Netflix food series 'Ugly Delicious' travels the globe to break down cultural barriers
The new series stars Korean-American chef and restaurateur David Chang as he travels the globe to discover Viet-Cajun cuisine, Tokyo pizza and deer feet tendons, learning a lot along the way
David Chang is the kind of chef who loves to taunt your appetite with his culinary adventures, even as he stuffs your head with savoury new cravings and shreds your preconceptions about the role of food in our lives, politics and society.
That he does all of the above with abundant energy, crisp viewpoints and in a highly entertaining fashion is evident in Ugly Delicious, his new foodie docu-series that streams on Netflix starting this Friday.
“I’ve reached the point where I’m OK making really ugly food,” he says of the fact plates don’t always need to be pretty. “The dishes that we’re making, it’s about telling a story,” he says.
“Food is something we all have in common. It’s an essential part of who we are and how we create connections across cultures. In that spirit, we brought together some of the people we admire most to make Ugly Delicious a collaborative forum, a place where it’s okay to have strong opinions and honest conversations about food.”
Raised by Korean émigré parents in the “other” Vienna – the tiny Virginia town of 16,000 souls in suburban Washington DC – Chang is the chef and founder of the Momofuku group, which includes restaurants in New York City, Washington, Sydney, Toronto, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
Over eight episodes, Chang plies his taste buds with the unexpected as he hangs out with writers and chefs, activists and artists — including the likes of comic Ali Wong, actors Steven Yuen, Nick Kroll, Eric Wareheim and Gillian Jacobs, talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel and screenwriter Alan Yang. These people all use food as a vehicle to break down cultural barriers, tackle misconceptions and uncover shared experiences.
Ugly Delicious ventures out of his polished stainless-steel kitchens into the wider world to explore Viet-Cajun cuisine in Houston, Neapolitan Pizza in Tokyo, home cooking in Copenhagen, fried chicken and much more.
A culinary rebel through and through, Chang explains how food can bridge, and even alter, personal differences. “How do I tell someone to be more open?,” he asks. “I think for me, it’s like, how do you do it with food? I can’t change their politics — but maybe I can by opening up their viewpoints to food.”
In Ugly Delicious, Chang also waxes on the psychological balm of comfort foods: “It’s when you eat a dish that reminds you of a dish cooked by your mom.” When it comes to cultural fusion — and novel dishes like Viet-Cajun crawfish and Chinese-American braised tofu, Chang offers: “If you try to respect these cultures you can figure out how to merge them together.”
But not everything he puts in his mouth stays down, as we witness when he tucks into a dish that features “tendons from deer’s feet” — an unpleasant encounter that sees him reaching for a napkin to spit it out.
Since opening his first eatery in 2004, the 40-year-old gastronome has garnished his foodie rep with five James Beard Foundation Awards for his kitchen prowess.
Momofuku Ko — his tiny and tough-to-reserve Big Apple eatery which offers tantalising multicourse, Asian-accented American meals — has easily held on to its two Michelin stars since 2009.
Of the Korean influence that gave him his culinary start, Chang admits the love affair is ongoing. “What I love about Korean food — and why I think it’s so perfect for the era we live in right now — it’s communal dining, but you can still customise it, how you want to do it. So it’s group and individual.”
Momofuku, which means “lucky peach,” is also the title of Chang’s New York Times-bestseller cookbook. Chang further built his global profile as the first-season host of The Mind of the Chef, a PBS food series produced in 2012 by fellow famous epicure and celebrity gadabout Anthony Bourdain.
Chang’s partner in his telly adventure is director Morgan Neville, whose Tremolo Productions owns bragging rights to Academy Award, Emmy and Grammy winning projects that include: 20 Feet From Stardom; Keith Richards: Under the Influence; Best of Enemies; The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble; and Crossfire Hurricane. His TV series work includes Chelsea Does (with Chelsea Handler) and Abstract: The Art of Design.
Attention to the finer points is a telling detail on how much an eatery’s team cares about their business, explains Chang, recalling advice his immigrant father, Joe, gave him as a boy.
“He worked in restaurants for 30 years — and he would always look at the bathrooms, whether it was a fancy restaurant or, more often than not, hole-in-the-walls. He’d always come back from the bathroom and say, ‘OK, we can eat here’.”
With Ugly Delicious, Chang hopes his mad devotion to the details will help his streaming-giant host evolve a new genre.
“The best thing about Netflix is, they want you to define the sandbox,” Chang told CNBC during his visit to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics last week. “They are still trying to figure out what is right or what is wrong,” he added of Netflix. “And it’s allowed us to create a show that I think is an honest representation of what we think is worthy of talking about right now.”
“Just like a great restaurant where you’re getting a recommendation, you hope that someone who watches it will say (to others): ‘Hey, you have to watch this!” That kind of enthusiasm, I think, is infectious.”
Ugly Delicious is available for streaming on Netflix from Friday
Updated: February 19, 2018 10:30 AM