David Chang is nothing if not a busy man, even in the midst of a global pandemic. The founder of the Momofuku restaurant group might have stepped back from day-to-day, restaurant decision-making, but he remains a considerable presence on the food and pop culture scene, with two podcasts, a new cookbook — “Cooking at Home: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Recipes (And Love My Microwave), co-written with New York Times food reporter Priya Krishna — releasing next week, and a brand new documentary series with Morgan Neville, “The Next Thing You Eat” on Hulu.
This is not the first collaboration for Neville and Chang, who worked together on the Netflix nonfiction series “Ugly, Delicious,” which featured the chef exploring a single dish, be it tacos or pizza or fried chicken, and the history and regional evolution that each meal has undergone since its inception.
But on the surface, “The Next Thing You Eat” has its eyes fixed on the future of food, as opposed to the past. (Though Chang would be quick to caution that one of the best ways to prepare for the future is through studying what’s come before.) With six 30-minute episodes, the series keeps a tight focus on challenges facing food now and in the years to come — overfishing, the restaurant industry, the biological burden of burgers — while balancing the grave implications each issue presents with promising paths forward. The series asks questions that really do make you think, both about how and why you consume the food that you do, and what that means in the bigger picture.
And it’s not just ecological concerns being brought to the table. In a moderately mind-blowing episode titled “Breakfast: An Illusion of Choice,” the series unpacks the myth of American breakfast, how it came to be defined by a small number of foods, and who decides what constitutes a breakfast food. Also, there is a commercial introducing your new favorite breakfast mascot: Pho Man. You’ll never look at Pop-Tarts the same way.
IndieWire recently sat down with Chang (virtually) to discuss the new series and how to hold on to hope when the future looks so dark. The following conversation has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.
IndieWire: How did you and Morgan Neville work together to shape the series?
David Chang: When the world started to shut down in March of 2020, I talked to Morgan because he’s my friend, just as you’d do with any friend. That’s how it all happened, just filling him in, and we went down that rabbit hole. Morgan’s always a great storyteller and he wanted to present Hulu with the idea and they gave us the freedom to figure it out as we were going along. As difficult as it was with the pandemic and production, one of the things that emerged was, as terrible as it was, and in some ways still is, we were able to see just how fast technology was changing culture in all facets. It was the idea of what was normally happening in a 10 to 15 year period was happening in a matter of several months, and that’s what led us to talk to the gatekeepers, the journalists, entrepreneurs, and technologists, about what they might have in store for what’s around the corner. That was a breath of fresh air because I was hesitant to do this unless there was genuine hope, because it was a so, so, so hard early on.
Was it a conscious choice to do 30-minute episodes? It really is an eminently consumable show.
That’s something that emerged in the process of making and editing the series. For me, first, it was to not get bogged down; to leave things in a place where it was more informational and less prescriptive for the future. While we do hold some strong opinions about what we think might happen, we’re not telling people what they should be doing. It was more focused on gathering information and sharing it. Secondly, I think the faster pace of the episodes makes it less serious, particularly with the current state of things.
I think it just worked out better. Clearly, we filmed a lot, especially when we were allowed to film in a safer manner. [The series] could have been a lot of different things and I think this was the best result, to keep it in a space where people are excited to learn. Not to make something definitive, but to inspire curiosity and start a conversation. Because we easily could have done 10 hours on cultivated meats. It could have been like a Ken Burns documentary. Instead, it’s an amuse-bouche.
If there is a villain in “The Next Thing You Eat,” it would almost be capitalism in general, which can often bludgeon the humanity and social responsibility out of a society. Is that a foe that can really be overcome?
This is a place that could have been a much lengthier conversation. I think the best way I could describe it is, we’re all a part of the capitalist structure. The good and the bad of capitalism, we don’t have to go over the bad, but you see people, whether it was a farmer or fisherman, there are people who are trying to do it the right way; people trying to make a conscious choice, that might be contrarian. The good of capitalism is that you have the freedom to make a decision about how you want to run your business and where you want to spend your dollars.
One thing to be aware of, though, is how much you’re being force-fed information. The breakfast episode is a good example of that. The best part of capitalism — and I say that cautiously — is that you have potentially unlimited choice. And if that’s the road we’re going to pursue, why are we presenting ourselves with such limited choices?
