What David Chang’s ‘Ugly Delicious’ says about food culture today
I don’t watch much food television. What it serves up — competition, showiness — has never really made me hungry.
Until now. David Chang’s series “Ugly Delicious,” on Netflix, makes me ravenous. I’ve had to hit pause in the middle of an episode and go whip up a snack, so intense were my cravings for the flavors crossing my eyeballs. The taco omakase at Pujol in Mexico City; the food of Hue province served at Houston Vietnamese restaurant Nam Giao; the braised fried chicken Chang makes in his mother’s kitchen. It’s the first time I’ve understood the term “food porn” in anything more than a theoretical sense.
But it’s not just me and it’s not just my stomach. “Ugly Delicious” is a clear and potent distillation of the food moment we are all in together — gastronomically, ideologically. For anyone who has ever said to quit writing about politics, identity, culture and just get back to the food already, I direct you here. There is no talking about food without talking about these other things. Or: Why talk about food if not to talk about these other things?
If you haven’t yet seen it, the show takes on a different subject in each of its eight episodes — pizza, tacos, home cooking, and so on. Chang, the chef behind the Momofuku empire and new LA restaurant Majordomo, is our guide. (Shortly after “Ugly Delicious” appeared, Chang announced he would launch Majordomo Media, and it’s slightly hard to watch the series without seeing it in part as an advertisement.) With a team of all-star friends — actors Aziz Ansari and Steven Yeun, chefs Rene Redzepi and Mario Carbone, food writers Jonathan Gold and Peter Meehan (also a costar, producer, and former collaborator on Lucky Peach magazine, which closed last year) — he visits US cities like Houston and New Orleans, as well as Japan, Mexico, China, Italy. They are looking for good food, but as much as that, they are looking for the meaning behind it.
What is “authenticity” when some of the best pizza in the world is being made in Tokyo? Why will we pay $27 for a plate of three agnolotti in a trendy restaurant but only $9 for a whole steamer full of dumplings? Why are the techniques behind French food exalted, but the equally intensive labor of Mexican or Chinese cuisine undervalued?
The questions posed in “Ugly Delicious” reflect the issues we are grappling with as a country: race, immigration, discrimination, identity. According to new figures from the Census Bureau, 2045 is the year there will be fewer white people in the United States than African-Americans, Asians, Latinos, and people belonging to other “minority” groups. We have an administration bent on sowing hate and division, on sending immigrants “back home,” on building walls. The Southern Poverty Law Center cataloged more than 1,000 bias-related incidents in the month following the 2016 election.
Carbone posits at one point that Italian-American food can be considered a regional Italian cuisine, that America is in this way a giant region of Italy; the equivalent can be said for so many countries. “Ugly Delicious” does us the service of reminding us through food of the human experience we all share. Fine dining used to be rigid. The food was pretty but kept its distance, stimulating admiration over appetite. Now it is more generous. We are in an era of post-tweezer cuisine, where the food we eat out evokes the food we eat in. (At some point, Redzepi speculates that diners at his famed Copenhagen restaurant Noma have a secret wish that the next dish will be steak and dessert a brownie.) That much of the food featured in “Ugly Delicious” is actually quite lovely is not the point. These days Chang wants to make food that feels nourishing, he says: food that reminds you of eating something your mom cooked. (Although I think it’s time to stop automatically equating the food cooked by mothers and grandmothers with love; I’d wager just as many meals produced by women are the stuff of duty.)
Food television is a mirror, reflecting our attitudes and aspirations. When French cooking was the pinnacle, Julia Child brought it into our homes and made us care about it on a personal level. Shows like “No Reservations” and “Bizarre Foods” (a name that would never fly today) took us farther afield in more gonzo style, still treating those locales and cuisines with a measure of exoticism alongside respect. “Ugly Delicious” is the product of a boy who grew up wishing he wasn’t Korean. It makes “other people’s food” belong to all of us. Maybe kids don’t have to grow up wishing they were someone else quite as much anymore. At the very least, they can watch this and know they’re not alone.
But things move quickly. Between social media and the ease of travel, a food cycle that might once have taken 50 years now takes six months, Chang says, referring to the creation in Houston of Viet-Cajun cuisine, and its subsequent export back to Vietnam. (People go crazy for it there, according to chef Nikki Tran, who now serves what she calls “Viejun” cuisine at restaurant Cau Ba Quan in Ho Chi Minh City.) News cycles are even quicker. The home-cooking episode revolves around Thanksgiving at the Virginia home of Chang’s parents in 2016 — just about a year before the #MeToo movement took off.
And the show is a bit of a bro-down. Sure, you’ve got Rosio Sanchez, chef-owner of Hija de Sanchez in Copenhagen, talking about Mexican food, and writer Ruth Reichl talking about her ahead-of-the-times mission to get “ethnic” food reviewed seriously. But mostly you’ve got dudes. A lot of dudes. The fraternity is marketable; these are the names we know. But one wonders whether the producers would have brought Ansari, accused of sexual misconduct earlier this year, along as the pizza-eating sidekick today. Or whether offhand innuendo from Carbone, who is behind New York’s Major Food Group, would have been edited out.
Even more problematic is the absence of black people. In an episode shot largely in Houston (25 percent black) and New Orleans (60 percent), African-Americans appear only in the background. In an episode about barbecue, all of the featured pit masters are white. When Meehan opines that barbecue, like jazz, is uniquely American, you may find yourself yelling at the TV: “And who invented jazz?” It’s not until an episode devoted ostensibly to fried chicken, but really to racism and black people’s complicated history and relationship with the dish, that there’s a real African-American presence on the show: Seattle chef Edouardo Jordan, writer Lolis Eric Elie, professor Psyche Williams-Forson. This is not to single out “Ugly Delicious” (which in its heart of hearts is a show celebrating Asian food). Acclaimed Netflix series “The Mind of a Chef” and “Chef’s Table” both showcase individual chefs; not a single episode has ever focused on a black person. If Jordan — who just received two James Beard award nominations and a three-star review for restaurant JuneBaby in The New York Times — isn’t featured soon, well I’ll be damned.
These deficits point the way forward for food TV. I want New Orleans-based Nigerian chef Tunde Wey, who toured the country with his dinner series “Blackness in America” (and recently made headlines by offering black and white customers different pricing options based on the racial wealth disparity), to host a food show on the same. I want to meet the lady Bourdain, who travels the world seeking out women chefs and home cooks. I want a show about class and food. And I want these programs to have the same production values and pop-cultural currency as “Ugly Delicious.”
The show’s tagline promises: “All the flavor. None of the BS.” But where there are humans, there’s always at least a little BS. This show is deeply human, and that is its greatest strength. It understands that food is always about the story it tells, whether you can taste it or not.