Last month the internet exploded with people talking about the FX series The Bear, an eight-episode drama streaming on Hulu. If you somehow missed it, the series follows Carmen Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), a CIA-trained chef (that’s Culinary Institute, not the other CIA) who leaves his upscale New York restaurant to return home to Chicago and run a hot beef sandwich joint left to him when his older brother Michael died by suicide. With the help of new hire Sydney (Ayo Edebiri) and the hinderance of “cousin” (actually Michael’s best friend) Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), he streamlines the kitchen into a semi-smooth working environment.
The series was renewed for a second season, but apparently it takes time to write scripts, shoot the episodes, edit them, etc., and I am not a patient person. On the assumption that you aren’t, either, I have compiled a list of books that will appeal to fans of The Bear, ranging from memoirs by chefs and stories about Chicago to fiction about family, food, and more.
There is something for everyone (I hope!) in these nine books like The Bear.
Books like The Bear to Read Right Now
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
After we watched the first episode of The Bear, my husband and I (who have both worked in kitchens) turned to each other and said, “This is the show they should have made when they made Kitchen Confidential.” The OG of popular chef memoirs, this book was many readers’ introduction to the idea that restaurant kitchens are an absolutely wild environment. The television series based on this book was fun, but captured approximately zero of what makes the book so good. Read this one if you like The Bear, and especially if you find yourself inexplicably drawn to Richie.
Notes from a Young Black Chef by Kwame Onwuachi
Mirroring real life, most of the kitchen staff in The Bear is Black, Latine, or both. Onwuachi’s memoir covers his life from teenage drug dealer to caterer to Top Chef, and examines how unwelcoming the world of food is to a Black chef (while most kitchens have at least one Black worker, they’re rarely at the top of the chain). Read this one if Sydney is your favorite. There is also a YA adaptation.
Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson
Another memoir from a Black chef, this one explores family in a unique way, as Samuelsson was orphaned in Ethiopia and adopted in Sweden. He opens talking about his two mothers and how they shaped his love of food.
Chicago Stories and Other Thoughts From a Working Class Guy by Richard Cronborg
This book mixes poetry and prose to tell stories of Chicago as only a “working class guy” can. Cronberg is an artist who worked many jobs including 33 years as a heavy machine operator and member of the Operating Engineers Union. Now retired, his stories show the Chicago most of the characters in The Bear would recognize.
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
My favorite episode of The Bear (episode 7, “Review”) takes place in real time, showing a terrible day at The Beef unfolding and tensions rising. It’s harder for a book to show events in real time, since reading speeds vary, but this novel in verse comes very very close. The subject matter is quite different — Will is going to kill the person who killed his brother Shawn, and the novel takes place over his elevator ride there — but the tension is there and then some.
Luck of the Draw by Kate Claybourn
A recurring theme in The Bear is Michael’s addiction and death and the way it affects Carmen, Richie, and Carmen’s sister Natalie (“Sugar”), who begs her living brother to go to Al Anon. In Luck of the Draw, addiction killed Aiden’s brother and he has to face his lingering resentments when former attorney Zoe, who represented the pharmaceutical company in the family’s lawsuit, comes looking to alleviate her guilt. Also there is fake dating, so sign me up!
Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li
A family restaurant. An unexpected and violent death. A chef who could work in a far fancier establishment. And in this case, a mystery. This time it’s a Chinese restaurant and a father’s death, but the sibling dynamics and restaurant environment are a lot like those in The Bear.
Trashed by Mia Hopkins
Formerly incarcerated Eddie wants to get out of his old gang, but first he has to find his father and uncover some family truths. And while he’s at it, he wants to prove himself to Carmen, the chef in the Italian restaurant where he washes dishes, who might actually believe in him. Although the setting is Los Angeles, this feels very much like a story that could exist on The Bear (if it was willing to be a little sexier on the surface).
With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
Some chefs come to food by accident. Some pursue a career because they’re good at it. Some people live and breathe food, and that’s Emoni. A teen mother who lives with her abuela, she dreams of being a chef but puts her focus into getting through high school. Then she wins a spot in a cooking elective, and suddenly she has opportunities. This is a lovely, poetic novel about a young woman who knows who she is getting to realize an important part of herself.
If you liked this list of books like The Bear, here are some more reads you might enjoy: