For better or worse, if you’re a life-long learner living in today’s world then you’re a digital content consumer. You binge-watch documentary series and infotainment television, and endlessly click through YouTube how-to’s in an effort to educate yourself on your subject of choice. Books are not necessarily passé, but if you want to keep up with the latest techniques, movements and attitudes, digital content must be ingested.
Nowhere is this truer than with food and cooking. From PBS to Viceland, Hulu to the sixty-second “snackables” on your social media feed, food-TV is everywhere. Food-TV is also infinite, and so you must prioritize. With that in mind, I highly suggest putting the Netflix Original, Ugly Delicious, on the top of your list.
Having debuted back in February, Ugly Delicious is the newest offering from the team of chef and restaurateur David Chang and New York Times restaurant critic Peter Meehan. The two, after Meehan fell for Chang’s food at Momofuku, are practiced pros, having now partnered on quite a few food-and-cookery educational endeavors: the Momofuku cookbook, the recently defunct Lucky Peach quarterly food magazine and, with others, PBS’s The Mind of a Chef. This latest offering is an eight-part series that is equal parts culinary exploration, multicultural appreciation and hardcore food porn (with dashes of gregarious subjectivity and contrarianism to taste).
Overall, the series is a blistering success; it’s erudite but not overly academic, high-minded but not pretentious. It is, however—and this is my sole criticism—yet another food (and food-travel) show and as such falls prey to myriad food- TV tropes. It spotlights different cultures, blurs lines between high and low cuisine, heaps on piles of historical context and, of course, attempts honest reflection on the qualities and impacts of food. Thankfully, Chang & Co. transcend these artifices as they reach for bigger ideas, ones that feel both novel and much needed in these polarized times.
At one point in the series Chang calls authenticity “overvalued.” These could be considered fighting words to both traditionalists and hipsters who preach the gospel of authenticity from their pantry-pulpits.
The best part of the show is that it’s opinionated and not afraid of argumentation and impassioned dialog. Chang argues on camera with Meehan regularly, and each episode’s guests (or guest correspondents) are bombarded by Chang’s ideas of what is right and what is “stupid.” But Meehan and guests give it right back, oftentimes presenting more convincing arguments than Chang. Then they all laugh, resume shoving food in their faces, and it’s chummy again.
In the fourth episode, “Shrimp & Crawfish,” Chang tells a veteran Cajun chef that, technique-wise, he’s cooking his crawfish all wrong while half-laughing in the man’s face.
In another episode, while sitting down with Rene Redzepi, world-renown chef of Noma, Chang bemoans how food means less today because of the ease at which students of cooking can gain access to a plethora of food knowledge (i.e. the infinite digital content he’s created here). “The removal of struggle … creates bad cooking,” says Chang. This time it’s Redzepi’s turn to laugh in Chang’s face. “You’re wrong,” Rene says, shaking his head and smiling. “You’re just getting old.” And in another episode, Chang tells Mark Iacono, owner of Lucali (often thought to be one the best pizzerias in America), that Domino’s makes a perfectly delicious pie and makes him try a few slices. Iacono tells Chang, laughingly but still dead serious, that if he ever has Domino’s delivered to Lucali again, “We’re gonna be rolling around on the sidewalk.” As you can see, the show, and its representation of contrarianism, is downright salty at times, but in the end, the audience is rewarded by simply watching incredibly smart friends argue about the thing they’re most passionate about: food.
However, where the show really succeeds is in its implicit thesis. Chang and Meehan subtly extend their overarching take in each episode, and it is this: food, cuisine, dishes, etc. do not belong to any individual culture; they instead belong to all humans. In the “Pizza” episode, purists who claim pizza can only be one thing—dough, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese—are endlessly chided. To push his point, Chang even showcases a sushi pizza which he folds into his gaping maw and declares, “Oh my God, that’s [expletive] delicious!” New Orleans traditionalists who disapprove of Viet-Cajun crawfi sh (a dish widely loved in Houston) are made to feel close-minded by Chang. Th is judgement is then extended to anyone who makes a dish a certain way because “that’s the way it’s always been done.”
At one point in the series Chang calls authenticity “overvalued.” Th ese could be considered fi ghting words to both traditionalists and hipsters who preach the gospel of authenticity from their pantry-pulpits. But the truth is, he’s right. No one culture owns pizza (just ask any Greek), and the idea that there’s only one way to make, say, lasagna is ludicrous (just ask any grandma). Meehan even goes so far as to call authenticity “reductive.” Th ey argue that cuisine has always been about combinations and mergers; about combining ingredients and merging cultures to continuously remake delicious dishes. But don’t misinterpret, this isn’t about “fusion” (a practice so forced and inorganic that it makes the hosts cringe), it is about the natural way people—and cultures and ingredients—have always come together. We, humans are a diverse community and food is the product of this multi-cultured municipality. Food is always just “a bridge,” Chang says. And food writer Mark Bittman, quoting legend Jacque Pépin, maybe says it best: “Recipes are like rivers. Th ey’re never the same from one moment to the next.” Amen.
It’s funny, while there are obvious connections to other food-travel shows (Michael Pollan’s Cooked comes to mind, as does Chang’s good friend Anthony Bourdain’s entire oeuvre, especially his Parts Unknown, which ramps up the socio-political commentary), the show that Ugly Delicious reminds me of most is Henry Louis Gates’ Finding Your Roots. While Gates hammers the idea that, genetically-speaking, no human is one single ethnicity, Chang continuously returns to the idea that no dish is without outside infl uence. We already know nations are not static, and Gates has taught us that race is not static, and now Chang is teaching us that food is not static either. And this progressive take, that we should embrace the entire chain— where it started and where it’s heading—and not get overly focused on our individual link, is just the bracing refreshment we need right now.
Stephen David Caldes is a writer, home cook, and assistant professor in the Journalism and Public Relations Department at CSU, Chico. He has many hobbies, but eating with friends is his favorite.