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Every meal tells a story that warrants uncovering. For David Chang, chef-owner of the Momofuku restaurant and media empire, the story is anything but simple or clean. In his latest Netflix series, Ugly Delicious, Chang dissects the global and intergenerational nature of culinary history, revealing the ways we relate to our neighbors through our relationship with food.
Ugly Delicious does so much right: it nuances the narratives on food and culture that most eaters hardly consider. But in order for the show to reach its full potential, it must acknowledge the places where it falls short and seek to remedy and reconcile in seasons to come.Ever averse to a simplistic tale, Chang uses the show to address the complexities of loving our neighbors as ourselves and showing respect for one another’s traditions. By questioning the ways we rely on and support our neighbors whether we acknowledge their presence or not, food becomes the tool for engaging difficult questions about power, beauty, and hospitality.
As the son of Korean immigrants, Chang knows intimately the dissonance of receiving international praise from those who once mocked his culinary traditions. He is wary of questions about authenticity, culinary appropriation, or ownership of foodways—not because he finds these topics unimportant, but because he is skeptical of their capacity to offer a fully nuanced tale.
Through interviews with migrant chefs in the United States, as well as international chefs cooking in countries other than the one in which they were born, Chang acknowledges the interplay of immigration, assimilation, and deprivation in the formation of popular cuisine. He values each cook and the cuisine they inform by narrating their relationship to both the places they come from and the places they currently reside.
Through its narration of the culinary and cultural history of a handful of the world’s favorite foods, Ugly Delicious can guide Christians into more thorough analysis of the lawyer’s question to Jesus in the Gospel of Luke: “Who is my neighbor?”
Eduardo “Lalo” Garcia, the chef of Michelin star restaurant Maximo Bistrot in Mexico City, tells his story of deportation, a tale that complicates the narrative around illegal immigration. Garcia, who grew up in the United States and considers himself a deeply patriotic American, was deported back to Mexico twice. He speaks to the devastation of living apart from his family, aware that he can never again return to the country he knows primarily as home.
However, in his travels between Mexico and the United States, Garcia grew to value more fully the complexity and dignity of Mexican cuisine. “A lot of times we don’t see what we already have in our country and the richness of our food,” Garcia says about many Mexican chefs who are influenced by the culinary idolization of French cuisine. “Mexicans are so educated when it comes to really, really amazing food.”
As Garcia’s story shows, the language surrounding food codes stereotypes and perceptions; in talking about a food, we reveal our unspoken beliefs about its cooks and consumers too. When Mexican or other “ethnic” foods are considered simple or lacking in skill, the underlying assumption is that those who cook these cuisines bring minimal technique or value to their work. By acknowledging and praising the traditions and complex flavors that make Mexican food so good, Garcia claims to the world the dignity that he and his neighbors deserve.
Later on in the same episode, Chang travels to Philadelphia where he waits in a line that extends out the door at South Philly Barbacoa owned by husband-wife duo, Ben Miller and Cristina Martinez. Cristina, who grew up cooking barbacoa from the age of 6, calls the restaurant her gift to Philadelphia, a city that clamors for her traditional family food.
Named by Bon Appetit magazine as one of the best new restaurants in 2016, the shop draws hungry crowds from around the city. And yet Ben and Cristina recognize the precarious position their business is in: as an undocumented migrant, Cristina could at any time be forced out of the community that so values her food.
Cristina’s story challenges viewers to examine whether they truly respect the gifts their neighbors bring or if they wish to commodify these offerings with little regard for the humanity behind them. Again and again, Ugly Delicious asks us to reckon with the men and women whose stories season every dish we eat, even as we watch Chang wrestle through these stories himself.
Stting in Florida Avenue Grill in Washington, DC, with Psyche Williams-Forson, a professor of African American studies at the University of Maryland, Chang admits his own naivety around race and food in America. The episode “Fried Chicken” shows Chang traveling the country and the world in an attempt to learn of the racial history of one staple American dish.
Throughout the episode, black scholars, food writers, and chefs articulate the stereotypes and assumptions they must navigate in order to find success in their given fields. Edouardo Jordan, the James Beard award-winning chef-owner of two Seattle restaurants, recounts the tricky road he’s walked in establishing his identity as a chef.
“I’m doing what represents what I feel as a chef should be on my menu. My French training, my Italian training, and my love for southern cuisines.” Despite his love for the southern food of his upbringing, his menu contains only a nod to fried chicken through its confit and deep-fried leg of duck, served with duck liver mousse and huckleberry gastrique.
“If you’re a southern chef, they assume all you can make is ham hock and fried chicken,” says food writer Lolis Eric Elie. “If you’re a black chef…”
“That’s what I wanted to avoid,” interrupts Jordan.
While recognizing the capacity for food to code racism, Ugly Delicious values food for its capacity to prompt the formation and healing of relationships too.
“My hope,” says Elie, “is that young black chefs will appreciate these traditions and expand on them in the way we see people of other traditions expanding on their own indigenous ingredients.” He trusts that the cuisine which holds the painful history of blackness in America can be an avenue towards empowerment. It’s what he calls “the ideal of the new south.”
It refuses to “abandon who we were in order to become what someone else thinks we should be.”
I read several negative reviews before watching Ugly Delicious, which almost prevented me from working my way through the show at all. However, at the prompting of many friends disconnected from the critique of the food and culture crowd, I worked my way through episode after episode. Enchanted by the incorporation of humor, animation, and original music, I was surprised by how well the show opened the door to more complicated conversations.
And yet, despite the complex ways that Ugly Delicious presents the foods we adore, it still inevitably falls short in presenting a thorough picture of neighborly love. Most notably, discussions of race—in particular the influence of African American foodways in the United States—are almost nonexistent outside of the episode on fried chicken. Not one black chef appears in the preceding episode on barbecue, leaving out entirely the history of enslavement in the formation of that staple food.
Additionally, women, in particular female chefs, are severely underrepresented in the series. The one episode where women do show off their talent in the kitchen? The episode devoted to home cooking. Through these choices of which stories to elevate and which to obscure, Ugly Delicious further overlooks the role of women in a field that already undervalues the talents they bring.
But that need not be the end of the matter. By identifying the show’s weaknesses and urging Chang to improve, critics acknowledge the great value of the show. The conversation sparked is a celebration of strength, extending the spirit of the show by pressing those who engage towards further nuance rather than thoughtless consumption.
This critique grows out of the same desires that prompt those of us who desperately love the church, who believe in her potential as a force for change, healing, and beauty, to challenge the spots where she still has far to go. A church that strives to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly deserves healthy analysis in order to honor God and serve others well. True love of neighbor cannot blossom without awareness of relational dynamics that wound.
To critique a show, or an institution, or a dear friend can be an act of love. Faithful are the words of a friend that say, “I see what you strive to do so well, and here is what hinders flourishing.”
Ugly Delicious does so much right: it nuances the narratives on food and culture that most eaters hardly consider. But in order for the show to reach its full potential, it must acknowledge the places where it falls short and seek to remedy and reconcile in seasons to come. Thankfully its critics recognize the positive influence of Ugly Delicious to such an extent that they offer careful critique of the places in which it can grow.
In order to love our neighbor as ourselves, we too must see them for who they are and the ways they manifest the image of God in complex beautiful ways. But we must also see ourselves as complicated, imperfect humans. And we must value those who point out our pitfalls so that we all might love and serve one another well.
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