“Home cooking. What I call ‘ugly delicious’ food, has now become the food I want to make in the restaurant.”
Those are the words of celebrated Chef David Chang, the host of Netflix’s new culinary docu-series Ugly Delicious. The world-renowned chef who once worked for the likes of Daniel Boulud, dazzled Manhattan many moons ago when he opened up a noodle bar. Years later, the Korean-American’s Momofuku restaurant family has expanded beyond Manhattan to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, DC, Sydney and Toronto.
The James Beard Award Winning Chef teamed up with Academy Award Winner Morgan Neville to create a Netflix original documentary series that challenges both our tastes buds and minds. Chef Chang’s enthusiasm for celebrating “ugly delicious” food (the dishes we crave and eat at home but that don’t traditionally make it onto Michelin starred fine dining menus), has him zig-zagging across the globe in eight thematic episodes, each dedicated to discussing a different dish.
Over the course of the series Chef Chang meets with chefs, activists, writers and artists, all who use food to break down cultural barriers, tackle misconceptions and uncover shared experiences. Ugly Delicious ventures out of polished kitchens into the wider world to explore the best tacos from Mexico to Copenhagen, the unique history of Viet-Cajun cuisine in Houston, and quirky Neapolitan Pizza in Tokyo.
Ugly Delicious is not your typical food documentary. The satisfying meat of each episode focuses on the culture around each food (why we eat it, how it got here, how people perceive the food in society etc…), featuring fascinating backstories on the origins of each dish and how they’re now being interpreted by chefs around the world.
Here’s a rundown of the highlights from each finger-licking-good episode of Ugly Delicious.
Episode 1: Pizza
Chef Chang starts by feasting at his favourite pizzeria in Brooklyn, then heads to Tokyo to dine with comedian Aziz Ansari at a restaurant which has interpreted the famous dish through a Japanese lens (wasabi cream base topped with high quality tuna sashimi).
In Naples we learn about how Neapolitan pizza (considered the world’s most authentic) is overseen by an association which states that pies must only include specific Italian ingredients. A discussion arrises over whether the world’s best pizza ingredients should be ordained by a group of Italian’s with business interests in the hawking of cheese or whether it is better to act like Italians and focus on sourcing quality and fresh ingredients closer to the kitchen?
A famous pizza chef from NYC exclaims, “just because it’s from Italy doesn’t mean it’s better. They invented it, Italian American’s perfected it.” Chef Chang also shares a slice with Wolfgang Puck in LA (whose creative toppings would be considered blasphemy in Italy), hops on a ride with a Domino’s Pizza delivery guy, and quips over thin crust flammkuchen, the Alsatian-style pizza.
Episode 2: Tacos
The versatility of tacos are explored when Chef Chang meets with a female chef from Noma in Copenhagen who is doing her best to share her own Mexican culinary culture in Denmark’s capital. Later in the episode we travel with the Noma team for a popup in Mexico where she hires a group of local woman known for their authentic tortilla making skills.
This tale of taco’s takes an emotional and politician turn when we meet a celebrated barbacoa chef in Philadelphia who risks being deported in Trump’s America even though she’s been ranked as running one of the city’s best restaurants with the help of her American husband.
We also meet an award winning chef in Mexico City working at a Michelin restaurant who was deported from the States and fears he’ll never have the opportunity to return. It’s in LA where Chang has the most fun, gobbling up Korean fusion tacos out of a famous food truck, arguing over the legitimacy of America’s hard shell taco, and even zooming through a Taco Bell drive thru.
Episode 3: Home Cooking
This is my favourite episode out of the bunch and begins with a montage of famous chefs talking about memories they have of their moms cooking in the kitchen. We are then launched into a history of Momofuku Noodle Bar, and meet the food editor at the LA Times who was the first to review Chef Chang’s restaurant (and became such good friends with David that he decided to take a pass on restaurant criticism and went on to become a business partner as the editor of Momofuku’s foodie magazine Lucky Peach).
