How "The Bear" Chocolate Cake Became the Star of the Show

Meet the Chicago pastry chef who created television's must-have dessert

Jeremy Allen White in FX's The Bear

Frank Ockenfels / Courtesy of FX

The show of the summer last year was FX on Hulu’s The Bear. Drawing loose inspiration from Mr. Beef in Chicago, the series drew praise from cooks for its all-too-accurate portrayal of the restaurant industry, as well as for featuring food that actually looks delicious. In particular, The Bear’s famous layered chocolate cake has become an object of obsession, with fans rushing to replicate the recipe or seek out a slice for themselves.

In The Bear, the chocolate cake is the creation of aspiring pastry chef Marcus, portrayed by Lionel Boyce. When the character baked his first chocolate cake, it supposedly tasted great — “whoa” great, as his sous chef, Sydney, played by Ayo Edebiri, described it. But as viewers come to learn, Marcus is a perfectionist. Balancing The Noma Guide to Fermentation in one hand and a dozen doughnuts in the other, he fussed with his recipe until he achieved excellence.

The Bear Chocolate Cake

Courtesy of FX

In a similar fashion, Sarah Mispagel-Lustbader, the show's real-life pastry consultant and creator of the show’s signature chocolate cake, took time to develop her recipe. “As a pastry chef, I make chocolate cake all the time,” she says. “So I had a version, and it just evolved over the course of my time in restaurants.”

She initially adapted her recipe from the mini layered chocolate cake that pastry chef Mindy Segal made at Chicago's now-closed MK, the first restaurant where Mispagel-Lustbader worked. Over the next decade, she continued to tweak the cake formula, swapping buttermilk for sour cream for more moisture; adding a delicate, lightly sweet Italian meringue buttercream; and sandwiching the layers with fluffy chocolate mousse. It reached full form at the restaurant Sepia, where she regularly served the full cake in all its fudgy glory for weddings and private dining.

Lionel Boyce in FX's The Bear

Frank Ockenfels / Courtesy of FX

The props team for The Bear hired Mispagel-Lustbader in 2021, alongside Courtney Storer as culinary producer and Matty Matheson as coproducer and culinary lead. Together, they were responsible for advising the actors, prepping ingredients, and styling every dish filmed on the show, including the chocolate cake. Mispagel-Lustbader had the cake’s flavor dialed in, but the presentation needed to tell Marcus’ story. “Obviously at Sepia, I was a little more exacting, making sure the icing was a flat, seamless thing,” she says. However, when viewers are first introduced to the cake, the sturdy, cocoa-forward icing is more ridged and homey. If you pay attention to the fine details, you’ll notice that Marcus’ rustic frosting job evolves into a refined mirror glaze by the season finale.

For episode seven, which was mostly filmed in one extremely hectic, continuous shot, Mispagel-Lustbader made a whopping 12 chocolate cakes. “Because they weren’t sure how many times we were going to have to shoot it,” she notes. Luckily, it took only four takes, so the remaining cakes were shared among the cast and crew. In addition to preparing desserts for The Bear’s set, Mispagel-Lustbader also advised the actors — she’d often crouch beneath a lowboy to walk Boyce through icing a cake — and perform any dessert-centric beauty shots, like zesting oranges and filling doughnuts with cream.

It’s that level of detail that made The Bear a hit with food lovers. And while fans await the next season, set to air this summer, the cake lives on at Loaf Lounge in Chicago, which Mispagel-Lustbader opened in 2022 with her husband, Ben Lustbader. “I really underestimated how much people would want something they’ve seen on television,” she says. In addition to gaining somewhat of a celebrity status, the cake is symbolic of the show’s setting: Chicago. “People who are proud to live in Chicago loved seeing all the shots of the city,” she says. “To be able to feel like, ‘Oh, that was shot in my city, and that’s the restaurant where the beef was coming from, and this is the cake.’”

The Bear Chocolate Cake

Christopher Testani / Food Styling by Torie Cox / Prop Styling by Christina Daley

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