Summary: Fans of food and travel shows will want to tune in to Netflix’s latest offering, Ugly Delicious. Chef David Chang and an array of guest hosts tackle dishes, food themes, and foodie culture in this docuseries that’ll make you crave your faves.
I’ve been following David Chang since I first read Lucky Peach, his now-defunct quarterly magazine focusing on all things food. There was a ramen issue that is the Holy Grail for me. I didn’t buy when I should have, and I’ve regretted it ever since. I’ve eaten at Ma Peche in New York and pigged out on Momofuku Milk Bar delicacies (P. S.: Milk Bar treats have all the sugar content you’ll need for the yea, proceed with caution).
Since all I do is binge Great British Baking Show and The Big Family Cooking Show on repeat, it’s no surprise that Netflix algorithms brought David Chang’s docu-series Ugly Delicious up to the top of my list. One episode in, I was hooked.
Based on the name and description, I expected each episode for David to feature a dish that is so bizarre, so mixed and melded, it would be considered unpalatable to Americans. I mean, sushi pizza? What is that? But the show brings up so much more than that. Each episode focuses on a type of food or cuisine: barbecue, family food, tacos, on and on. And each episode brings up three key complements:
- What is the tradition of this food?
- What is the expansion of our assumptions of this food?
- What is the meaning of keeping our traditions versus letting a natural fusion occur?
The most obvious of these would be in the shrimp/crayfish episode. First, we see traditional crawfish boils from New Orleans. Then, he features Viet-Cajun foods coming up in Houston, TX. And finally, he features a fisherman/restaurant owner who talks about how changing traditions has expanded what American cuisine can be.
David has a few themes that keep cropping up in this show. First, he hates being told what is good and what to like. That, in and of itself, has been a barrier slowly broken down by foodie culture and the rise of the internet.
It used to be Zagat or Michelin stars that dictated what could be considered good food. Early 2000’s foodie culture broke down those expectations, leading to the rise of food trucks, street food, and home-style cooking. Presently, foodie culture might have swung too far on the spectrum.
Now, it’s more important that a meal is Instagram-worthy as opposed to actually good. I’m looking at you, Black Tap! (Also, shoutout to Taiyaki, my fave ice cream place that has achieved the balance of visually stunning and crazy delicious). David turns this theme around by having a segment dedicated to his love of Dominoes pizza. I’ll let you think on that.
Another continual theme is that of cultural exchange. Maybe it’s because he has an Asian-American point-of-view, which means being a perpetual outsider, as well as a perpetual adapter. But he has a whole episode about tacos where Peter Meehan (his co-writer) followed a Mexican-American chef from Denmark to Mexico, all in search of authentic tacos.
In quite a few episodes, David brings in the idea that food is part of the immigrant experience, and how that experience changes the landscape of American cuisine. Thirty years ago, Asian food was considered literally laughable; every Asian-American has a story about being literally laughed at for their smelly food. Now, it’s hot, it’s trendy, and sushi is served in grocery stores. Assimilation goes both ways.
In order to highlight cultural exchange, David and Peter also have a melange of guests. While there are many fine and fancy chefs featured (I mean, Wolfgang Puck is as legit as it gets), it’s also a parade of Asian-American excellence. I don’t know if that’s was part of David’s goal, but if you go around parading Steven Yeun, Ali Wong, and Alan Yang, and then talk to me about the originator of Korean Tacos, Roy Choi, then I’m gonna assume you got some yellow pride (also, shout out to my favorite Korean Taco food truck Marination Station in Seattle!).
Each episode is its own little gem. While David can be combative and argumentative, a trait we’ve come to expect from celebrity chefs, he’s not wholly unlikable. And there are many other featured hosts that make Ugly Delicious less of a David Chang extravaganza, and more of a true documentary. Think Vice; not Rachel Ray. If you like food shows (Chef’s Table, Mind of a Chef, etc), then chances are you love Ugly Delicious.