David Chang digs right into some meaty matters on his new show.
Chang’s docuseries, Ugly Delicious, which hits Netflix Feb. 23, shows the celebrity restaurateur traveling the world with guests like acclaimed chef René Redzepi, food writers Jonathan Gold and Ruth Reichl, comedian Ali Wong and actor Gillian Jacobs to explore the ties between food and culture. Each episode uses a single type of food like “BBQ” or “Tacos,” as a lens to examine everything from immigration and racism to the complicated nature of cultural appropriation.
“It allowed us to go down that hole that a lot of people want to shy away from, because it’s wildly uncomfortable to talk about,” Chang told TIME. “Food, in some ways, is a very powerful tool to use as a vehicle to talk about the things that are sort of f—ed up.”
In one episode, Chang visits South Philly Barbacoa, whose owner Cristina Martinez is an undocumented chef from Mexico facing the challenges of keeping her business together while fighting for the rights of thousands of undocumented food workers in the U.S. In another, Chang highlights Houston and its emerging Viet-Cajun style as America’s next great food city. He goes high- and low-brow: uncovering proper Neapolitan-style pizza in Japan — but still celebrating Domino’s back in the States by shadowing a deliveryman during his route.
Chang also dives into food in the United States that comes loaded with history. The episode “Fried Chicken” tackles the racist history of the popular, ubiquitous food, detailing how chickens were initially kept by slaves but then became a stereotype tying black people to fried chicken in popular culture.
Fried chicken is also one of several dishes that brings Chang back to the subject of authenticity and appropriation. He brings up Hattie B’s, a fried chicken joint in Nashville that specializes in the region’s hot chicken, a style that involves spice blends guaranteed to make your eyes water. The restaurant, opened in 2012 and run by a white family, has received criticism for appropriating a dish traditionally served in Nashville’s black communities. Hattie B’s is now commonly credited for putting hot chicken on the national map, despite longtime hot chicken spots like Bolton’s and Prince’s feeding Nashville’s black neighborhoods for about 70 years.
The people behind Hattie B’s, including owner Nick Bishop Jr., “own up to” the criticism, Chang said, noting multiple generations of the Bishop family have been involved in the restaurant industry in the area. Chang said if his family took a similar trajectory, he could have ended up in the same position.
“It’s easy to criticize someone that is doing something from another culture,” he said. “Had I been raised in Nashville, eating all this amazing hot fried chicken, I probably would have also opened up a hot fried chicken stand.”
Chang’s views on appropriation still change as he learns more about what draws people to certain foods. The son of Korean immigrants, Chang in one Ugly Delicious episode talks about his instinctive dislike of anyone non-Korean who makes kimchi. While kimchi has only recently gained steam in the U.S. alongside the growing popularity of Korean cuisine, the fermented cabbage dish was an everyday staple in Chang’s house growing up, something he felt he had to hide from kids in school.
But Chang has since come around on such issues. He suggests that a non-Korean person wanting to make kimchi because it’s trendy might seek out a tutorial, and end up eventually learning about Korea’s culture and history. It may take time, but writing that person off for cultural appropriation would be a mistake because they were introduced to something totally new, he said.
“How do you actually do it in a way that’s meaningful? That’s the question that’s presented to all of us — telling a story that is respectful,” he said. “Sometimes, you just gotta let it play out. Part of it is letting people make mistakes.”
Chang has gone from feeling shame about his background to becoming actively proud of his heritage. The meals he’s accustomed to have become the “ugly delicious food” he wants to start serving to customers — something he explores in particular on the “Home Cooking” episode, which includes an appearance from his mother.
“The older I get and with the sheer passage of time, the more comfortable I am — not just comfortable, the more I admire where my parents came from,” he said. “And the things I was ashamed or even embarrassed about, I’m not anymore. I’m more willing to not only make those foods but to reconcile who I was and where I came from.”
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