I am addicted to David Chang’s presence on screen. I’ve long enjoyed his addiction, affection, admiration, and respect for the food process. The first season of Ugly Delicious embraced the history and legacy of food entirely, opening viewers eyes to the world of pizza, tacos, BBQ, fried chicken and fried rice, and for the first half of season two, he takes viewers on the journey through the world of kids menus, curries, steak, and (oddly enough) meat on a spit. It’s with season two that my admiration, respect, and adoration of David Chang has reached a new peak.
As per season one, and Chang’s offshoot show, Breakfast, Lunch, & Dinner, each episode is stacked with guests who all provide a welcome and in depth discussion about their relationship with food. This casual conversation style creates the ‘friends round a dinner table’ vibe that Chang is angling for, making each discussion feel intimate, relatable, and quietly comfortable.
Food naturally creates some of the most effusive and passionate praise and discussions from people, often immersing them in a state of silence. Food is an instant memory maker, which is why people are so often nostalgic for the food of their childhood, or the food that they eat when they travel. What Chang does with Ugly Delicious is elevates the ‘food TV’ format by questioning the history of the food we eat. Given ‘food TV’ is so often tied to the ‘travel show’ format, it makes sense that he, and his cast of diverse voices, travel to the home of where food comes from and explores their connection to their country of origin.
For Chang, an American-Korean chef, he is part of the white culture that has co-opted and monopolised so many different cultures throughout the world. In the episode about meat on a spit, Palestinian baker Reem Kassis talks about white chefs having a lightbulb moment about coopting international foods and making it ‘mainstream’. There’s an off the cuff mention about chocolate hummus, which I’m sure is as horrible as it sounds. As Reem mentions, this commercialisation of international cuisine works against the connection to culture and heritage that comes with food. For Palestinians, their food is one of the last aspects of their culture that they can actively hold onto.
Ugly Delicious doesn’t intimately interrogate this idea, making it play like another sentence in an extended conversation about the global relationship with food and culture. When we eat together, it becomes a communal affair, and through food and cooking, we are united. But as per the title, there is as much a look in the ‘ugly’ of food consumption as there is the ‘delicious’ of food.
Shows like Ugly Delicious, and chefs like David Chang, actively work to readjust the hyper-Westernised perspective of food consumption. The mindset is often about ease of access, portability, and whether people can turn it into fast food. It’s the pop-culture-isation of food, and while we chow down on that curry in London, or that late night drunken kebab in Fremantle, or munch on a steak in New York, we often forget the history of how that food ended up in your hands.
Additionally, the discussion about the ethics of eating food is becoming a louder voice in the conversation. How do we ethically, and in a green way, eat the food that we love and adore? In Japan, one way of addressing this issue is by serving thinner, slimmer slices of steak, and in turn, making the experience of consuming steak a theatrical event, thus turning the consumption of it into an act that not only nourishes your stomach, but your mind and soul as well. That may sound a little too airy-fairy for ‘a steak’, but the reality is that for something we consume day in, day out, our understanding and appreciation for its role in our lives needs to be elevated.
This is shown by the relationship that one chef has with his cows. He tends to them, having a close, personal relationship with each one, almost akin to a dog and an owner, and allows them to have a comfortable, positive life. They exist for years, before being slaughtered for consumption. He is asked, doesn’t it make it hard to consume an animal that you’ve had such a close relationship with? And he responds, no, to eat them is to honour them. It is the greatest act of respect to eat another.
For many of us, our relationship with food is so distanced and unfamiliar with the harvesting process. We go to a shop, we buy our shrink wrapped meats and vegetables, and cook them at home and that’s that mattress man. This then puts the pressure and onus on those growing the livestock and raising the livestock to create a green way of farming. It’s here that one farmer shows how he moves his livestock from paddock to paddock, creating a carbon-positive (as in, not only is it neutral, but his work is reducing others carbon output) farm. While the existence of faux-meat foods is growing, the consumption of beef is here to stay, and it’s with farmers like this that the clean energy transformation of food culture is occurring.
