Chef and restaurateur David Chang has a way with words. His Momofuku culinary brand was named after the Japanese words for “lucky peach” with a nod to ramen inventor Momofuku Ando. But Chang has also acknowledged that it’s no accident that Momofuku sounds very similar to “motherfucker.”
Contained in that auspicious, delicious, and mischievous moniker are clues of what to expect in his Netflix food series with its own colorful name, “Ugly Delicious.” While each of the eight episodes focuses on one specific comfort food such as pizza or fried chicken, the series examines far more than just plating and recipes. The spotlight dish also serves as a tasty vehicle by which to examine historical and social issues, and hopefully build bridges across politics and continents.
Through the episode “Pizza,” the show dives into the concept of authenticity and whether that quality makes certain foods inherently better. A trip to Naples compares their strict guidelines for a true Neapolitan pizza to the pies it inspired in New York. Also, in what will no doubt be a controversial segment, the celebrated restaurateur — who has received multiple James Beard Awards and whose establishments have landed on Best Restaurants lists worldwide — admits that he likes Domino’s Pizza. And then he proceeds to go into a Domino’s kitchen and even make a few pizza deliveries.
“I view authenticity like a totalitarian state. It’s something that I think has been overvalued, but in reality it hasn’t been scrutinized enough,” says Chang. “It’s not that I hate authenticity, it’s that I hate that people want this singular thing that’s authentic.”
Similarly, the episode “Tacos” gives rise to questions about appropriation, “Shrimp and Crawfish” dives into fusion and identity, while “Fried Chicken,” “Fried Rice,” and “Stuffed” examine how slavery and racism color how people view certain foods today.
Fortunately, Chang has Oscar-winning documentarian Morgan Neville (“20 Feet From Stardom”) as his secret ingredient to achieve this ballsy and ambitious endeavor. Neville’s multidisciplinary approach to storytelling matches Chang’s break-all-the-rules mentality. Each episode careens through a number of different styles, including talking heads, cinéma vérité, drunken conversations shot on a phone, illustrations, animation, sitcom spoofs, and even a mock political debate, in which the opposing parties argue over which culture’s dumplings reign supreme. The flexible approach makes for a kinetic, humorous, and entertaining viewing experience.
Each episode is as dense as a Momofuku Milkbar compost cookie with elements ranging from the typical roundtable discussions and travelogue hallmarks to advice on how to pick a proper Chinese restaurant and more scripted bits. This is where Neville’s deceptively meandering storytelling style helps to alleviate some of the information overload, creating a looser and lighter tone. But a word of warning: Because of the crowded nature of each episode — which run between 45 minutes to an hour apiece — each installment is best savored solo, not to be binged, even if that is the Netflix way.
Adding extra spice to the conversation are foodie celebrity pals that include “Master of None’s” Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari, comedian Ali Wong, “The Walking Dead’s” Steven Yeun, “Love” star Gillian Jacobs, “Big Mouth’s” Nick Kroll, and Jimmy Kimmel. Their layman’s take on food and culture is a welcome entry point into certain topics, such as when Wong refers to the gelatinous soup cube that makes Din Tai Fung’s famous xiao long bao soup dumplings possible as “jelly jizz” to the owner of the restaurant chain.
Viewers who are more culinarily fluent will be happy to see familiar heavyweights from the world of gastronomy as well. Noma’s Rene Redzepi is a strong presence throughout the series, as are food writers Ruth Reichl and Peter Meehan, Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold, and Kogi BBQ truck creator Roy Choi, among dozens of others.
Netflix has already seen success with its food series ranging from the gorgeously shot “Chef’s Table” to the everyman charms of “Somebody Feed Phil.” Despite their different approaches, they have the common goal of opening up the world to viewers through the shared experience of food.
“Ugly Delicious” takes that agenda to greater heights, and the meaning of the title exemplifies an idea that Chang has become more enamored with over the years. Fine dining is all well and good, but the dishes that people remember, the ones that create that “Ratatouille” moment, are often the “uglier” comfort foods that people grew up eating. For some, it is chicken and dumplings or meatloaf. For Chang, it’s kimchee fried rice with Spam.
As someone who became a culinary rockstar in his mid-20s after launching Momofuku, Chang knows a thing or two about reading the temperature of the cultural climate. While “Ugly Delicious” explores today’s ills and challenges preconceptions, the idea of using “ugly delicious”-style foods could point the way forward to creating real meaningful understanding, and through that, change. In the very least, it provides plenty of food for thought.
All eight episodes of ”Ugly Delicious” are currently streaming on Netflix.