Show: Ugly Delicious
Available on: Netflix
What we thought:
When I saw Ugly Delicious on Netflix, I had no idea what it was about or who David Chang was. But he looked like he was having fun in that thumbnail and the first episode was all about pizza, which intrigued me.
As far as celebrity chefs go, I hadn’t heard of David Chang, who is apparently quite popular. I mean aside from Massimo Bottura who I discovered and fell in love with on Chef’s Table, my knowledge of chefs was very limited to Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Nigella and the like.
Going in, I had no idea what to expect. Was it a cooking show? Was it a travel show? It was all that and more. I’m not going to pretend that Ugly Delicious doesn’t have its faults but before we get into all that, let’s talk about what makes this show great.
David Chang and his best friend, Peter Meehan alongside director, Morgan Neville (who won an Oscar for his 2013 documentary, 20 Feet From Stardom) have produced a show that not only delves into what food is but what food means. The discussions Chang has with various chefs, restaurant owners, locals as well as celebrities and actors cover topics such as racism, representation as well as authenticity of food and how important it is.
On one hand, Chang argues with New Orleans crawfish makers that they ought to be experimenting and changing the way they cook crawfish for hundreds. Unlike their counterparts in Houston who have invented a style called Viet-Cajun when cooking crawfish. He argues and pushes his point but then argues against innovation and change in an episode focusing on Fried Rice and Chinese cuisine.
Each episode of Ugly Delicious is built around a single topic (pizza, tacos, fried chicken etc.) and uses it as a springboard for larger conversations. The episode structure is a bit jarring at first. Chang jumps around locations in a mish-mash of segments filmed in restaurants and homes around the world. In one episode he jumps from New York to New England to Naples to Japan. And that was just about pizza.
But what does ugly delicious mean?
The show takes its name from a hashtag that Chang uses on Instagram to describe food that you wouldn’t win any awards for presentation but you’d wolf down in a hot minute. In an interview with Eater he goes on to explain that it’s "anything that's ugly.
Like curry — curries are probably the ugliest food you could possibly make. A lot of Korean food, and some Chinese food, is ugly if you look at it from a Eurocentric, American point of view. It's beautiful and quite natural for basically everyone else."
And this sentiment is echoed throughout his exploration of foods and how they are accepted and rejected by Western culture. The Fried Rice episode has a great conversation about how if real Chinese food were served to Americans they would not eat it. Instead it’s General Tso’s chicken (an American dish) that is the most popular Chinese dish in America. Chen P Ren, the owner of the New China Palace in Knoxville told Serena Dai, editor of Eater NY that he doesn’t serve real Chinese food to customers because they wouldn’t eat it. His Chinese customers call ahead of time to request certain dishes that he will make for them. Authentic Chinese food would be a waste.
But it’s also a history lesson of sorts. Each episode has a segment about the origin of the food or how it came to be prominent in a certain region of the United States. The show is wildly interesting even if it does have its problems.
Some have felt that in a show that’s championing diversity and fighting racism, there is a lack of female representation among the experts, opinions and chefs that he features.
While the first episode is a big old boys club, the female representation does get better as the show goes on and I wasn’t very bothered by it because the subject matter was so interesting.
There’s an even bigger lack of people of colour. The only episode that really featuring black people were in the fried chicken episode which discussed the topic of racism against black people in America. Some people criticised that the racism discussion was awkward compared to the one about racism against Asian people in Fried Rice. And that it was a major oversight to not have any black people featured in an episode about BBQ.
It’s weird how easily they discussed racism in the Chinese food ep of #UglyDelicious but how strained that convo was in the fried chicken ep (and non existent in the bbq one)— YUNG BIALY (@yunglevain) February 28, 2018
While I will concede the point about the lack of people of colour, I do think that the reason the conversation about black racism was so strained compared to the Asian conversation is because it’s far easier to talk about the racism you’ve experienced compared to the racism that happens to others.
Overall Ugly Delicious is a well-researched and interesting thesis on food culture around the world. It’s beautifully shot and gives the viewer food for thought. Host David Chang is candid and somewhat problematic which in a weird way just compels me to watch more to see if his tenaciousness can be changed or if he holds tight onto his prejudices like a bulldog. Which is ironic as he seems to be on a mission to change perceptions.