MIND OF A CHEF
Chef David Chang Talks Netflix’s ‘Ugly Delicious’ and Why Food Is ‘One of the Last Bastions’ of Racism
The man behind Momofuku takes The Daily Beast inside his brand new L.A. restaurant and his return to TV in the new Netflix series ‘Ugly Delicious.’
“Dave wants to talk in the kitchen, OK?”
I make my way through the crowded, brightly lit kitchen of the brand new Los Angeles restaurant majordōmo. It’s the night before his new series Ugly Delicious premieres on Netflix and David Chang is sweating.
“You like hot?” he asks me, holding out a spoon of fiery red paste full of chili seeds that he’s been mixing in a mini food processor. “It’s really fucking hot.”
“I don’t even know how to describe it,” he adds as I dare to take a tiny bite. “It’s a hot condiment. Very spicy. If I’m sweating it’s because I just tasted it.”
It might be the chili peppers making Chang sweat, but as he will admit to me over the course of our conversation, he’s also feeling a lot of anxiety about the Netflix show’s release.
Already one of the most well-known chefs in America—best known for running the Momofuku Restaurant Group out of New York—he’s about to get a lot more famous as viewers in 190 countries gain access to his unique perspective on pizza, tacos, barbecue, and several other food categories that serve as themes for the eight hour-long episodes.
Ugly Delicious marks Chang’s second foray into television after hosting the first season of the Anthony Bourdain-produced The Mind of a Chef on PBS in 2012. “Mind of a Chef was never supposed to be a TV show, it got repurposed,” Chang explains. “I never would have signed up for that if it was like, ‘Hey, let’s do a TV show.’ I stopped doing TV almost across the board, because I didn’t want to do it.”
You get the sense that Mind of a Chef wasn’t the most positive experience for Chang and he was deeply hesitant to do another TV show again. But that changed when he met Morgan Neville, the Oscar-winning director of the 2013 documentary 20 Feet From Stardom.
Chang is a fan of Neville’s films, and Neville had been interested in filming the food world. The whole thing just felt “serendipitous,” the chef tells me.
“The thing that impressed me about Dave and everybody in Dave’s world is that they were always talking about food in a way that I’d never heard it talked about before,” Neville adds over dinner in majordōmo’s private dining room. “We pitched it as a punk rock TV show, a show about breaking down all expectations and borders.”
One more factor that made Chang change his mind and move forward with Ugly Delicious is that he saw an opportunity for representation on screen. “There are not a lot of Asians on TV,” he says. “And I think that is a responsibility that I’m learning.”
The chance to make the show came along just as another of Chang’s enterprises, the beloved Lucky Peach magazine, was forced to close up shop. “Pete and I had a good run,” he says of the magazine’s co-founder Peter Meehan, who also appears throughout Ugly Delicious. “Some things just come to an end. I just think this is the next evolution of it.”
In many ways, Ugly Delicious looks and feels like the type of food travel show that Bourdain has perfected over many years, most recently on his CNN show Parts Unknown. But there is also something looser and funnier about Chang’s show, partly due to his laid-back vibe and also because he is often joined by comedian friends like Ali Wong and Jimmy Kimmel.
The first episode finds Chang and Aziz Ansari traveling to Tokyo to try what appears to be insanely good Japanese pizza. When I bring up the recent controversy surrounding Ansari’s personal life, Chang gets quiet for several seconds. There may well be opinions he wants to share about it, but he stops himself.
“You know, he’s a close friend of mine so I don’t want to comment on Aziz right now. That’s just not something I want to do,” Chang says. He tells me that “of course” he has discussed the saga with Ansari. “But that’s between us,” he says. “If he ever wants me to talk about it, I’ll talk about it.”
In that same episode, Chang not only highlights fellow chef Mark Iacono’s aggressively old school Carroll Gardens pizza restaurant Lucali and some even older school spots in Napoli, but he also unabashedly reveals his love for perhaps the most ubiquitous pizza in America: Domino’s.
“Some people make fun of me because I’ll order Domino’s occasionally,” Chang says. “And it’s always struck me as classism or elitism. If I grew up eating Lucali’s pizza, I probably never would have had Domino’s.” He recalls eating Domino’s while watching football on Sundays with his brother as the best part of his week growing up.
He wants to make sure people know that if they like Domino’s, “they’re not wrong,” he says, adding, “If you pass judgement on someone, which we’re all prone to do, you might not get that person to appreciate any other kind of pizza. We don’t want anyone to feel like they’re being shamed.”
He is decidedly less enamored by a Doritos Locos taco from Taco Bell in the show’s second episode. “You know what would be better? If it were a bag of Doritos,” Meehan jokes after they pick up one of the cheese-dusted tacos at a drive-thru.
That desire to spotlight both the high and low ends of food culture exists not only on the show but also in the decisions Chang has made as a restauranteur. Starting with the relatively casual Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004, he has expanded his empire in both directions, from high-end restaurants like Má Pêche in Midtown Manhattan to his Fuku fried chicken sandwich stands, which can be found at Madison Square Garden and Citi Field.
Majordōmo, Chang’s first restaurant in Los Angeles, falls on the higher end. Despite its incongruous location along the L.A. River in a no man’s land between Lincoln Heights and Chinatown, majordōmo is already establishing itself as one of the hottest new restaurants in the city.
At $190, the delectable Whole Plate Short Rib (for four to six people) is the most expensive item on the menu, which also features far more affordable—and arguably even more delicious—dishes like the Stuffed Peppers with Benton’s sacked sausage and buttermilk (Chang’s personal favorite dish right now) and his ridiculously tasty take on mac and cheese which includes chickpeas and Chang’s signature Hozon seasoning (and black truffles, if you’re lucky).
There is a running joke in Ugly Delicious in which Chang routinely insists that the Asian version of any given food item is inherently better than the alternative. “I would rather eat a more delicious Peking duck than a taco,” he says at the start of the second episode.
“Part of it is growing up and being legitimately embarrassed about being Asian,” says Chang, who was born in Virginia to Korean immigrant parents. As he’s gotten older, he’s learned not to be ashamed of his heritage. But even now, he says, he struggles with “accepting” his own identity.
“Getting made fun of for what you eat is one of the crappiest things you can endure,” he says. “Food is one of the last bastions of half-coded racism. Because it seems so harmless. Because everyone says, ‘Oh, it’s just food.’”
Chang may have his own preferences for Asian cuisine, but he says part of the goal of the show is to get viewers to curb their “default settings,” whether they are set by “how you are raised or your culture” or any other factors. He just wants people to “think a little bit more, that’s it.”
With Ugly Delicious just hours away from being released, he says, “It’s been really hard for me to process.” He implies that his wife is not thrilled with all the attention he has been getting over an even busier than usual past few weeks.
Chang has just returned from a weeklong stint in Pyeongchang covering the Olympics as a food correspondent for NBC, during which he hand-delivered churro ice cream sandwiches to gold medalist snowboarder Chloe Kim. He says he agreed to that gig more than six months ago without realizing it would coincide with both the opening of majordōmo and the premiere of Ugly Delicious.
“I’m just trying my best to stay as centered as possible and be thankful for everything that’s happened,” Chang says. “What I’m not prepared for is for anything else to change,” he says, before revealing that he is “dreading” this potential new level of fame. “It’s a lot of anxiety. I’m excited but simultaneously filled with dread.”
“I’m a highly neurotic individual,” he says, laughing. “So this doesn’t help my neuroses at all. It’s a lot of unknowns and I don’t like unknowns too much.”