David Chang’s latest program is as accessible and enjoyable as documentary series get.
We don’t review a lot of cooking shows on Nonfics. Maybe never before. There are so many of them, and a lot are good to downright addicting. Personally, I still get excited for a new season of Top Chef and can watch almost anything among the basic instructional to food-based travel to competitive cooking to in-depth infotainment style series involving the culinary arts and their appreciation. I’ve sort of taken them for granted, and I tend to think they’re above reviewing in terms of their popularity and, honestly, below reviewing in terms of critical recognition. So, for me to want to write about Ugly Delicious means it really stands out.
The Netflix Original series has a lot of notable names in documentary behind it, including creator Morgan Neville, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind 20 Feet From Stardom, and producer Eddie Schmidt, an Oscar nominee for Twist of Faith. They both direct segments and episodes of the eight-part series, as does City of Gold helmer Laura Gebbert and Romeo Is Bleeding’s Jason Zeldes. On the food famous side, chef David Chang, whom a lot of viewers should know from The Mind of a Chef, which is also now on Netflix, and writer Peter Meehan are also producers as well as the main on-screen talents. Major guests range from chef Rene Redzepi to actor/comedian Aziz Ansari to street artist David Choe to food critic and City of Gold subject Jonathan Gold.
Chang is the primary host, and the whole idea behind Ugly Delicious would seem to be his idea, despite Neville’s creator credit. The Momofuku founder guides us through the program with constant but not overly explicit reminder that food doesn’t have to be fancy and beautiful to be great, even through the lens of television. Yes, pretty dishes and exquisite mise-en-place make for better close-ups on a visual medium, especially considering audiences can’t savor the smells or tastes of the food they’re seeing. But by being so unpretentious about cuisine and technique and by being the most fun show involving cooking and culinary education since Good Eats, this manages to be the most accessible series for all audiences, from the most hardcore foodies to anyone with working taste buds and a thirst for knowledge.
In the very first episode, Ugly Delicious focuses on the most easily appealing of foods: pizza. They showcase everything from the acclaimed pies of Lucali in Brooklyn and Frank Pepe in New Haven to the strictness of The True Neapolitan Pizza Association in Naples, Italy, to the creative reinventions of Japan’s Ryu Yoshimura, Italian outsider Franco Pepe, and California pizza co-creator Wolfgang Puck. And even to Domino’s, of which Chang, a Michelin-rated chef, admits to being a fan and to ordering regularly. Between that focus on the common people’s as well as the snobbier crowd’s preferred varieties of what’s pretty much the same kind of food, the series immediately shows a respectful inclusivity of taste.
In the next episode, focused on tacos, you can bet a group led by Meehan goes from the food trucks of Los Angeles to a local Taco Bell drive-thru for comparison. There’s not as much love for the fast food option this time, but there is acknowledgment of the chain’s appeals while also detailing its origins from copying authentic Mexican food and turning traditional menu staples into cheap, mass-produced items of all shapes and snack-powdered flavors. Ugly Delicious doesn’t follow the same formula for every installment, however, moving from there into celebrations of home cooking, fried chicken, and a lot of comparisons between Asian and Western takes on the same dish concepts.
This might not be your parents’ food show, especially given the amount of profanity allowed since this isn’t airing on PBS or any commercial network. But even as hip as it can get, from its music by Money Mark to its dip into the weird comedy of Eric Wareheim, it’s not to be overlooked by the more conventional crowd. Ugly Delicious still delivers the comforts of old-fashioned food show staples, such as visits to some of the finest restaurants in the world (including Redzepi’s Noma in Copenhagen), the tear-filled enlightenments of hidden gems (such as Tokyo’s Masakichi), and the adorable charms of moms of famous chefs who are still making dishes, appreciably so, that best honor their culture and customs and which include love as a main ingredient.
Chang and Meehan are perfect hosts for such a program, as they’re obviously experts to a degree but never come off as supreme authorities. Chang in particular is a combination of teacher and student, sometimes a guide and sometimes a proxy for us to encounter people and places and their foods with wonder and amazement and, usually, an absolute openness (but he won’t try donkey). As notable and knowledgeable as he is, Chang is something of a middle man between leading authorities like Chinese cuisine specialists Fuschia Dunlop and Jennifer 8. Lee, plus the personally proficient cooks like Chang’s mother and various BBQ pit masters, and the regular folks like Jimmy Kimmel, actress Gillian Jacobs, and those of us watching at home.
With a lot of food shows out there, it’s nice to get new episodes or seasons of their consistently constructed travelogues or tutorials or challenges, but with Ugly Delicious you’re constantly surprised by new directions it goes in or devices it utilizes for added enjoyment. And you’re sure to want a second helping when you’ve devoured all eight parts that have been put up all at once on Netflix. Are there other foods and food topics that could be explored in this show, you’ll wonder, so we get a second season? The show seems to have it all covered with regards to the concept of and the concentration on the ugly and the delicious. But I want some more, please. You will, too.