Ugly Delicious

Ugly Delicious: More Than a Man

David Chang is a hypocrite. The internet is filled with comments criticizing his new show Ugly Delicious including statements like “Chang is an asshole…Show had a lot of potential but this guy is a bona fide tool.” Those comments are not wrong.

Chang is famous for superb food minus pretension. He frequently espouses praise for instant ramen. His restaurants defy classification into a single cuisine. Ugly Delicious is a pure distillation of his thesis: Tradition and reputation should not limit what can happen in a kitchen1)Ratatouille contains a similar theme found in Anton Ego’s review of Gusteau’s: “Last night, I experienced something new: an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto, ‘Anyone can cook.’ But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere.”.

The first episode features Chang arguing with Mark Iacono of Lucali about the foolishness of authenticity. In the fourth episode, Chang rails against New Orleans residents refusing to cook crawfish via any other method besides boiling. Episode five is about America needing to expand its definition of BBQ. And the highlight of episode seven is Chang demonstrating the foolishness of Westerners’ fears of MSG. Throughout the series, Chang rallies people to break tradition and their preconceived notions in order to try something new. That cause alone makes Ugly Delicious important television

But there are an equal number of times where Chang falls victim to his own prejudices. He disses the taco scene in LA. Chang refuses to try horse meat when in China. And the final episode is Chang pointlessly arguing that dumplings are better than stuffed pasta.

That hypocrisy, however, is what makes makes Ugly Delicious so spectacular because living up to ideals is not easy. In the words of Evey from V for Vendetta, “We are told to remember the idea, not the man, because a man can fail. He can be caught, he can be killed and forgotten, but 400 years later, an idea can still change the world.” But death is not the most common way a man can fail an idea; hypocrisy is. John Lennon beat his wife. Nelson Mandela was a terrorist in his younger years. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves.

Yet the ideas those men espoused still have merit. Lennon still wrote “Imagine”. Mandela still united a country. Jefferson is still an icon of democracy and freedom. Perfection is not a prerequisite for greatness nor rightness.

And yet David Chang is derided for his failure to live up to the perfect ideals that Ugly Delicious proclaims. Quite simply, this is bullshit for two reasons. First, Chang owns up to his flaws. The moments I mentioned earlier obviously make Chang look bad to anyone who sees them. Chang or any of the editors could have removed them to make Chang look better. But those scenes did not get cut. They are included because they tie back into the more important thematic message of the show: Don’t be afraid to try new and different things, or else you will look like this asshole on screen.

But even more importantly, Chang is growing and moving past those flaws of his. By the end of the final episode after arguing dumplings versus stuffed pasta for an hour, Chang admits:

I’ve been humbled. Because I was never understanding of the quality of the ingredients that goes into it, which is ultimately what makes Italian food Italian food. Whenever I’m making dumplings or eating dumplings, I’m never thinking about the quality of the ingredients. Can I eat a delicious dumpling? Yes. Is there a lot of craftsmanship that goes into a soup dumpling? 100%. But I can’t tell you about the provenance of the meat or the kind of crab or anything. I didn’t see it from your guys’ perspective. I can’t make dumplings the same vein of a tortellini. I just can’t merge cultures, right? That’s not my story to tell.

Nobody loses the debate; it ends with a stalemate. This is a moment of genuine growth from a person who has throughout the series demonstrated a stubbornness to open up to alternative ideas.

Real life is messier than fiction. People rarely change, and when they do, it is never in the form of neat little character arcs. Documentaries usually demonstrate this. OJ Simpson does not atone for his sins at the end of OJ: Made in America. But this is what makes Chang’s Netflix series so special and gives the work importance beyond just the culinary. Ugly Delicious is a documentary with character development.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Ratatouille contains a similar theme found in Anton Ego’s review of Gusteau’s: “Last night, I experienced something new: an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto, ‘Anyone can cook.’ But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

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