For a brief, beautiful moment, Momofuku was my neighborhood noodle shop. When it opened in 2004, I was a high school senior living a half block away, and while it was just the latest of the many noodle bars that filled the area, it felt exciting, like a secret lair only we knew how to enter. I first heard praise for David Chang’s pork buns from my stepdad, who’d stopped in for a bite on his way home. We joined friends and neighbors at their teeny bar, and generally enjoyed that this was our local spot.
Then, Momofuku happened, and David Chang became one of the most influential people in the food world. For a few years in the early aughts, his aesthetically stripped-down restaurants and love for fatty pork and cheap beer captivated the culinary zeitgeist, and shoved it into a steamed bun. He started a now-international restaurant group, helped launch an award-winning food magazine, appeared on countless TV shows, including his own season of Mind of a Chef (which spent each season following a different chef around the world and into… their mind), and had a food delivery app bought by Uber Eats. He created a reputation as a rebel, discarding stuffy traditions and championing “lowbrow” ingredients like MSG and instant ramen; he also hired the now-similarly-famous Christina Tosi, who treated cereal milk and tooth-achingly sweet sweets with the same reverence that he gave his noodles.
Chang’s new Netflix show, Ugly Delicious, refers to a hashtag Chang often uses on Instagram to shine light on dishes that are meant to be eaten and not Instagrammed. The show purports to do the same. It explores every facet of a particular food — pizza, tacos, BBQ — that doesn’t need to be trendy or beautiful to be good. In Chang’s world, it is possible to love it all, whether highbrow or lowbrow or somewhere in the delicious swamp between.
Chang insists that on top of this just being a fun, beautiful way to explore food, his is a uniquely radical stance — a way to appreciate a classic Neapolitan pizza and a greasy, 3 AM delivery from Domino’s. The show attempts to highlight Chang’s rebelliousness in appreciating Taco Bell, Japanese pizza, and home cooking. But while it once was wild for a professional chef to publicly embrace the lowbrow, it’s no longer the case. Chang’s views have become mainstream, largely because of Chang himself. Surprisingly, he just hasn’t quite caught on yet.
Ugly Delicious typically follows the Mind of a Chef template, combining animated interstitials and scripted skits with journeys into the world of specific foods, and nearly pornographic camera work that makes the food look anything but ugly. By devoting one episode to a kind of food such as fried chicken or dumplings, Ugly Delicious gives time and space to explore multiple topics within the category, whether it’s arguing over what can be construed as barbecue, or what the differences really are between restaurant food and home cooking.
At its best, Ugly Delicious is an earnest appreciation of how and why humanity eats what it does.
It also reminds the viewer that food is about anything but food. Like the best food media, Ugly Delicious focuses on how the food Chang and his co-hosts are eating actually came into existence, and all the cultural things food touches — poverty, immigration, capitalism, history. It asks questions about tradition versus fusion, appropriation versus homage, who gets to “elevate” which cuisines, what does “authenticity” look like — and, most importantly, if it matters. That said, these questions have been swirling around the mainstream food discourse for at least a decade. Ugly Delicious acts more as a primer for those who have never considered these subjects rather than a fount of answers.
At its best, Ugly Delicious is an earnest appreciation of how and why humanity eats what it does. At its worst, it’s bros high-fiving each other about how “badass” eating is, and telling jokes about a woman who always answers the door in a negligee in a Domino’s delivery car (with the driver joking that “she is the tip”). And for all the promised respect toward every aspect of food, there’s a fair amount of Chang haranguing people about why they should abandon their traditions, or why their perceptions about what they do are wrong. In one episode, he spends a good five minutes harping on New Orleans crawfish boils, insisting that steaming is a better method. While that may be the case, it ignores the culture and context of a boil, in which the goal is to cook enough crawfish to dump on a newspaper-covered table and feed 30 people at a backyard party. (It also ignores his own insistence in Mind of a Chef about how the crab boil was the way to eat crab.)
However, what’s striking is where Chang completely misreads the modern state of food. In the episode dedicated to home cooking, the ultimate “Ugly Delicious” food, he lambasts what he sees as the real problem in food media: food that’s too refined. Right now, Chang says, everything in food “has to be this super glossy affair. When in reality, good food is everywhere.”
Chang’s claim as the lone “badass” appreciating undersung foods fundamentally ignores basically all of food TV and media for the past decade. Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain have built their careers on finding the “weird,” rustic, grandma-cooked foods of the world. Guy Fieri thrives on messy, cheap sandwiches. Man v. Food, A Cook Abroad, and nearly every travel show fetishizes the “authentic” food you should be eating instead of whatever is at your hotel buffet. Rachael Ray has built an empire for herself, but not through cooking that most chefs would call “glossy” or “refined.” We had an entire food truck revolution, for god’s sake. “Good food is everywhere” is not a mantra blowing anyone’s minds.
Throughout the series, Chang still acts like he has something to prove by liking what he likes. “The biggest thing I like about Domino’s is that I’m being told by the culinary troll snob that I can’t like it,” he says in the pizza episode. But who, exactly, is telling him not to like it? (Clearly, nobody has ever talked his head off about how much they love their Domino’s app.) The biggest sea change in food writing, media, and thought over the past decade has been a thorough disregard of the snob. Foodies love Popeye’s now. A lot of that is because of Chang and chefs like him, who used their careers to prove there was space to love the lowbrow.
Chang’s brand has always been doing what others says he can’t. In a 2007 New York profile, Chang said he provided only one vegetarian option at Momofuku because “I don’t like people telling me what to do.” At the time, many called it a welcome instance of a chef serving exactly what he wanted to in the face of diners insisting on endless modifications. Then, and now, it was also a dick move. “There does seem to be a resentment-driven personality pathology going on here, accumulating insults in order to justify lashing out at imaginary strangers 24/7,” wrote Rob Patronite and Robin Raisfeld. “Or maybe it's just because that's what interviewers all ask about now that he's become ‘angry Chang’ in the PR world.”
He defines himself against the haters, whether that’s innate or because he knows that’s what pays the bills. But, at least when it comes to celebrating the kind of food he showcases on Ugly Delicious, the haters are no longer the majority. Everyone agrees that Taco Bell serves a purpose; no one is arguing with him. A decade ago, this show would have been a challenge to the establishment from a rebellious young chef. Now, David Chang is the establishment. Maybe, one day, he’ll enjoy it.