We get an adorable behind the scenes look into Chef Chang’s personal life as he goes grocery shopping with his mother in preparation for Thanksgiving.
The highlight: when David flies with his wife to Copenhagen to share dinner with Rene Redzepi (of Noma fame) and dines with his family in their home. We see an interesting spotlight on Rene’s wife, who is a foodie herself and uses her talented husband as a resource on how to prepare dinner for their family. I couldn’t help but feel jealous as I saw the two couples feasting together. Wildly wishing in another life I could be one of Redzepi’s well fed, beautiful blond children.
Episode 4: Shrimp and Crawfish
In New Orleans we’re introduced to the Creole Crawfish Boil, where locals swear by a tried tested and true recipe. Next Chang heads to Houston where he learns about the city’s Vietnamese immigration story (thousands moved here after the war). Many argue that Houston’s “Viet-Cajun Crawfish” are superior to NOLA’s classic recipe as the Vietnamese made it their own, adding garlic, butter, ginger and lemongrass.
One can’t help but laugh when David finds himself arguing with a Vietnamese restaurant owner in New Orleans who says locals won’t eat fusion like in Houston. We look at a map of the Mississippi and Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, which immediately illustrates how the two regions look the same. It helps us understand why when the Vietnamese moved to America they took up jobs on fishing boats as they were already familiar with how to fish under similar conditions.
Vietnamese fisherman tell horrifying stories about when they first arrived and were greeted by KKK members picketing in front of their boats. In Ho Chi Minh we find inspiration in a female chef (a Vietnamese immigrant who grew up in America) who has returned to Vietnam to offer Viet-Cajun fusion, using local River Prawn rather than crawfish or shrimp.
Episode 5: BBQ
Chef Chang explores America’s obsession with BBQ and how tribalistic each state is over the preparation and ritual of cooking meat over a flame. In Illinois David meets with an acclaimed pitmaster who helps explain the various styles of BBQ across America.
We even visit a Pitmaster Conference where America’s top BBQ experts meet to share local techniques and tricks. In LA David visits one of the city’s most famous Korean BBQ restaurants and jokes about how most Americans wouldn’t even consider it barbecue because its preparation doesn’t involve smoking.
He then travels outside of America to see how BBQ is enjoyed around the world. Rene at Noma prepares fine dining BBQ using Danish Red Currant Tree branches, in Beijing they indulge in Chinese street meat (with David gagging over BBQ donkey before giggling with glee over Peking Duck), and in Japan we see one fastidious chef prepare meat for a petite charcoal barbecue.
The highlight is when we see David head back to America to feast at a humble restaurant run by a grandmother who has been ranked as running the number one BBQ restaurant in Texas, she tears up saying “who knew an old bunch of girls cooking would get so much attention.”
Episode 6: Fried Chicken
Fried chicken is one of the world’s most popular comfort foods and plays an important role in African American culinary history. David starts in Tokyo where he shows viewers that every convenience store in Japan offers deep fried chicken to grab and go guests and also visits an African American duo serving Soul Food in Tokyo (locals love their rendition of Chicken & Waffles).
In Nashville we learn about the city’s speciality “hot fried chicken,” which comes covered in a spicy glaze and can be found on every restaurant menu whether in a basket or topped on a pizza or pasta. David meets with a professor specializing in African American studies who explains that fried chicken in itself is a socio-political statement as for many years poor African American’s could only keep chickens on their property as they weren’t allowed to raise pork or beef. They decode what appears like an innocent Popeyes Chicken TV ad where a black woman with a friendly Southern accent sells vintage charm and perpetuates a stereotype that today so many people are trying to break (David even mentions he knows famous African Americans who refuse to eat fried chicken when appearing on television). We see how everyday references to fried chicken can easily be interpreted as coded racism (one clip featuring a white golfer hating on Tiger Woods early on in his career will make you cringe).
