Breaking away from the monotonous “food porn” Instagram accounts and features on high-class chefs that have dominated food dialogue in the past five years, “Ugly Delicious” is a refreshing documentary series that, instead of focusing on taste, details the stories behind how food is made and who creates it.
David Chang, James Beard award-winning chef and Momofuku king, is the self-proclaimed rebel who leads the series and its viewers on a journey about food that is funny, authentic and sometimes a little weird.
At first glance, the series seems simple because of episode titles like “Pizza,” “Tacos” and “Fried Chicken.” Once the viewer dives in, however, “Ugly Delicious” proves it is not your run-of-the-mill cooking show.
Rather than featuring the best taco in the world or the most delicious crawfish in the American South, “Ugly Delicious” portrays foods as relics of various cultures and highlights how food has evolved over time. Throughout the show, Chang and his best friend and collaborator extraordinaire, food writer Peter Meehan, talk to chefs, food writers and ordinary foodies alike who prove to be more interested in the origins of a pizza — and the people who made it — than how crispy its crust is.
While the series shows mouthwatering footage of fresh Neapolitan pizza and steaming Viet-Cajun crawfish — so colorful and alive that you almost feel as you yourself are right in the kitchen — it barely describes the taste of its featured food at all. Often, even when Chang seems to spend hours preparing the featured food with the chef, constantly hyping up how good it will taste, he and his friends give nothing more than an assuring head nod or a “d–n, that’s delicious” when they finally get to eat it.
This lack of sensory description is often unsatisfying, but the viewer’s hunger to live vicariously through Chang and Meehan’s good eats is almost immediately replaced by a hunger to learn how food can provide a cultural and social lens to view the world.
Throughout the show, Chang and Meehan, along with their ever-growing gang of foodie friends, including funny celebrities like Georgetown alumnus Nick Kroll (COL ’01), tackle everything from the importance of balancing tradition and innovation in food to the role of food in immigrant cultures in the United States.
Referencing Chang’s own family of Korean immigrants, the show often cycles back to the theme of food functioning as a way for immigrants to stay connected to their roots while finding ways to share their cuisines with American culture.
The show features powerful personal anecdotes of Chang’s life, as well as less personal, but still poignant, immigrant stories, such as a Vietnamese-American shrimper’s experience with the Ku Klux Klan in the “Shrimp & Crawfish” episode.
In this sense, the series feels authentic to Chang’s own experience of and connection to food. Although “Ugly Delicious” strays from attempts to cover a variety of cultural food experiences, going from cities as close as Washington, D.C., to those as far as Tokyo, it always returns to how Chang sees food. As seen in his dogmatic comparisons of each food to various Asian dishes, to interviews with rebel chefs like himself, such as René Redzepi and Massimo Bottura, “Ugly Delicious” does not attempt to offer comprehensive perspectives on food culture.
Although Chang highlights a variety of restaurants and chefs throughout the show, his attitude toward each dining locale is universally positive. He and Meehan showcase the famous Michelin-star representations of tortellini and dumplings, but they visit places like Dominos and KFC with the same excitement. Chang continually emphasizes that “good food is from everywhere, and it’s not just from one perspective.”
But for a show that so passionately asserts the importance of diversity within food, it glaringly lacks diversity within its cast. Most notably, almost every chef and food writer featured is male. Although the series does feature a few short clips from incredible women, the sound bites are mostly insignificant and are overshadowed by the typically more relevant male statements. The show also seriously lacks any representation of black chefs or food writers outside of the “Fried Chicken” episode — ironic considering that the social focus of that episode is that black chefs want to be known for more than just fried chicken.
“Ugly Delicious” is an entertaining and inspiring show in the way it broadens viewers’ understanding of the food they consume and how food stems from and shapes cultures. Yet, while it pushes the limits of how viewers perceive the culinary world, “Ugly Delicious” fails to be inclusive of other perspectives and does not reach its revolutionary potential.