Published on March 12th, 2018 | by Ian Goodwillie1
David Chang of Momofuko has teamed up with Netflix to make Ugly Delicious, a smart, bold new TV food show that is worth biting into.
Television shows focusing on food tend to follow one of a few very specific patterns.
There’s the classic of watching some dubiously qualified “chef” in a too perfect kitchen cook impractical food then orgasmically eat it, frequently in front of friends. There’s the competition shows where regular folks or everyday chefs compete against famous chefs, in front of famous chefs, or a little of both. There’s the food travel shows where you watch a famous chef travel around and eat food but judge and question the local chefs they’re watching cook. There’s also the behind-the-scenes reality shows that delve into the inner workings of food related businesses.
Then, adding to this tedium, is the trope of having famous people pose as chefs in the aforementioned premises instead of having famous chefs actually lead the shows.
Guy Fieri is literally guilty of all of this.
That being said, there are a few people who have quite successfully deviated from the norms. Alton Brown’s Good Eats exceeded the expectations of a typical cooking show, exploring the history, science, and importance of entire styles of cooking all the way to specific cooking implements. As long as you ignore The Taste, Anthony Bourdain has built a career generally bucking food TV trends by creating shows that merge food and travel together as a means of exploring world cultures at a deeper level. And now there’s David Chang’s Ugly Delicious.
If you don’t know David Cheng, you can be forgiven for that. You’ve never seen him on TV cooking absurdly perfect food in an absurdly perfect kitchen each week. He has had small roles on other cooking shows as well as on Treme as well as hosting the first season Where you may have seen him is the Bourdain produced, PBS broadcast The Mind of a Chef. You might even know him as the founder of the ultra successful Momofuku restaurant group. But where you should know him from now is season one of Ugly Delicious on Netflix where he serves as host of the next food show to take a less travelled path.
In the pedigree of Alton Brown or Anthony Boudain, Ugly Delicious takes a deep dive into food on a historical, sociological, and cultural level. Each of the eight episodes focuses in on one specific but common dish. Episode one leans into pizza while episode two focuses on tacos.
David Chang is the through line, the central part of episode, but other chefs, restauranteurs, writers, historians, artists, and celebrities all play roles in the investigations. The episode on BBQ features Steven Yuen from The Walking Dead, street artist David Choe, and late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. But what makes the BBQ episode interesting isn’t the celebrities involved. It’s the fact that it asks the question why discussions on great BBQ focus on the southern USA but rarely include Korean BBQ. That is exactly where Ugly Delicious gets its strength.
This is a series that, to use a cliché, asks some hard questions about food. Some of the toughest scenes in the series happen in the episode focused on fried chicken, a racially charged dish in the Black community all over the United States. But those moments are not restricted to that one episode. Each dish in each episode comes with its own history burdened by racial overtones, ones many people are oblivious to. Chang is bold enough to lean into these conversations and asks some incredibly difficult questions. There are some exceedingly awkward moments, some of which even Chang is dumfounded by but navigates well.
The honesty and earnestness David Chang brings to the table is absolutely what makes this series work.
Ugly Delicious also quite effectively tackles the corporatization of food, and the impact of the corporate structure on dishes of cultural significance. The fried chicken episode inevitably brings up KFC while Taco Bell plays a big part in the taco episode. And it would be difficult to discuss the world impact of pizza without adding Domino’s to the conversation. The admissions of foodies and chefs in regard to food you think they would look down on is particularly illuminating.
What’s important is that these companies are given a fair shake in the discussion. For the most part. While their sins are not shied away from their contributions, as meagre as they may be in some cases, are not ignored, either.
And corporate food culture plays right into the discussions on race that are so prevalent in this series.
Much like watching an episode of Good Eats or No Reservations, you walk away from each episode of Ugly Delicious knowing more than you did going in and having answers to questions you may never have thought to ask. It challenges what you think you know and what you’re comfortable believing when it comes to your food.
Season one is definite win for Netflix, David Chang, and, to be frank, food culture overall.