We also meet a celebrated African American chef in Seattle who discusses his hesitation in featuring the dish at his restaurant as he wants to be regarded as a great chef not a great cook who prepares Soul Food. The issue of white cooks appropriating minority culinary traditions is highlighted back in Nashville as Chef Chang chats to a team of successful white chefs who have opened a Hot Fried Chicken restaurant inspired by black-owned restaurants which are located in poor areas of the city. They discuss how black owners can’t afford rent in the downtown areas of most American city’s and once a minority staple becomes trendy it’s white people who prosper and the inventors who lose out.
Episode 7: Fried Rice
Chang begins by extolling the comfort one gets from enjoying a simple bowl of fried rice. We then learn that there are more Chinese restaurants in American than all major fast food franchises combined.
We find David back in Bejing with a caucasian food expert who takes him to a famous restaurant to eat authentic Chinese food. She hilariously teases Chang about trying “weird Chinese foods,” and for most who assume top chefs to be up for trying anything (hat tip to Anthony Bordain) we soon see Chang squirming as he’s forced to eat tendon and sea cucumber (which he ultimately spits into a napkin before profusely apologizing to the chef who watches silently a stones throw away). The juxtaposition is a funny one, as a white woman up for eating anything has to school Chang on the fact that the Chinese people love slimy and slippery textures while Americans prefer crispy fried foods.
Back in New York we meet food critic Ruth Reichl (formerly NYT) who talks about her first days at the paper and how she wanted to change reviews from simply covering high end European fare to also including humble Chinese restaurants serving authentic Hong Kong cuisine. We hear stories of how Asian kids struggle to assimilate to American culture (you’ll make no friends at lunch if you eat stinky tofu or kimchi) as well as how coded racism is used everyday to demean Chinese food.
Experts say that American’s who haven’t traveled to Asia don’t understand that Chinese food (which at home is always considered a cheap takeaway option) requires the same refined skills and quality ingredients as any French restaurant and that in China you can enjoy everything from affordable street food to royal cuisine served in opulent banquet halls.
In Knoxville we learn that many Chinese chefs dumb down their recipes (especially the spice factor) for American mouthes, yet many Chinese restaurants in America have secret menus for Chinese families looking for a more authentic dining experience. In Las Vegas Chef Chang dines at Caesar’s Palace and learn that the city is now the best place in America to eat authentic Chinese as the luxury hotels have had to cater to the tastes of wealthy Chinese tourists who now come here on holiday.
The story ends in Toronto, as David explains “the city has six China Towns,” which has him heading north to Markham (a well-known Chinese suburb) where he eats a massive lobster tower with former Globe & Mail food critic Chris Nuttall-Smith.
Episode 8: Ravioli or Dumplings
The final tale in Ugly Delicious is a hilarious debate which seeks to determine who does it better: Italy’s ravioli or Asia’s dumpling. Essentially “who did it first over who does it best,” East vs West. David plays off an old pal (they used to work at Cafe Boulud together), an Italian chef who manages the kitchen at Four Seasons Hotel New York who argues that Italian stuffed pasta is far superior to Asia’s dumplings.
In Modena David meets with acclaimed Chef Massimo Bottura (of Osteria Francescana fame) to learn the fine art of tortellini making. The little packets of dough are sublime and he even comments that parmigiano has one of the worlds most fascinating umami flavours. They hilariously discuss a tortellini row that the people of Bologna have had with Modena for centuries (they’re sister city’s) which reminds me of similar patriotic pride shared over beer in Cologne and Dusseldorf via Altbier and Kolsch.
In Toronto he eats samosa, Shanghai dim sum, and Tokyo gyoza, but while at Michelin starred Benu he finds happiness in a foie gras stuffed Xiaolongbao (an upscale rift on the popular Shanghainese soup dumpling). David exclaims that the soup dumpling is the best on earth, and meets with comedian Ali Wong at Taiwan’s Din Tai Fong to learn how each of the iconic dumplings are properly pinched.
The story ends on a high note when David visits a humble granny in China who makes dumplings in a tiny space with no running water or electricity. He marvels at the amount of time and energy she puts into making her dumplings, prepared over a rickety wood burning stove with cabbage she grows in her own garden.