It’s no secret that I love good food TV almost as much as I despise bad food TV. Yes, I just said “good” and “bad,” knowing how fraught and subjective and potentially elitist and ignorant those descriptors can be, but I’ll stand behind them for now—because taste is taste and taste is subjective, but what we eat, why we eat it, and how we eat it goes to the heart of who we are as human beings. Cuisine defines culture at least as much as language does, and as a bonus, the clumsy language-bound neocortex doesn’t need to get all that involved with food. It can, but it doesn’t have to. Foodways are languages, rich in symbolism and metaphor—our most literal oral history. Sharing food with someone is profound and primal and you can understand something about a person by eating what they cook without even being able to understand a word they say. The food does the talking.
At first, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through Ugly Delicious. The first episode, centered on pizza, just didn’t grab me (though I am, like most Americans, a lover of good pizza). David Chang, a sort of extra-badass teddy bear and the renowned chef of the Momofuku empire, is both affable and a little edgy, and he’s a perfectly decent tour guide through a bunch of regional and international investigations around “lowbrow” foods and in many cases what happens when they get highbrowed (tacos, fried chicken, shrimp and crayfish, fried rice, et cetera). But I wasn’t sure what he was bringing to the table (sorry) as an anti-food porn host, at least at the start.
The Virginia-born child of Korean parents, Chang is deeply interested in how foodways travel, intersect, and melt together. (The “Home Cooking” episode, though it’s one the weaker ones overall, takes us into his mom’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, where a truly oddball combination of WASP Thanksgiving classics and Korean home cooking enjoy each other’s company in a zero-irony environment. It’s great). But what begins to hit you once the show finds its groove—the second episode, for me; your mileage may vary—is that this is legitimately something beyond the super-trope established by Tony Bourdain all those years ago (Chef Seeks Wisdom in Travel and Eating the World). Chang is not a Bourdanian. His journey is different. He isn’t looking for mastery or a high-level view of Where the Good Stuff Is.
He’s looking for non-judgment. And he’s having a hard time finding it, even—perhaps especially—within himself.
Fusion cuisine preoccupies this guy’s mind, and it’s not hard to imagine why. Anyone with a recent-immigration family story is bound to have grown up with one foot in the past and one in the future. Chang sees himself (or presents himself) as an outsider (I suspect a lot of chefs feel this way, no matter how successful they become) and he’s looking to understand it, not in the context of “food cycles,” where various comfort-foods become fads, rise into the haute cuisine pantheon, either gain something or lose something or both, and sometimes just as suddenly disappear into the River Styx of over-it foods. (Remember the wasabi mashed potato fetish of the 1990s?). He’s interested in the relationship between these food cycles and immigration cycles: Watching him talk to a bunch of repatriated Vietnamese cooks about food from the Middle East is pretty interesting, as is his increasingly drunken insistence that tacos are “Asian.”
But, as one chef points out, the term “fusion” has a connotation of force, evoking atomic bombs or very painful things that get done to messed up bones. This gets explored in depth in particular when Chang visits New Orleans and Houston and has a really hard time understanding why Houston has a vibrant and expansive interplay between traditional southern ways of handling shrimp and crawfish, and recipes that combine Cajun and Vietnamese ideas, while New Orleans still considers it taboo to do anything with a crawfish besides boil it in a vat of Zatarain’s spice blend and serve it with a potato and a corn cob. (Actually, this episode begins with Chang being kicked out of Galatoire’s for being underdressed, coming back in a newly purchased jacket, finally being recognized by a server and sucked up to for the rest of the night; it’s pretty funny.) In a low-key takeout shop run by a Vietnamese family, he asks why no one wants to do “Viet-Cajun” in New Orleans. “We like our traditions,” the woman at the counter says.
“But this isn’t your tradition,” Chang says. “You’re… not from here.”
The side-eye he gets from the woman at the counter is priceless. “I was born and raised in New Orleans,” she says. “I’m as Cajun as anybody.”
Chang scrapes himself off the floor and says he’s pretty sure he can smell star anise. The woman sighs and says they’re making pho ga in the back.
He asks one more time why they have such a problem with Viet-Cajun fusion. “We don’t,” she says. “It’s great. Just not with crawfish!”
“I’m not getting the answers I want,” Chang remarks at one point.
I find the episodes of Ugly Delicious uneven, but since they don’t have to be watched sequentially, if you feel the same way, by all means skip around. The Crawdad episode (the fourth) and Chang’s quest to understand the taco (the second) are standouts for me—I love Mexico, but it’s been a while since a TV show filled me with the desire to become a master of regional Mexican cooking. A deep-dive into the intricacies of regional BBQ is also really interesting. David Chang is funny, curious, and not afraid to be a doofus should the need arise. He has a genuine spirit of inquiry that isn’t about being urbane or an insider or the guy who knows all the places the tourists don’t know about. He’s not here to teach anyone what to like, why they should like it, or which bar you simply have to visit when you’re in Osaka if you want to be in the know, or to show you what ironclad badasses chefs are.
He’s after something else: the notion that real authenticity isn’t about purity. On the contrary, it’s about recognizing diversity of contribution, making connections, and not being a damn snob. He doesn’t need you to be dazzled. He wants people to be open to one another. And, as one of the Vietnamese Houstonians notes in the shrimp debate: “Food is the bridge.”
So: Don’t go to Galatoire’s in a T-shirt. But do give Ugly Delicious a shot.
Ugly Delicious is now streaming on Netflix.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.