“Ugly Delicious” released all eight of its episodes on Feb. 23, 2018. Like “Chef’s Table” before it, the Netflix original series has become something of a sleeper hit, appealing to a diverse audience of foodies and non-foodies alike. But unlike “Chef’s Table,” which challenged the notion of what food programming could be, “Ugly Delicious” takes the genre a step further, arguing that what we eat, where we get it and at whose labor expense are political issues.
The show centers on Chef David Chang (of the delightful Momofuku restaurant chain) and his best friend Peter Meehan (a former New York Times food critic) exploring the histories behind different staples of American cuisine. It’s not unlike the travelogue format one would find on Food Network’s sister network, the Cooking Channel, under monikers like “United Tastes of America” or “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.” But where shows on Food Network and its ilk typically offer more facile versions of the histories behind their featured foods, Chang asks uncomfortable questions about the origins of the dishes we often take for granted.
"Ugly Delicious” argues that what we eat, where we get it and at whose labor expense are political issues.
For example, in Chang’s hands, an episode entitled “Fried Rice” becomes a deep dive into the 1900s “Yellow Peril.” Chang argues people who claim they are “allergic” to MSG are merely part of the vestigial tail of an unacknowledged racial prejudice. The episode “Fried Chicken” is a dive into African-America history and stereotypes, but it also explains how black people being perceived as a monolith leads to them actually refusing to eat certain foods in public.
Using his status as a first-generation American — his father was a North Korean refugee — Chang asks his diverse subjects innocent-sounding questions about race and the racial prejudices that inform the way we view certain dishes. His goal is to bring about a dialogue on immigration and assimilation, as well as what happens when the already-assimilated turn a blind eye to other minority groups.
At the same time, Chang also travels to parts of America that are ultra-conservative so interrogate communities that are politically and culturally traditional. In the episode “Shrimp and Crawfish,” which takes place in New Orleans and Houston, Chang argues with traditional chefs that being open to different types of food can bring communities together. He also notes that refusing to bend traditions actually limits your culinary experience — food that never changes is food that can never be improved.
Chang also notes that refusing to bend traditions actually limits your culinary experience — food that never changes is food that can never be improved.
Most people think of Netflix originals as consisting mainly of “event television” — shows that entice audiences with cliffhangers to watch all the episodes at once like last week’s “Jessica Jones.” But to sustain an audience of constant streamers Netflix needs to also work the long-tail angle. Many of Netflix’s splashy television series’ and movies — like “Altered Carbon” and “The Cloverfield Paradox,” for examples — are one-and-done watches. That works from a publicity angle. But how does one keep the broader Netflix audience coming back in between events?
This is where having a lineup of programs like one would find on Food Network or HGTV comes in. They may release all at once, but there’s no pressure to watch them right away, and the subjects are such that one can find them a year from now, and they’ll still be relevant. Plus, each episode is essentially self-contained.
Netflix doesn’t usually try to reinvent the wheel when it comes to most of their programming. (“The Crown” is their version of a PBS series, “House of Cards” is their version of an HBO series, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is their version of an NBC comedy, etc.) Its first major food TV hit, “Chef’s Table,” was merely a recasting of the “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” model that has proved so popular for the Food Network. Netflix refashioned the show for the crème de la crème of the food world, focusing on the best restaurants across the globe, substituting rock and roll with classic music and spikey-haired host Guy Fieri with the restaurants’ chefs telling their stories in their own words.
“Chef’s Table” is less political than something like “Ugly Delicious,” in part because of the political climate that birthed it: the latter half of the Obama administration. With a recovering economy and an increasingly global culture, the show took for granted values like inclusivity and diversity. Viewers would be open-minded and curious by default, the showrunners figured.
“Ugly Delicious” was filmed after Trump’s win in 2016, however, and this may explain why it’s messaging is so much more pointed and explicit. Many of the assumptions of the Obama era had just been shattered. And Chang wisely presumes little about the average viewer’s values. From the beginning, he focuses on the message of food as the ultimate assimilation tool. The restaurants he features to argue this notion play out against the backdrop of Trump’s ill-fated travel ban, the rise of white nationalism and the declining view of Americans in the wider world. (There’s a moment in “Fried Chicken” where Chang asks a family of African-American ex-pats running a soul food restaurant in Japan if they would rather be seen as “African” or “American” to their Asian customers. The matriarch of the family laughs: “You mean now?”)
"Ugly Delicious” was filmed after Trump’s win in 2016, however, and this may explain why it’s messaging is so much more pointed and explicit.
In perhaps the most remarkable episode, “Tacos,” Chang deliberates the way certain foods have become dissociated from the people and communities that originally brought them to this country. The episode jumps from one of the most popular Mexican restaurants in South Philly, which is run by a woman who walked across the desert border, to one of the most high-end restaurants in Mexico City, run by a chef who is banned from the United States for entering illegally too many times, to discussing the irony of white supremacists who think nothing of eating Mexican food. Chang openly wonders at times if the popularization of certain types of ethnic foods is enough to change the hearts and minds of those on the anti-immigrant side of the line. But it’s hard to argue with those who believe in the universality of sitting down to eat, or the idea that conversations about food can't spark secondary conversations about other topics.
Those in the prestige TV game like to talk about how they sold their show as one thing, when they really wanted to make a series about something else that they figured would never have been greenlit. This is sometimes called “Trojan Horsing.” “Orange Is The New Black” on Netflix is one of the best known examples of this: Showrunner Jenji Kohan “sold” the show as being about white protagonist Piper in order to be able to tell the stories of minority women who spend their lives in and out of prison. In the case of “Ugly Delicious,” food is the Trojan horse that opens up to reveal a thoughtful analysis of how many the immigrants being threatened with deportation today have already made lasting changes to our culture — through our taste buds.
At the same time, the show leaves those at home craving both more episodes and perhaps a late night trip for carry-out. It tells a beautiful story of America and how we got here, one taco at a time. Whether you’re a Food Channel addict or have never watched a cookie show in your life, “Ugly Delicious” offers something tasty for everyone.
Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. Regular bylines can be found at Elite Daily, WETA's TellyVisions, and Ani-Izzy.com.