Even if you’re not into food, you probably know who David Chang is. The Korean American chef behind the Momofuku empire of restaurants arrived on the scene in New York in 2004, both middle fingers raised to anything that represented the establishment. He made rakish beauty of the humble pork bun and ramen in a minimalist East Village space that was soon imitated around the world. Chang didn’t invent the cliché of the bad-boy chef, but he checked off plenty of the key qualities: He cursed a blue streak in interviews. His kitchen tirades were legendary. In his dining rooms, the seats were uncomfortable and the music was loud. Some of the dishes on his menus — a pig’s head torchon, say — practically dared you to eat them. The overall vibe was a cool-kid shrug that diners lapped up: Don’t like what’s going on here? Fuck you.
But roiling underneath the surface were waves of complexity. Chang was a perfectionist largely out of a sense of insecurity. He didn’t think he was the best chef (despite numerous awards to the contrary), but he would work the hardest. And if you were on his team and dared think you were the best chef, or that you didn’t have to work that hard, he’d happily (OK, furiously) show you the door. If there’s such a thing as a neurotic blowhard, Chang was it. And as hard as Chang was on his staff, over the years he built his business around them, giving a different sous chef the keys to the kitchen of one restaurant after another, urging them to go crazy, think big, get weird.
The restlessness that made Chang an excellent chef and restaurateur has made for a more uneven presence in the TV world. In 2012, starring in the first season of the award-winning, Anthony Bourdain-produced PBS series The Mind of a Chef, Chang was boyish and amiably bro-y, eager to show off what he knew. Six years later, he launched his own show on Netflix, Ugly Delicious, a meandering exploration of his culinary id. In episodes covering pizza, tacos, and BBQ, he roams the country and the world with his friends, opining and grousing and endlessly questioning, as he is wont to do. (Hot take: “I just don’t love tacos as much as everyone else. I would rather eat a more delicious Peking duck.”) Nearly every episode features a co-hosting lift from the food writer Peter Meehan, whose gentle presence balances Chang’s more blustery energy. In tone and production value, the show borrows some of the quirkiness of Chang’s beloved but now-defunct food magazine, Lucky Peach (Eighties-style graphics and animation sequences, an indie soundtrack). But it lacks a clear point of view, both within individual episodes and overall. It is, like its host, wildly ambitious, but a little all over the place.
In 2019, Netflix gave Chang Breakfast, Lunch, & Dinner, more of a Bourdain-style travelogue that pairs him with celebrity friends. Despite the boundless curiosity that drives him in and out of the kitchen, Chang doesn’t seem totally comfortable in the role of interviewer. Conversationally, he’s neither as probing nor as casually profound as Bourdain, his close friend and the master of the genre. Perhaps that’s why B,L,&D is at its best when it isn’t trying, when Chang and his given travel buddy — Seth Rogen, Chrissy Teigen, Lena Waithe, and Kate McKinnon — relax into giggles and silliness.
So it is that Season Two of Ugly Delicious arrived last month, just as the global shutdown was kicking into high gear, without much fanfare. It is only four episodes, as opposed to Season One’s eight. In scope, it is not necessarily more focused; the episodes cover, in order, cooking for kids, Indian food, steak, and the origins of meat on a spit. But from the beginning, something feels different. Everything about it is more self-assured.
The first episode isn’t really even about food. Within the first two minutes, Chang is wiping away tears as he describes the experience of telling his parents and in-laws that he and his wife are going to have a baby. (We meet those parents in iPhone footage of the moment. They’re crying, he’s crying … what, I’m not crying, you’re crying!) The rest of the episode sees Chang visiting with chefs who’ve raised kids while at the top of their game in the restaurant business. The molecular gastronomy whiz Wylie Dufresne reveals he used to train cooks in his kitchen by having them make perfect vegetable purées … which were really baby food for his son. The revered artisan bread baker Nancy Silverton parked her first child in a giant mixing bowl to keep an eye on her while at work. Chang is humbled and awed by their fortitude, vulnerable about his own fears.
