Is there nothing more appropriate to binge watch than a foodie docu-series?
Before you sit down and get comfy, lemme gift you a word of advice — don’t catch yourself without something to munch on because I guarantee you’ll be hungry within the first five minutes of pressing play.
David Chang, the mastermind chef behind the Momofuku restaurant empire, blends his unique upbringing in Virginia as a second generation Korean-American and his progressive chefiness with a healthy dose of curiosity into a series that explores food origins and the cultures that have crossed all boundaries to come together. With each episode, he and his occasional co-host Peter Meehan, Chang’s bestie and editor of the Momofuku cookbook, are joined by chefs, writers and comedian-turned-foodie Aziz Ansari in roundtable discussions to push and pull the conversation of modern-day cuisine in many directions.
Other cameos, like Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold and Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA, bring qualified voices to the discussion, making it more than just a documentary about food but a guide to navigating the vast landscape food has charted over time through migrations and shifts in society. It's extremely apparent in scenes from Episode 2: "Tacos." At Los Originales Tacos Arabe de Puebla in Los Angeles, a truck that specializes in tacos Arabes (Arab tacos), Arellano traces the origin of the shawarma-like tacos from the Lebanese, who brought their spit cooking and pita-like bread to Puebla, Mexico in the 1930s.
In the first episode, Chang, Meehan and their chef friend Mark Iacono explore what makes a pizza “authentic.” Whether you’re eating a Margherita with Franco Pepe in Naples or folding up a smoked salmon slice with Wolfgang Puck in Beverly Hills, you'll wrestle with your own thoughts and opinions on what authenticity means to you. What is it besides a bit of snobbery? In the sense I encounter in food journalism, it kind of is.
A valid point of contention, the way authenticity is positioned throughout ‘Ugly Delicious’ is so provoking and challenging. Ultimately, if something is delicious or not, why should anything else really matter?
Having eaten pizza at Mark Iacono's Lucali in Brooklyn and tacos at Mariscos Jalisco in Boyle Heights and even Peking duck at Shun Yuki in Tokyo’s Hotel Gajoen, I now realize there’s so much more to appreciate other than the authenticity of the food we eat. I can go to Italy for pizza, I can go to Mexico for tacos, and I can go to China for duck, but when I’ve eaten what I think to be the best of each, in other places, is that wrong? Nah.
However, I will admit it’s still too early to settle on them as the best — it’s the reason I travel far and often.
Throughout the series, you’ll see Chang's egalitarian approach and openness to new perspectives and food he’s uncomfortable with. Sometimes his bombastic opinion obliterates prejudices and other times he's spitting out gelatinous sea cucumber into a wastebasket (in front of the staff no less). Regardless of what he thinks, you'll notice the parallels between different cultures narrow and when they actually intersect, prepare to have your mind blown.
In Episode 4: "Shrimp & Crawfish," Chang takes a deep dive into the divide of why crawfish is boiled rather than stir-fried in Houston, TX and New Orleans, LA, cities with high concentrations of Vietnamese. Being David Chang, he asserts that stir-frying is the best way to cook them, but it's revealed that boiling is the "only" way to cook crawfish because tradition dictates everything in the south, even for Vietnamese-Americans, a group of people that historically have no tradition of cooking or eating crawfish. Funny, right?
And when Chang heads to Ho Chi Minh City to visit a Cajun-influenced restaurant inspired by those normally found in Houston, he's suprised to discover this strange duality of cultures that seem to have doubled-backed onto each other.
If you’re wondering if this is like David Gelb’s "Chef’s Table," it’s not. By any other name, that series would actually be called “Pretty Delicious.” This is also not Chang's first dive into documentary television – that would be "Mind of a Chef." It's not like that show either, despite its educational slant. Think of it as a food variety show, with micro-breaks and commercials between segments that break up the nearly hour-long episodes which can be watched in any order.
As the title denotes, Chang’s show explores his interest and pleasure in creating food that he wants to make at home, food that itself is ugly delicious. It’s a shift I’m seeing among chefs right here in Honolulu at restaurants like The Pig and the Lady and Mud Hen Water. As diners, we yearn to eat out because we want something we can’t get at home but as someone that eats out almost every meal, I tend to look for restaurants that offer their version of homestyle or "ugly" cooking — food that isn’t “tweezered,” as it's often referred to in the episodes.
All things considered, what I admire most is that "Ugly Delicious" isn’t something you’ll watch once and move on. You’ll find yourself revisiting it over and over again to get reacquainted with what makes food so fun and interesting. The colored commentary from the various guests along the way will offer you more than enough to digest as you dig into your next Netflix binge.
Ugly Delicious, now streaming on Netflix.