Complexities on Our Plates: A Review of the Netflix Series "Ugly Delicious"
Netflix's "Ugly Delicious" hosted by chef David Chang, which premiered in 2018, is a food show that does not shy away from the complexities on our plates. Chang presents himself as the audience’s unknowing guide on food adventures all over the world. The show has the casual atmosphere of Netflix’s “Street Food” series, combined with the inquisitiveness of “Chef's Table”. “Ugly Delicious” has sentimental quality but also explorative freedom.
Ugly Delicious dives deeper, discussing gender and identity through food. The show includes conversations between David Chang and the show's many guests, who include chefs, celebrities, and food writers. The show includes a personal lens on David Chang’s family through fatherhood. The show’s perspective then expands when Chang travels to new cities and countries, where he is a self-aware tourist ready to learn new things. Episodes including “Tacos” discuss intersections between the influence of Arab cuisine in Mexico. The episode couldn’t be complete without a trip to a Taco Bell drive-thru.
Season 2’s episode “Steak” discusses gender norms through the American staple of steak. The episode argues that as plant-based diets have become more popular in America and ideas about gender have changed, while steak still has a platform, it is becoming a relic of a past generation. Dr. Emily Contois, a media studies professor at the University of Tulsa, discusses why steak is considered stereotypically masculine and shows commercials that use this theme in their branding. The episode even features an outing with David Chang and his friends to an Outback Steakhouse to test the waters of whether a quality steak can be enjoyed on a budget. The answer, in short, is yes.
Season 2's episode "Don't Call It Curry", which focuses on Indian food, features the history and complexity of Indian cuisine. The show discusses how England has embraced Indian food, including the growth of Indian restaurants in London in the 20th century. The show features Padma Lakshmi, who discusses Indian food’s influence in the United States. The show features Indian-American casual dining and outdoor food markets in India. This episode features David Chang discussing representation with food writers. Food and Wine editor Khushbu Shah said in the discussion, “Publications are happy to run four stake stories in a row, but you used to pitch them an Indian story and they were like, ‘Oh, we ran one last month.” The food writers expressed how they want American food publications to see Indian food as everyday cooking the way they see it.
The last episode of Season 2 focuses on the complexities of Middle Eastern cuisine in the United States. The episode begins by explaining how localized Middle Eastern dishes are. Chef Reem Assil discusses the importance of attaching culture to cuisine. She stated, “People have taken our foods, but they’ve left us behind...It’s really important that our food is called Palestinian, because that is a marker of our ethnic identity.” She goes on to discuss that she was inspired to tell the story of her family’s heritage through bread, and how lucky she feels because she found a calling.
Like several art forms in our modern age, the show’s hosts have been met with criticism, not at the series “Ugly Delicious”, but over their alleged past tempers during their careers. Writer Hannah Selinger, in her article “Life was not a Peach” in Eater, writes that David Chang allegedly created a toxic work culture with their explosive tempers. Hannah Selinger worked for David Chang as a beverage director for several months in 2008, then was fired without explanation. Her sub-headline to the story reads, “David Chang’s white-hot fury defined most of his career. But as an employee on the receiving end of that rage, the book fails to account for the trauma he caused me.” She describes that Chang allegedly had a terrible temper, and was prone to punch walls, break desks, and scream violent threats.
A separate article in Eater, written by Meghan McCarron, titled "The Boundary Pusher" accounts that Peter Meehan, food editor for the Los Angeles Times and a co-conspirator for "Ugly Delicious" allegedly also had an explosive temper and created a hostile work environment (separate from his work on "Ugly Delicious"). Meehan apologized on Twitter with his resignation, detailed in an Eater article from July 2020 titled, "Peter Meehan Resigns from LA Times Food Section After Allegations of Creating a Toxic Workplace Culture". Chang offered his apology in the piece “Life was Not a Peach”. Chang stated, “The bottom line is that I’m sorry. I’m working to get better and repair my personal and professional relationships, but I also respect that the path to forgiveness does not exist on my terms. No one but me deserves to carry the burden of my past failings.”
These individuals should be held accountable for their alleged past failings, but the project of “Ugly Delicious” holds value in its mission. The series shows the humanity of food and the intersections of people and places, and the rich history of cuisines around the world. Its mission is that food tells a story.