We spend time here, too, with Chang’s family. In what he knows is a bit of wishful thinking, he attempts to compare what awaits him in parenthood to the stress of running a restaurant. His sister cautions him that his old management style will be of no use: “You cannot yell at a baby. You cannot get mad at a baby.” (“What about aggressive whispering?” he replies.) Chang himself perfectly frames his predicament — and, in the process, this entire season of television — as “a big moment of reckoning between old Dave Chang and expecting-dad Dave Chang.”
That personal growth seems to inform all that follows. The second episode is a dive into the vastly underrated and variegated world of Indian cuisine. From the get-go, Chang admits his ignorance about it with openness but not shame, inviting his guides to fill that void with knowledge. The model, Top Chef host, and cookbook author Padma Lakshmi prepares food for him at her home (and teaches him the proper way to eat with his hands), as does comedian Aziz Ansari’s mom. In sequences that have taken on added poignancy, the celebrated Indian American chef Floyd Cardoz, who died in March due to complications from COVID-19, welcomes Chang into the kitchen of his restaurant in Mumbai, India, for a seminar in new Indian cooking, and then takes over hosting duties on a mini tour of various regions and their signature dishes.
The third episode, an ode to steak, seems almost grotesque at first when considered against a backdrop of pandemic-mandated asceticism. Chang sits in a dark, wood-paneled room at Beatrice Inn in Manhattan, alongside two food writers and Beatrice chef Angie Mar, all chowing down on a Mastodon-size portion of lavender-infused, dry-aged rib-eye, and confessing that they judge people based on the cut of meat they order and how they like it cooked. (Full disclosure: Same.) But the episode quickly becomes both a lament for restaurants — especially when it nods to the venerable Keens steakhouse a few blocks uptown, its ceiling lined with pipes smoked by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt — and a thoughtful meditation on the democratization of this special-occasion food once reserved for the rich. “Maybe we’re the problem,” Chang muses of food snobs at one point, while debating the merits of mass-market chains like Outback Steakhouse. It is also a rallying cry, for environmental reasons, for meat to again become an occasional indulgence, rather than a staple. “The conception of luxury,” says writer Lolis Elie, in an unwittingly prescient moment, “may be evolving.”
Finally, Chang cracks open his nagging obsession with spit-roasted meat. Shawarma, doner, gyro … Episode Four explores the beginnings of them all, noting that war and oppression are what propelled this style of cooking from region to region, as refugees fled to a new home, bringing their methods and traditions with them. Or, as Chang puts it: “So much good food happened out of bad things.” He is ebullient while strolling the packed streets and open-air markets of Istanbul, sampling pickles and the signature shredded beef. In L.A., he practically cheerleads for two young Mexican immigrants he interviews, who were trained in a Lebanese restaurant and now run their own Lebanese-fusion taco stand. Much of the talk throughout the episode surrounds the racism embedded in food culture — how Middle Eastern cooking is not considered gourmet, but if a restaurant takes a spit and turns it horizontal, making it French, it can charge three times as much for the food; how the very term “Middle Eastern” is meaningless, oriented as it is around a Eurocentric view of the world. Every minute is a love letter to open borders, a song in praise of migration, a testament to the deep, cross-cultural bonds we forge through food.
As the season winds down, it calls back to the beginning, to the feeling that Chang has dropped any pretense of cool and is letting his softer side win out, on TV as in life. He’s still enviably nimble with curse words. He still has opinions aplenty. He’s still searching. But the passion and tempestuousness that once drove him to chew out the people who worked for him have mellowed into something richer. Chang notes in Episode One that his wife, Grace, became pregnant the day after Anthony Bourdain died. If he wasn’t already, Bourdain would be proud that his friend is pushing ahead to parts unknown, always hungry, and with his heart firmly on his sleeve.