A lot of people don’t like David Chang. The celebrity chef and owner of Momofuku is the host of Netflix’s new food documentary series “Ugly Delicious,” and his on-camera personality is often likened to that of Anthony Bordain: In a word, abrasive. It’s true that Chang is loud and opinionated, and that he interrupts people constantly. Typically I can’t stand these qualities—especially in men, and most especially in men with enough fame to have their own show. Perhaps the reason I appreciate these things in Chang is because of the things he chooses to get loud about.
In “Ugly Delicious,” Chang and a rotating cast of friends and expert guests travel around the world to examine the origins and modern permutations of different kinds of foods. The word authenticity is used a lot here—Chang wants to know what makes a dish authentic and, more importantly, why we should care. Sure, this restaurant might serve the most authentic Cantonese food—but is it good?
In the very first episode—
The guests that Chang brings onto the show provide, by and large, amazing contributions to the episode. Bringing on Lolis Eric Elie, a black food journalist and cookbook writer, for the Fried Chicken episode, as well as Psyche Williams-Forson, a professor of African American Studies at the University of Maryland, shows that Chang is actively seeking out underrepresented perspectives on America’s most beloved foods. Both guests have insightful things to say about the ongoing stereotyping of black people and “soul food,” as well as the hip, millennial fried chicken joints being opened by white people across the country and marketed as “tributes” to the original Southern fried chicken joints they supposedly frequented as kids. Conversely, he also approaches Nick Bishop, Jr., a white man who opened one such imitation chicken joint in Nashville—and confronts him with, “Why do you think this is ok?” Bishop’s answer is unsatisfying, to say the least.
And this isn’t the only time on the show that Chang makes white people uncomfortable by presenting them with their own racism. In the episode on fried rice, he examines the history of Americanized Chinese food and the MSG scare in particular. He and Ian Mosby, a food historian, gather several people who have complained of adverse reactions to MSG in Chinese food together under the pretense of a focus group. While they each speak about the headaches and dry mouth they get from cheap Chinese food, they’re eating the Doritos, Pringles and other processed snacks provided by Chang. After a while, Mosby tells all the participants that all the snacks they’ve been eating have MSG in them. “Do any of you … feel anything?,” he asks. There’s a powerful silence that falls on the room, and several of the participants—nearly all white-presenting people—shake their heads. They then have a frank discussion about the old stereotypes of Chinese food as dirty, cheap and liable to make you sick. How pervasive are these stereotypes today? And how many of them extend not just to the food, but to the people making it?
When talking or writing about the intersection of food, race and politics it is too easy to end on the insipid note of “food brings us all together.” “Ugly Delicious,” though, isn’t afraid to embrace uncertainty or even discord, as seen in the Shrimp and Crawfish episode. At one point, Chang is eating homemade Vietnamese food in the home of a family of shrimpers who proudly identify as “Vietnamese rednecks.” As the son of Korean immigrants speaking to the son of Vietnamese immigrants, Chang is shocked when the man he’s talking to expresses concern and fear over immigrants coming from Islamic countries. It seems hypocritical to him, and justifiably so. After this conversation he speaks to the camera one-on-one, hashing out how upset he is that he couldn’t win this guy over to the side of supporting other immigrants. It’s not the only time that Chang speaks to the camera as a sort of confessional, and it’s one of the reasons he’s so perfect in this role—he’s comfortable with being in the spotlight, and he’s willing to be personal and vulnerable in the public eye. This openness, plus his excellent sense of humor, make the show sparkle with personality and create something almost as addictive as trashy reality TV. When Chang messily eats a soup dumpling and declares, “This is like Blade Runner food,” you not only know exactly what he means, but you want to eat it. Like, right now.