In my work covering TV and pop culture, there is an obsession with nostalgia. It’s a powerful entity and I found myself thinking about it a lot during the breakfast episode. If you’ll forgive another speculative question, how powerful do you think Big Cereal is and do you think people, specifically the generations raised on Saturday morning cartoons, have the capacity to step back from Captain Crunch and Pop-Tarts and reconsider what they’ve always done?
I’m not an economist or someone who knows a lot about the advertising industry or marketing or anything like that. But clearly, there’s a strong tie. And I love cereal. I love Fruity Pebbles. I love Lucky Charms. I love Golden Grahams. I love Captain Crunch Peanut Butter. It’s delicious. But when you think about it, why the hell is that breakfast? It makes no sense. The people I know that eat cereal as adults don’t eat cereal at breakfast. They eat it in-between meals, for a snack, or late at night. Sometimes I think about doughnuts. Why would I eat a donut for breakfast? There are just certain things that are told to you, but a Pop-Tart is not breakfast. A Pop-Tart is dessert. When you think about it, it’s so arbitrary. It’s so ridiculous and absurd. That’s why I thought Morgan’s idea for the Pho commercial was such a good one.
If people ever thought about it as much as we did, they’d probably watch that commercial and think, “That is absolutely stupid and ridiculous. I cannot believe that something like that would ever happen. That would never happen. You’re never gonna see a Pho Man.” But two things come out of that as a result. One is that Pho Man is just as ridiculous as Kool-Aid Man, just as ridiculous as Count Chocula, just as ridiculous as talking leprechauns, just as ridiculous as Captain Crunch. It’s totally insane, an animated Pho character. But why is that idea any more ridiculous than what you normally see for children’s cartoon commercials on Saturdays?
Secondly, what I hope people would contemplate is, if they can get past that first hurdle of, “Well, I can now understand that this is in the realm of possibility because it’s less absurd than a chocolate vampire,” the next thing to consider is, what would need to happen to create a reality where people would watch Pho Man and not think it’s weird?
People underestimate the power of marketing. And the series made me examine a lot of those preconceptions I was carrying around without realizing it, which feels like its intent.
I’m glad you see it that way. You just think about, what becomes accepted and what doesn’t? Why the hell are we taking Australian breakfast, avocado toast? Why, in 2021, when we’re celebrating the ability to choose? Breakfast is the one meal where we should actually eat whatever the hell we want. Why does it have to be prescribed? Who made this a thing? It’s so weird.
I think Danny Trejo had the right idea: Just slap a couple eggs on anything and it’s breakfast. Simple as that. That makes sense to me.
Those were some of the wisest words anyone’s ever said. And I hope that we’re able to figure out how to put that entire interview somewhere online. [Danny Trejo] was amazing. God damn, he’s had an amazing life. I want him to run for governor of California.
There was a moment in the burgers episode where Will Harris, a sustainable cattle farmer says, “In nature, there is no waste” that really resonated with me — reframing a truth that I already knew but helping me to see it with new eyes. Were there moments during the filming of the series that rocked you back a bit? That caught you off-guard and stayed with you in the days and weeks and months to follow?
So much of it. I think about it a lot in the ways you described: Seeing what’s potentially around the corner has fundamentally altered how I think about things. What are the givens? And that’s what I hope the show does. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, we might be completely wrong about a lot of these things — totally, 100 percent wrong. But between now and whatever the hell unfolds, why don’t we prepare by talking about it? The repercussions, the good and the bad, the paradox of it all.
One of the things I continue to think about is robotics. Ever since the show was edited, I continue to think about Detroit and the automotive industry, how robust that city was, and how things changed. Things were unionized and people needed to get paid more, and then automation enters. Things get automated to a degree and Detroit is still going through a lot of that turmoil. It was like, “Oh, holy shit, we can actually collect data from things happening in other parts of the world and other industries to see what’s around the corner, what’s in the future.” The patterns of how we’re going to engage with whatever happens down the road are not going to be so different.
I’ve been doing a lot more of my own analysis and homework about the automotive industry and how it affected workers and cars. Car production is better than ever, but it’s a lot more automated. But while it’s automated, you still have people there. Now it’s a human and a robot arm or a human and a couple robot arms, and that’s how it’s going. Part of you is not necessarily excited about it, but I am excited because we’re not getting rid of humans in our lifetime. It’s thinking more about the repercussions.
