walk into a new space or new kitchen. It's like they're being sized up or underestimated or feeling left out, whatever it is. 

Kitchen dynamics are really tricky to understand at first. That's what's really relatable about The Bear, I think. A lot of people see themselves in maybe all of the characters or one character, and I could really see that in the magic that Liza brought to the set. The level of understanding she brought to Tina's character made Tina someone who I was like, "Oh, yeah. I know you. I know this dynamic." Even though dynamics can be difficult, what comes on the other side of those moments of growth can be really special.

More: ‘The Bear’ actor Lionel Boyce on getting hands-on — in the studio and the kitchen — for season 2

Courtney, in addition to working specifically with actors on The Bear, did you help bring that kind of realness to the script as well? 

Colón-Zayas: Absolutely!

Storer: I talked a lot with the writers of The Bear. And, obviously, Chris and I, being siblings, and me living with him during years when I was struggling financially as a line cook and trying to figure out how I was gonna support myself as a chef, that was firsthand insight into this world, the ups and downs of it. I wasn't coming home from work a lot of times feeling accomplished, I was feeling defeated. And the next day, I was having a hard time motivating myself to go back to work because the environments would be difficult, and I would feel like a really bad cook.

I know that Chris saw that through observation and was always there for me throughout that process. When they were writing the show, I was happy to be a springboard. But also, I would say, "Let me give you a couple days. Let me tell you what my best day in the kitchen was. Let me tell you what the worst day was. Let me tell you all the times I wanted to quit or all the chefs that wanted to quit or were over it and having to encourage each other to stick with it." All the dynamics that you feel, that get you to stick with it is usually your team cheering you on. So I really wanted to make sure that they felt like I could give them some actual stories that were real and informed some of these characters.

Well, it worked. Liza, Jeremy Allen White's character, Carmy, in this second season, gave you his knife and you had to break down a whole branzino on camera. Did Courtney give you any homework in preparation? 

Colón-Zayas: Oh, yeah. She came with so many full branzinos.

To your house?

Colón-Zayas: Yes, to my apartment. She lived upstairs because we were in The Bear dorm. She came with a ton of branzinos and vegetables and this and that. We spent some time and there were enough leftovers where I would give it my best effort to do it on my own. Before shots, she took the time to make sure I would warm up and feel as much at ease as possible. 

Storer: And she did that. And you saw it. That was Liza 100% in that episode. We did not cut corners, we took our time. Something like fileting a fish feels really intimidating and not only were we asking her to filet it, but it was breaking the fish down, searing it, finishing the dish. It can feel kind of expedited. Being on a television show, you don't have the repetition that you would in a kitchen where you're doing it every day, preparing this dish over and over. So I was blown away by Liza's confidence. She wasn't scared. I think you see that in Tina's character as well, this excitement of the unknown, which I think a lot of people feel in any profession, that little passionate heart that beats that allows you to face your fears. I feel like that was really channeled in that episode, watching Liza practice and then execute and then doing it on camera, with a knife that is not necessarily a filet knife. Nonetheless, she just nailed it.

The Bear
earned 13 nominations for the 75th Primetime Emmy Awards. Season Two is streaming on Hulu. Photo courtesy of FX.

Yeah, that was the one thing as I was watching and thinking, "Would she really be doing this with a giant chef's knife?"

Storer: No! But she did it. I mean isn't that the thing sometimes?

Yes, absolutely. 

Storer: As chefs, we have all these rules in our heads, these Dos and Do Nots, things that chefs have taught us or told us or scolded us for at one point. What I've learned working on my own and diving into the culinary world and not working for anyone but myself is that the biggest lessons I've gained are from breaking those rules. The job can still get done. It might not be perfect and seamless and it might break the rules but if someone gives you a knife and that's the only knife you have, that's the story. What can you accomplish with what you've got?

And I'm sure, Liza, that rings true as an actor.

Colón-Zayas: Absolutely. It's different for TV, like Courtney said. You don't have the luxury of time. With theater, every play, it's like learning new recipes but you're getting to rehearse it for eight hours a day. Then you go home and you work on it for however many more hours you need and you come up and you do it again. Then you go through tech week, which is 12 hours of straight work and getting ready to serve it up to the audience. 

At first, it was a little tough because I'm like, "Yeah, you're gonna be able to bring it." But this is a different arena. I don't have the luxury of rehearsing it every day in the kitchen or going to culinary school for months. I was so grateful to have people like Courtney by my side. Especially Courtney!

More: 2023 Emmy nominations: KCRW's insider guide

Let's talk about a couple of your big tasks for this season, Courtney. There's this stage in Copenhagen. There's Carmy and Sydney's R&D. And then there's that insane Seven Fishes dinner that ends very dramatically. But a lot of people seem to be talking about that Boursin Omelet, which totally reminded me of Ludo Lefebvre's, without the potato chips. What was the most challenging food sequence for you in season two?

Storer: The Seven Fishes felt really challenging because of how we were shooting it. We were working on a soundstage and then we were working in a house, so we were working remotely. I was also building up a culinary team. Usually it's a small crew. We have our props department and our set decorators and all the producers and the crew. But when it comes to the specialized food that we're doing, this season, there was a lot more food. So I was building a team as we went. You're flying the plane as it's being built. That was a big undertaking in terms of the volume of food and then having it available every day while we shot.

Food for TV is very different. There are a lot of things that have to sit out, there are things that need to be reheated, that are going to be in insert shots. They need to look glistening or hot. And on The Bear, we try to use food that is all edible, all the time because the actors interact with it a lot. We did the same thing in season one because we knew that people would nibble. 

I also wanted to make sure that in those scenes where Carmy and Sydney are tasting things and they taste bad that their reactions were real, that it tasted awful, which was actually kind of fun.

What did you do? Did you just add too much acid? 

Storer: Yeah, it was just acid, vinegar and too much salt. One thing that I don't often talk to other chefs about but I talk about a lot is how bad I was before I was a good cook. I made a lot of big mistakes. I was told that I was a bad cook by a lot of chefs, that I couldn't hack it, that my flavors weren't there. Then I had chefs that mentored me and said "more acid, less salt, more salt, more fat, more heat, more spice." I've had a big spectrum of leadership that I've worked underneath, so I wanted to bring that to the table with Carmy and Sydney.

Then you see the finesse in the Copenhagen episode, where it's an elevated vibe of food, but the technique and the teaching feels more calm, which is very interesting about these different cultures in different kitchens. You can have a really intense tasting menu but the chef is really mellow or the chef has a different culture than a fast-paced, fast casual restaurant. Each chef and ownership dictates the culture and the vibe of the space. We wanted to show the variety. There's so much more where that came from. We're only scratching the surface there.

More: Lionel Boyce gets hands on — in the studio and the kitchen — for season 2 of 'The Bear'