by Megan Mulligan
Photography courtesy of Netflix
Writing about food is useless. There are so many ways you can make a pizza, for example—with pineapple and chopped garlic, with white beans and pesto sauce—but only so many words to describe it. That’s why writing about people talking about food is interesting; it’s a meta-criticism of how effective they are in describing the process of making food.
“Ugly Delicious” is David Chang’s first show since 2005, and follows restaurant Momofuku’s owner and head chef as he explores different cultural dishes that have been, in a way, appropriated by American culture: pizza, tacos, barbecue. Chang, with his gang of celebrities like Aziz Ansari and food and culture writers, travel to hole-in-the-wall family restaurants, high-end fashion-dining eateries and fast food chains to explore things that are lost in translation when ethnic dishes become part of American dining.
“Ugly Delicious” doesn’t showcase different “Best Pizzerias in New York” or “The Best Taco I Ever Had When I Was Visiting My Aunt in LA.” It doesn’t boast, it doesn’t put grease truck against grease truck—all restaurants and food service joints have their own cultural influence, from the cheapest delivery service to a $300 per plate, seven course meal.
The signature dishes Americans take for granted, from tacos to fried chicken to stuffed ravioli, all have their own cultural relevance, either in “home countries” or as watered-down versions created by immigrants to make a living in the United States.
Although contradictory, this phrase sums up much of the first episode of “Ugly Delicious,” and sets a preview for the episodes to come. Chang is a food lover, and one of those food-lovers who becomes so obsessed that it goes beyond a way to make a living—it becomes their life. This show is Chang’s way of expressing the perspective he tries to bring to his work: an understanding of both what customers want to eat and what the cultural roots for the dish truly call for.
“Too often in foodie culture, people just want to eat,” his co-host Gustavo Arellano said as they headed to one taco stand or another. “They don’t want to think about what they eat.”
“Ugly Delicious” is Chang’s go-to hashtag for all his favorite comfort foods, and is supposed to reference a feeling of homeliness and comfort from less-than-glamorous food. “Ugly” yet “delicious” food could mean spam and eggs, enchiladas or Hamburger Helper. There is something about these foods that may make it “ugly” to other people (especially cultural dishes with pungent spices), but they’re still delicious.
Each episode takes a deeply personal look at the cultural relevance of the episode’s particular “food” topic. When Chang and friends travel through Los Angeles and Mexico City to find tacos, they go from meeting with first-generation American restaurant owners to a high-profile chef and undocumented immigrant.
Small businesses and family owned restaurants are the focus of “Ugly Delicious” and make the show intriguing; rather than tell a cut-and-dry story of the history of a dish, or the cultural root, Chang explores the meaning of food through the people who make it. And these people are not Michelin-star chefs—they’re Korean prawn shop owners who boil their wares on the street; they’re fourth-generation New York City pizza makers; they’re hunters teaching their own classes on barbecue for the love of it.
“One reason why I got into food was sort of that, I think,” Chang said as he shared a pizza with a lesser-known shop owner, “[Becoming your own chef is] a form of rebellion, and sort of badass.”
“Ugly Delicious” is enjoyable because everything seems “badass” to Chang. The first generation American (turned expat running a taqueria in the Netherlands) is as fascinating to him as the Dominos delivery driver. What makes a cheap corner store pizza slice appealing to one person is just as valid as whatever makes a $60 sushi platter appealing to someone else. The “guilt” of a “guilty pleasure” is a farce, and “Ugly Delicious” unravels the idea that food we love should also make us feel bad.
You can make a pizza ten thousand ways, but the English language only has so many words to help someone describe it. Food writing often comes up short, and misses the intricacies of cooking or menu curation that would make a piece otherwise worthwhile. “Ugly” and “delicious” are the perfect words to describe food—any kind of food.