The answers to many of the questions that Ugly Delicious raises are complicated and difficult to parse. In one episode, Chang talks about how to turn traditional Indian curry mainstream, this includes the way of eating the curry, which as shown here is a full bodied experience. Yet, in the next episode about steaks, the round table discussion has people actively gatekeeping the luxury steaks that people access imitation versions of via Costco. In possibly the most fascinating discussion of the series so far, the privilege of how people access and consume steak is explored in depth. For many chefs, they found the consumption of well-done steaks offensive, but as the conversation progresses, they find a commonality between those who eat well-done steaks, and themselves.
Later, a steak arrives at one patrons table, and it’s incorrectly cooked. Instead of returning it to the kitchen, he comments about how it’s not the steak that he’s at the restaurant for, but for the experience, memories, and the way eating a steak in a restaurant makes him feel.
This is part of why I hold David Chang and Ugly Delicious up to such a high level. It’s easily the show I’ve rewatched the most on Netflix, and it’s the comfort that I get from seeing someone to eagerly interrogate their chosen vocation and the history and future that comes with it, that has me returning frequently.
In the first episode, Chang looks at his own future through the eyes of his first child. He’s reflecting on his past, and most importantly, of his families with relationship with cooking. As he says, there’s a reckoning between old Dave Chang, and “Dad” Dave Chang. For me, I was alarmed at how distant Western cultures relationship with food can be. For many, our relationship with food has devolved to ‘what’s available on UberEats/Menulog’, and in that regard, it’s frustrating and sad.
Later in this first episode, we’re left as stunned as Chang and co. are by the way American kids have become homogenised away from complex foods. Their ready, steady, partially cooked diet at school quietly conditions them to a frozen-food diet that makes them turn their nose at freshly prepared food. Chang isn’t telling viewers to encourage a deeper relationship with their children via cooking, but it’s certainly the mindset I’m left with.
And again, it’s the heritage of the food that Chang consumes that makes this show so fascinating and important. As the show progresses, he becomes frustrated with himself for being a fan and supporter of Turkish food, but has never been to Turkey itself. Without visiting the countries that the food he adores comes from, how can he – as a chef – truly appreciate and understand the history of said food? It is (arguably) a chefs role to embue that history within the food they are preparing for their guests. Whether that means through preparing the food in traditional methods, or using traditional ingredients, it is the act of honouring the guest, the food, the culture, the animals that have lost their lives for the dish to exist, and the chef themselves. It is a conversation with culture that permeates through time, all bundled up in one dish.
Chang respects the culture within food, learning how to enunciate different food names. Thanks to Ugly Delicious, I now know how to say ‘döner’ properly. Additionally, this walk through international cultures shows something we should already know, and if we don’t, then we desperately need reminding of it: ‘what people eat here (Turkey) is not new. It’s just different.’
There’s a certain level of xenophobia that comes with international food, an outward ‘blegh’ when presented with something that has an ingredient that we often consider ‘foreign’. Whether that’s through the presence of offal, or maybe a different cooking method, it’s easy to see the world acknowledging or accepting anything that’s ‘different’. Yet, within Australia at least, much of our food culture would not exist without migration and the assistance previous governments have extended to cultures in need.
Ugly Delicious addresses this xenophobia by reminding that ‘if every country has a war, everyone should save part of the heritage. And the kitchen is a very important part of the heritage.’ And Australia’s food heritage is proof of this, with the proliferation of Vietnamese restaurants rising after the Vietnam War and the movement of refugees to Australia. More recently, there has been social media campaigns for people to head out and support Chinese restaurants as fear of the coronavirus amplifies xenophobia.
I’m repeating myself, but this is why Ugly Delicious is essential viewing. It forces and encourages viewers to reflect on their relationship with food and the culture that comes with it. Food is a universal language, one that we all speak in a bid to survive, and thanks to David Chang and his guests, we’re invited to converse in a deep and meaningful palaver that will have you wanting to head out to the most culturally diverse restaurant in your city and experience a difference culture through it.
This show is easily boiled down to something David Chang says as the fourth episode wraps up, and to be honest, there’s no better way to end this review:
‘Deliciousness as a whole is like a meme, it’s going to find a way to survive. If something is objectively good, people will find a way to do it.’