What on earth does ‘Ugly Delicious’ mean, I hear you ask – hypothetical audience out there. Well, the Netflix documentary ‘Ugly Delicious’ doesn’t bother with explaining itself, at first. The show opens totally cold. We have people chatting about food, presumably chefs, and the first episode ‘pizza’ explores not only recipes and techniques, but the cultural background and impact of immigration on both Italian and American cuisine.
Hosted by US celebrity chef, David Chang (owner of the Momofuku noodle and Asian food chain) this is a series that goes beyond ‘here’s some food you might want to make’. Instead it deals with each episode’s subject as an entertaining essay on the essence of deliciousness.
I admit I’m not much of a foodie. I love tasty food and I love cooking but I don’t follow what’s what in the business so I had no idea who David Chang was. Nor his contemporaries who flit in and out of the show. So whilst there was a ‘huh?’ moment in episode one due to the utter lack of intro based sequences, it quickly became apparent that such formalities are not necessary. Everything about ‘Ugly Delicious’ makes you feel at home and at ease and whilst some background on the presenters is nice and informative (when it comes) it isn’t essential.
Each episode goes for a general food area (‘tacos’, ‘shrimp and crawfish’, ‘bbq’) and instead of the traditional chef showing you how it’s done, we have a bunch of people chatting informally about their feelings about the food at hand. Such conversation blends the ingredients and process with the history and cultural influences behind each part. This makes for a much more information and, dare I say it, friendly, show. When we get a whole 45 minutes about fried rice and how it has been looked down upon, you straight up want to eat fried rice in the face of detractors in order to make a point!
In fact, social points like immigration and tradition versus natural progression get their fair share of discussions and balance. Is Mexican food still ‘Mexican’ when it’s been to Texas and back over three generations? Does it matter?
Yes, there is swearing and plenty of strong opinions throughout. But what ‘Ugly Delicious’ does so well is draw you in with a whole package. David Chang is a very engaging host. Constantly referred to by his contemporaries as a table thumper, on the show he is warm, engaging, and just, well, normal. This isn’t Gordon Ramsey shouting at people. This isn’t Jamie Oliver bloke-ing it up with some ooo and some aaaah and some ‘eres my mates. David Chang, despite all his success, talks like an old family friend you’ve invited round for dinner and drinks. American born from Korean parents, Chang has his cross to bear about his perceived misrepresentation of Asian / Korean food in America, but never to the point of extremis.
There are parts that feel a little forced. As a ‘Netflix Original Documentary’ there are plenty of link animation and graphic cards that continue the comforting nature. And yet some episodes feel the need to start with a ‘comedy bit’. A kind of mini-sketch that stands out poorly, because that’s not what ‘Ugly Delicious’ is about. I don’t want to begrudge them their fun, but I don’t want to see a 90s sit-com pastiche for the opening minute when the very essence of what makes the show so engaging is the utter lack of facade. These are well informed people doing segments in Tokyo, Los Angeles, Houston, Bologne, Copenhagen, Bejing, and so on.
Part of the approachability is that the series does not dismiss the influence of the fast food and restaurant chain business. An episode on fried chicken will deal with KFC. The opening Pizza episode has extensive talk about Dominos, to the point where Chang shadows production and delivery. Taco Bell, McDonalds, etc. there is a lack of snobbery present. Obviously there is appreciation of higher quality, but the influence of the global business is not eradicated either.
‘Ugly Delicious’ feels like a Vice show that is less forced punk. Less elitist whilst not being false mass appeal. “I guess what I hate,” says Chang, “is being told I can’t like something.” And whilst most foodie shows end up being all about the host, Chang’s own business is rarely discussed beyond the context of what’s being discussed.
When he talks to deep south business owners about the social history of something like fried chicken (and how he never appreciated how thorny the issue of race is in this simple food) he genuinely wrestles with the balance of simply wanting to eat versus appreciate the story of where delicious things have come from. When he rages that Korean cooking is unfairly ignored in ‘BBQ’ it isn’t preachy, but simply an engaging piece of television that has an angle that you can agree with or not depending on your taste.
I left each episode of ‘Ugly Delicious’ entertained, informed, and hungry. And whilst I have watched no end of direct ‘instruction recipe’ shows – and lazed in my pyjamas afterwards – I can tell you now that after the fried chicken episode, do you know what i did? I went home after work and I made some fried chicken. Not precisely like it was in the show, no. I just appreciated and wanted some fried chicken in whatever form I could do.
And that is where ‘Ugly Delicious’ has beaten any other food show that I’ve watched lately. It’s so…..human.
Oh, and by the way – ‘Ugly Delicious’ means (according to episode three – ‘Home Cooking’) food which is not prepped to fine dining presentation but instead just tastes bloody lovely. Amen to that.
Words by Michael Record