The chef at Cow by Bear in San Diego has only caught on fire twice. He thinks that’s pretty impressive, considering that his entire furry body works over an open flame at every meal. Those little hairs can easily get singed—it took him “years and years” of practice to learn to keep his coat fire-free.
No, "bear" is not a euphemism: The popular pop-up restaurant's chef is a human being dressed as a bear. The chef, known only as Bear, dons a bear outfit and grills steak for ten-person dinner parties at secret locations throughout San Diego three nights a week. Bear insists on anonymity—he (or it) doesn’t speak at the meals. In person, he communicates with guests only by body language, and insists on corresponding via email to protect both voice and gender. And Bear never breaks character.
“It’s just how I was born,” Bear told Smithsonian.com. “Some people are born human, some birds, dogs, all kinds of things. My dad, a chef, is a bear, my mom’s a bear and I’m a bear and proud of it.”
But that doesn’t stop diners from trying to figure out Bear’s true identity—at pretty much every dinner, someone tries to unmask the chef. “It’s not gonna happen though,” Bear says. “You shouldn’t mess with a bear or you might get eaten.” Bear goes so far as to say that if he weren’t a bear, he’d want to be a lion, because he’d “still be able to attack if someone tried to take off my head.”
Cow by Bear is part of a larger trend of temporary restaurants. Each has some defining characteristic that ensures their popularity. In Belize, there's Limilita, a pop-up test kitchen. Amsterdam's Eenmaal is a pop-up that only serves solo diners. Dinner in the Sky feeds guests at a table hanging from a crane in dozens of cities worldwide. The Cube is a fleeting restaurant placed on top of international landmarks like London's Royal Festival Hall, and Stovetrotter, a traveling pop-up, creates traditionally appropriate meals in different locales around the world.
Bear doesn’t consider his furry restaurant to be part of that trend, though. “When I started Cow by Bear, I was really bored by the current options of going out for an evening for a meal and drinks,” the chef explains. “I started bringing people into my apartment to put on something more in line with what I would like to do with a night out. I find every single dinner is an experiment—even I don’t really know what to expect.”
The five-course tasting menu at Cow by Bear changes monthly, though it always has some sort of regional-based theme. Bear has cooked all over the world, he says, and tries to bring that experience to the dinner table. His latest menu was Creole; others have included modern American, Mexican and South American elements. At heart, though, Bear's bizarre pop-up remains a steakhouse, serving 50-day dry-aged ribeye and international wines curated from its chef’s travels. “If you’re not a fan of red meat and wine, we might not be the best place for you,” Bear says.
Though Bear's pop-up falls into a broader context of temporary restaurant mania, his vision is anything but. The chef uses each meal as a platform to challenge what he perceives as a who's-who fanaticism among pop-up restaurants.
“I’m interested in the experience speaking for itself,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter who I am, what my background and resume are. I want to bring people in, serve them a great meal and hopefully give them an experience they’ll be talking about for a long time. It should be about that and not fall into the ‘celebrity chef’ culture where [the name] is more important than the experience itself.”
Want to get on the list? There’s only one way to enter the bear’s den—head to the pop-up's website. Dinners happen every Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and diners can reserve a slot using an online calendar. But a date with a cooking bear comes with a wait: Would-be guests of the mysterious chef must wait three to four months for a reservation (right now, the first available date is in July).