For Better or Worse, Netflix’s ‘Ugly Delicious’ is all about David Chang

The TV spiritual successor of Lucky Peach has plenty of merit, but also a lot more of the celebrity chef

by Philbert Dy

 

Lucky Peach was a food magazine with an attitude. How could it not be? It was infused with the spirit of one of its founders, David Chang, the Korean-American chef and self-proclaimed culinary rebel who made his name in the industry with his vocal distaste for tradition and convention. This sense of general irreverence and ego certainly made its way into the pages of the magazine, but it was clearly tempered with an editorial direction that favored thoughtfulness in celebrating all things food. It wasn’t just about saying outrageous things and doing things for the sake of doing them, though that was certainly there. But it became remarkable for how it harnessed print as a medium to present a vast picture of what it is to really love making and consuming food.

 

Some of the philosophy that made Lucky Peach great is in David Chang’s new Netflix show, Ugly Delicious. It even takes some of the same format: each episode is themed, built around a single kind of dish. Episode one is pizza. The second is tacos, and so on. Like Lucky Peach, it at times breaks things up with little humorous vignettes that are more graphic than text. But though the show does seem to stem from the now-defunct magazine, and despite the fact that many of its contributors even show up to take part in the proceedings, the show somewhat falls short of capturing the same open spirit presented in print.

 

 

And a lot of this probably has to do with how much more Chang we get in the show. It’s part of the medium, of course. A TV show needs anchors, and Chang really is the driving force of this whole endeavor. And while Chang is often a compelling presence, the chef can sometimes have this paradoxically narrow view of what cuisine should be. It isn’t really articulated in the show, but it emerges as a series of contradictions: authenticity is overrated, but don’t dare remix Korean food. Chefs are rebels who shouldn’t care what other people think, but in the show, Chang seems to surround himself with a culinary establishment that reinforces a sense of belonging. The more Chang plays the rebel, the more tedious the show can get.

 

Having said that, there are genuine pleasures in the show. There is really something to watching New York pizzaiolo Mark Iacono have his world opened up by being sent to other places to experience other styles that he previously dismissed. Iacono is just as brash and opinionated as Chang, but in the show it feels like he’s at the beginning of a journey, rather than the culmination of one. The show is also remarkable for breaking out of the comfort zone of the food travel show by exploring race in one of its episodes. It must be noted, however, that for all of its celebrating of the diversity available in the food scene, it hardly affords that same approach to the people who end up on screen.

 

 

Ultimately, the show still works as a project that tries to expand the conception of what a certain type of food could be. The context can just make it a little wearying. There is plenty of merit to Chang’s approach to food, but there is only so much of that vocal bravado that one might be able to take. Because after a while, it feels like it isn’t about the food anymore. The show becomes about Chang, his presence at times overwhelming, his apparent need to continue breaking down barriers he’s already crossed a cause for weariness.