In a lot of professional kitchens, there are really advanced dishwashers that are very complicated to operate. They do extraordinary work, the work of three to five people, but you still need a human to operate it. If you didn’t have that dishwasher you would probably need to have five or more people on staff, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation about what happened when that technology was introduced and implemented. I never had a conversation with old chefs when the Robot Coupe — basically a professional-grade Cuisinart — was introduced and eliminated a lot of unnecessary chopping. So then, it was like, “OK, why don’t we study how that affected certain aspects of the industry?” Go back and talk to people about when they first saw automation introduced into kitchens. What were their feelings? What were the implications?
It was less about our future and more about studying how certain innovations affected the past, inquiring while we still have these people who experienced it, who have that data, to give us a better understanding. Again, it might not be perfectly accurate but you might be better prepared to see how a technology will integrate itself.
There are other things that you can’t predict, though, and for me that was the cultivated meats.
As much as I’d like to be vegan and vegetarian, I don’t have the willpower to do such a thing. I love the taste of meat too much. But cultivated meats present an interesting question to me. It’s been mathematically proven if we don’t change our needs, if we don’t protect sustainability, if we don’t produce more protein, we’re not going to feed enough people by the year 2050. We’re going to be deficient. We’re not going to get more land to do it, and it’s not like you’re going to be able to genetically engineer a better cow.
But we already have alternatives. We have things like vada pav, we already have vegetarian options that are delicious. I think those are going to be a much bigger part of our diet. At the same time, people aren’t gonna stop eating meat. That’s not gonna happen. And even if you’re vegetarian and you still do dairy, there is death in the dairy process. There is suffering. So I’ve been pondering it.
Think about Ahimsa, non-violence and suffering. Yes, I might be a little bit freaked out by a Frankenstein-like meat, but it will get to a place [of ready consumption] because it has no choice. We have no choice. It’s going to get cheap enough where you’re not going to notice the difference. And you might be against the idea of genetically engineering cells to create meat, but what if there was no suffering? No life was taken? No environmental degradation? You have a cheap, extremely safe, energy-efficient way to provide protein to people that want it. Once you start adding the pros and cons, it’s hard to argue against.
You may be against vertical farming, but I think we have no choice but to find a way to make it work. These are the questions I still wrestle with and I don’t have the answers but I think about, I want to know, to my Muslim friends, would you eat a lab-grown piece of pork or shellfish, that wasn’t a bottom-feeder? What happens? These are fucking crazy questions.
In that respect, I see why you went with 30-minute episodes. The series takes care to balance problems with potential solutions, but all the same, with the show tackling such dire issues, it’s possible some viewers might feel overwhelmed by the severity of the challenges humanity faces. How did you hold onto hope, personally, while filming? When delving into intractable issues, how did you keep the faith?
For me, it was quite simple. Talking to people where you genuinely believe in the change that they’re going to introduce, either technology or through advocacy or legislation. Like the gentlemen that started Foodnome: I think it’s a brilliant idea. And why the hell wouldn’t you allow people to start restaurants out of their homes? Especially now. There’s certain low-hanging things that, through legislation, can make things better.
All those things aside, the reason why I remain hopeful is because we have no choice. I have to. I have to because I brought two children into this planet with my my partner, and we have to. That’s our responsibility. It can’t just be, “I hope that fucking Elon Musk creates something and saves the planet.” We all have agency here. It’s being aware. We have a choice. We can fold up and beat Eeyore, which is my default setting, or we can reject it and we can try.
You have to go in understanding, as I do, that you’re not going to find the answer. You’re probably not going to get it in your lifetime. But it’s not our job to answer it. Our job is to push the conversation forward for someone else to answer, and to have hope. My wife had another child four weeks ago and every time I see some kind of climate disaster news, the fires in California and the like, how can you not think about it? You can either fold up and do nothing or you can try to do something about it. And it doesn’t have to be about joining some crazy organization that’s all about obliterating everything and getting back to a simpler state of the world, but you have agency to do things within your own life.
First, congratulations on the new baby, and has there been any talk about a second season of “The Next Thing You Eat” or do you see this as more of a one-off?
Chang: I think we’ve got to discuss that with Hulu. This was really hard to make during the pandemic, I’ll tell you that much. But I hope that it’s well received. If we are fortunate to have one, I think we should cross that bridge when we get there. For now, we just want people to watch it and to enjoy it and to start a conversation.
“The Next Thing You Eat” is available to stream on Hulu.