Rising comic Ayo Edebiri breaks big with drama ‘The Bear’

Ayo Edebiri knows how to cook a thing or two, but she’ll be the first to tell you her skills don’t compare with those of her culinarily gifted character, Sydney Adamu, in “The Bear.” In the FX series, Sydney riveted TV viewers earlier this year by tangling with perfectionist rage-aholic chef Carmen “Carmy” Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) as he tries to transform the Italian beef joint in Chicago he’s taken over after his brother’s death.

On the show, Sydney creates a risotto so inspired it draws lines around the block. In real life, Edebiri set relatively modest goals during the pandemic. “I got into making nice meals,” she says. “For myself, I like a miso butter pasta. Roast chicken, that’s what I make for other people. I hacked it from a Nigella Lawson recipe using anchovies to crisp up the skin.”

Adebiri’s competence in the kitchen is less surprising than the fact that this 27-year-old writer-comedian-actress delivered her first major dramatic TV role with such resounding intensity. Edebiri, raised in Boston by immigrant parents from Nigeria and Barbados, played oboe as a child, discovered improv comedy in high school and, in 2017, earned a degree in dramatic writing from NYU Tisch School of the Arts. For several years she performed stand-up while writing for Hailee Steinfeld’s quirky alt-history series “Dickinson,” Long Island vampire comedy “What We Do in the Shadows” and the animated “Big Mouth,” for which she also voiced Missy.

But nothing on her résumé screamed Serious Dramatic Actress.

Yet in 2021, Edebiri landed a starring role in one of the year’s most talked about TV dramas when she submitted a self-tape audition to “The Bear” creator Chris Storer. “One of the scenes was just me firing off a lot of orders in the kitchen,” says Edebiri, speaking from her home in Los Angeles. “I couldn’t predict tonally what the show was going to be, and that not knowing, that curiosity, really drew me to ‘The Bear.’”

Callbacks followed, conducted via Zoom with Storer and co-showrunner Joanna Calo. Then Edebiri flew to Chicago, where she met the rest of the cast for the first time at a table read. The cast, including Ebon Moss-Bachrach (as hostile kitchen mainstay Richie), Liza Colón-Zayas (change-averse line cook Tina) and Lionel Boyce (aspiring doughnut maker Marcus), initially filmed in the cramped kitchen of a vacant Chicago restaurant. The close quarters helped forge an ensemble spirit through sheer physical proximity.

“The nature of the show and how it was shot, you sort of had no choice to be present,” Edebiri says. “Sometimes you didn’t know if your coverage would be in the shot, but that didn’t really matter. What matters is being in the scene for everybody else. It just adds to the sense of urgency in the show, and that urgency was real on set as well.”

Fictionally, the clash of wills between Sydney and Carmen captivated fans. Off camera, “The Bear” set proved to be drama-free, Edebiri says. “We’d all go out for meals with each other or have little hangs at the end of the week. And Jeremy was great. Filming the pilot, I remember Jeremy joked, but I think it wasn’t a joke, it was real, that he’d go back to his hotel and cut vegetables at night. He was so dedicated that I wanted — everybody wanted — to make sure we were operating on as high a level as we possibly could.”

Once FX greenlighted “The Bear,” designers built a soundstage replica of the real-world kitchen while Edebiri and White sharpened their cooking skills at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education, followed by a few shifts at high-end New York eateries.

The cram course in haute cuisine food prep enabled Edebiri to approximate the skill set of a gifted sous-chef. Just as important, Edebiri came to understand Sydney from the inside out by drawing on her own experiences as an ambitious stand-up comic. She says, “I really connected to Sydney’s sense of drive, especially because of my early days in comedy, where you’re doing open mics at night even when you’re exhausted, trying to impress people and being fine with the exhaustion because there’s an end goal, even if maybe other people can’t see it. If Sydney gets called too green, too eager, there’s truth to that, but you’re like, ‘Yeah and … what? I still think I’m right, and I still want to do this.’”

In “The Bear’s” penultimate episode, Sydney quits, telling Carmen, the man she once idolized from afar: “You are an excellent chef. You are also a piece of s—.” The lines summarize the high-stress contradictions common to toxic workplaces. “In the show, there’s definitely this idea that, yeah, conflict is OK, but the way people do it here is not OK,” Edebiri says. “Sydney and Carmy are trying to address practices that are not healthy, but, you know, easier said than done.”

Sydney later returns to work, and the kitchen staff fitfully pulls together as a unit. Edebiri says, “Sydney and Carmy are both coming from this place of nurturing and craft, but it’s still a business. When something you care about becomes commodified, how do you take that thing you love, that’s been warped, and try to make it love you back? It’s a lot.”

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