David Chang’s ‘Ugly Delicious’ Pushes Food TV in the Right Direction

David Chang with South Philly Barbacoa's Cristina Martinez in 'Ugly Delicious.'

There’s no denying that David Chang’s new Netflix docuseries, “Ugly Delicious”, is aesthetically gorgeous. The show’s underlying concept—”ugly” food like tacos, barbecue, and fried rice all have intrinsic values that surpass its creation born out of necessity and a lowly legacy—is a sui generis angle for a well-worn genre that has long shifted to food porn rather that pursuing and examining the cultural and geopolitical value that food possesses.

In a recent interview with Grub Street, “Top Chef” judge and chef Tom Colicchio mentioned the rise of “unfussy” food on the program’s 15th season: “The chefs were doing more, I wouldn’t say rustic, but a much more conventional style of food.” Translation: This shift isn’t occurring in a vacuum.

As the New Yorker‘s Helen Rosner explains in her review of the eight-part series, “What makes “Ugly Delicious” compelling, ultimately, is Chang’s commitment to rejecting purity and piety within food culture…In food culture, particularly American food culture, the concept of authenticity is wielded like a hammer…[and] the problem with such rigid categorizations, according to “Ugly Delicious,” is, for one thing, creative stagnation.”

This certainly makes for a thoroughly interesting viewing experience; before I realized it, I had binge-watched four episodes. This sort of programming is also refreshing—Chang has subverted a genre. For a generation that has been bred on the gluttony of glossy networks and competitive cooking, “Ugly Delicious” throws up a middle finger, and instead asked questions that are relevant to how we should be thinking about food (and not just consuming for its sheer shock value).

Consumers of food TV are familiar with the chipotle pepper and sisig, so rather than another tutorial on food trends, we get an understanding of how food morphs geographic boundaries and becomes central to a culture. This is central to Chang’s arc on “Ugly Delicious”: Is Neapolitan pizza is any less Neapolitan because it was made by a Japanese chef in Tokyo? Can a white chef cook, sell, and reap the profits of hot chicken, a dish born out of black culinary culture and food waste (with a hint of revenge)?

According to Rosner:

The more insidious problem with valorizing authenticity, though, is that, by anchoring a place’s culinary identity in an idealized history, a culture closes itself off to the values and traditions of those who have arrived more recently. This notion gives “Ugly Delicious” larger resonances with the rage and uncertainty of the Trump era. In the crawfish episode, a segment dedicated to K.K.K. activism against Vietnamese shrimpers in the nineteen-seventies is followed by a conversation with a present-day Vietnamese-American shrimp fisher who proudly calls himself a redneck, happy to talk on camera about his disdain for immigrants and fear of radical Islam. Sitting down with the white proprietor of a Nashville hot-chicken chain, Chang forces himself, with obvious steeling of will, to ask astonishingly direct questions about the moral burden of a white man profiting from black culture. The great cooks, in Chang’s view, are those who don’t just deploy an ingredient or a technique but feel it, deeply, adopting the food and its history as a fundamental part of who they are. It’s an idiosyncratic approach that’s perhaps as murky as authenticity, but also far more flexible.

The show is co-anchored by Peter Meehan, former editor in chief of Lucky Peach, and features walk-and-chew interviews with anyone of culinary note—from food writers to Aziz Ansari and Sean Brock. But while it addresses issues of cultural appropriation, there is so much more that it could have discussed and failed to. “Ugly Delicious”, the food it celebrates, and the history it examines doesn’t exist in a bubble; yes, the cultural appropriation of food important, but so is sexual harassment in the restaurant industry. So is discussing a work force largely built upon immigrant labor that is being threatened by an unstable political structure. So is the lack of representation of head chefs who are women or people of color—to wit, Christina Tosi of Milk Bar is the only woman represented on Netflix’s upcoming Chef’s Table Pastry (a ratio of three to one, which is utter lunacy).

If “Ugly Delicious” is to represent a paradigm shift in food television—which it has all the potential to be—these issues need to be explored.

This is not to say Chang and Co. didn’t try; the founder of the Momofuku empire traveled to Philadelphia in the second episode to visit South Philly Barbacoa, named by Bon Appetit as one of the best new restaurants in America in 2016 and also a kitchen run by an undocumented immigrant named Cristina Martinez and her husband Ben Miller. Chang spends about five minutes on why Martinez started the restaurant (her apartment, where she previously sold the barbacoa, was quickly being mobbed) and her depressingly common situation—”When you have the goal of changing your family’s life, you can do difficult things,” she says—before getting to the episode’s real heart: a paean to all things Rene Redzepi, in this case, the opening of Noma Mexico, a $750 prix fixe pop-up which opened in Tulum, Mexico last year. (Side note, if Chang really wanted to delve to the core of cultural appropriation, he could have perhaps touched on the inherent ugliness of Tulum’s tourist industry, to which Redzepi of course contributed).

There is also something to be said for television reflecting the times we live in and addressing long-ignored issues. Of the chefs and restauranteurs who are alleged to have run kitchens rife with sexual harassment and discrimination (or who are alleged to have committed the offenses themselves), many were feted by food television. John Besh and Danny Meyer were both guest judges on “Top Chef” (Besh had in fact appeared on this most recent season, but his scenes were edited following the Times-Picayune’s thorough reporting on the toxic culture with BRG Hospitality); Mike Isabella, who came from a “broken family…surrounded by women,” made two appearances on “Top Chef” (after which he launched a restaurant empire in Northern Virginia and Washington D.C.); Danny Bowien‘s journey to cult status was well-covered on “Mind of a Chef”; and Mario Batali was one of the first celebrated chefs to step behind the camera on the Food Network show “Molto Mario.”

Perhaps, given another season, “Ugly Delicious” will discuss these issues. Rosner notes in her review of the series that “…I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that ‘Ugly Delicious,’ which takes its name from a hashtag Chang often uses on Instagram, began life as ‘Lucky Peach: TV Edition,’ and was rebranded after the magazine’s close.” Most of the episodes were filmed in mid-to-late 2016, and with only eight episodes, there was only so much ground the Netflix series could cover.

If this is Chang’s next step, I’m all in. There has never been a better time to discuss these issues, and though others have previously attempted to get at “Ugly Delicious”‘ core—Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown” clearly set the roadmap while Action Bronson and Eddie Huang have carved out niches that attempt to crack the totality of Chang’s endeavor—the show can break new ground as the first ever socially conscious food program. This, I understand, is a lot to ask. But if Chang and Co. are going to chop off and dispel one of food’s most tightly held secrets, the production might as well proceed full-bore ahead.