After The Break
To borrow a term repeated probably a few too many times during its eight episodes, Ugly Delicious is bonkers, man. In both senses of the word: it’s bro-ish, stoopid fun, but it’s also as close to wholly tonally unhinged as TV is allowed to get in the Netflix era. A lot of this, surely, stems from the unique conditions of its birth: doing the math on its filming schedule, at least some episodes must have been planned and shot at the very moment that listed co-stars David Chang and Peter Meehan’s fraught relationship was entering era-and-magazine-ending crisis. Put it this way: despite his obvious involvement in making the thing, Pete sure ain’t doing the talk-show circuit.
In episode three (Thanksgiving), there is something quietly poignant in hearing them describe their relationship as a straight-male marriage when we know just months later things would end with the ‘we-need-to-talk’ that accompanies every divorce; without being too insensitive, there’s something trashily delectable (ugly-delicious, even) in the dramatic irony, too. As with other engrossing breakup art like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, the fault-lines can be felt throughout the piece when you know where to look and what to look for: they inform every tonal inconsistency, every jarring creative choice, every split-location A-and-B plot, every time six of one and half a dozen of the other fail to add up to twelve.
If, as Helen Rosner posits, this was originally pitched as Lucky Peach: The TV Show, the whole thing certainly isn’t shot and edited like it. The first episode (a pilot? Shot much earlier?) absolutely is, and feels by far the most egregiously Peachy, all sickmaking editing and eyeball-assaulting fonts and kooky-exasperating in-jokey asides. It’s also comfortably the toughest hang of the series, as all the visual too-muchness fails to obscure the fact (as originally observed by Jaya Saxena) that the content is deeply dull, mainstream stuff. Overfamiliar faces ploughing a familiar furrow through yards of ‘za and a Grand Tour itinerary of Campanian mozzarella factories and pizzaioli makes for excruciatingly bad, boring television; the show isn’t so much exploring new ground as it is repeating philosophical and aesthetic statements made a decade-plus ago, which weren’t even all that provocative then. The episode is also Chang’s personal nadir: at times – especially during a phenomenally ill-advised and eventually ill-tempered segment delivering Domino’s – he appears bored and almost wholly uninvolved, the petulant “Baby King” of his mother’s description.
Even if you didn’t know the Chang-Meehan backstory, subsequent episodes would surely make you question whether you were watching the same show. This is undeniably a Chang vehicle, leveraging his name and fame, but the chummy season opener and bromance-heavy Thanksgiving group-hang suggest this is the work if not of equals then certainly of friends. These episodes aside, though, Chang and Meehan barely occupy the screen together at all: in episode 2, tacos, they share a car with (a snoozing?) Jonathan Gold before bifurcating, one towards Mexico, the other to Copenhagen and LA. Episode 5 sees Meehan on the white dude beat in Trump Country while Chang trots the globe (LA, Tokyo, Beijing, Copenhagen – think of the air miles!). Meehan’s only contribution to Episode 5 is a very Lucky Peachy stunt (a chicken-nugget-tasting skit shot with Walter Green in the magazine’s now-shuttered offices); he gets a similar-sized sidekick / guest slot in Episode 8. He does not appear at all in Episodes 4 and 7.
Again, this is perhaps over-determining things based on the knowledge of what subsequently happened, but the show seems different in these episodes, four and seven in particular. The odd kooky / irritating interstitial aside, it’s definitely more like conventional food TV – but it's more talky, more cerebral, more naturalistic, more interesting, too. Nowhere is this transformation more obvious than in Chang himself: here he is thoughtful, clearly invested not just in the first-order subject matter but also the overlapping cultures and communities that enjoy it. Pilot-episode “Dave Chang” is replaced by someone with interesting things to say about authenticity and culinary purity; he reveals himself as a passionate believer in the cool shit that can happen when strictly patrolled borders and allowed to collapse and influences can mingle with each other. It’s a profoundly human impulse, and a profoundly democratic vision, and the show is at its best when it is giving us moments that illustrate the benefits of this approach, like the scene in episode 5 where some excellent yakitori leaves Chang weeping, and his reaction leaves the chef who cooked it weeping, too – albeit just for a few brief seconds before he composes himself and returns to his binchotan. This is not the style-over-substance gonzo artwork of Lucky Peach or earlier Chang TV vehicles: this is the actual mind of an actual chef, less (at least some of) the branding and bullshit floating around it.
Like any other mind, it’s an imperfect one. By narrowing its focus onto Chang in these episodes, the show gives us something personal, but something undeniably flawed. Others have written about the show’s politics of representation, the erasure of black and female bodies and voices from episodes and spaces where they rightfully belong. There are varying degrees of condemnation that could be heaped on the show for this (and, no, “at least it’s not as bad as Chef’s Table” isn’t really a valid position to take). But it is striking to see how much of a light the show sheds on Asian American cooks and entertainers – it is striking, too, to note how often Chang says a totally incongruous dish (the taco, for example) reminds him of food that originates in Asia. In the Chang-centric episodes, this is his show, his friends, his food, his idiosyncrasies; solipsism like this is perhaps the price you pay when you narrow a show to a single person’s perspective. The ugly in Ugly Delicious is important: like the unabashed money-shot close-ups of Chang properly CRUSHING the delicacy focused on in each episode, things can get messy in places.
Messiness aside, this being the age of unlimited content, there will undoubtedly be a second series of Ugly Delicious, although you may end up searching for it on Netflix in vain. The announcement – so soon after Season One started streaming – that Chang (accompanied by some ex-Lucky Peach all-stars, no less) was getting back into written and video media was certainly eye-opening; this being the age of unlimited shade, it’s hard not to interpret it as something of a Momofuck-you to Meehan, too.
It’s interesting to ponder what a Meehan-less Ugly Delicious will look like. Given his role in bringing the Momofuku cookbook into the world and his involvement with Mind of a Chef (as well as the little matter of Lucky Peach), Meehan has been a powerful influence on Chang's media presence and brand pretty much from the get-go. Clearly, the creative friction that existed in their relationship was incredibly productive, until it suddenly wasn’t. It’s hard to discern how much of Season One’s goodness or badness to ascribe to their partnership and its aftermath, although FWIW my reading is that Meehan acted as a check on Chang’s most Baby Kingish instincts whilst perhaps trying to take things in a creative direction that never really sat well with his partner.
The clear risk is that in Season Two, a Chang free from former checks and balances goes full Action Bronson bonkers and joins the firmament of other hefty alpha-bro food enthusiasts – at that point, we may as well just create a crossover called Fuck, That’s Ugly Delicious and have done with it. But there’s enough in Season One to suggest that Chang and the rest of his team have their mise in place – they definitely possess the raw ingredients that could be turned to interesting ends in the right hands. The prolonged conversation about fried chicken between Lolis Eric Elie and Edouardo Jordan in Episode 6 is fabulous, fresh-feeling, affecting food TV; in arch-provocateur Dave Choe, Chang has found a sidekick capable both of undermining his seriousness and bringing thrilling manic-antic danger to what is usually a stultifyingly staid medium (also in his favour: he is not Aziz Ansari).
Chang is a smart, smart guy – so smart, perhaps, that he’s realised that obscuring his smartness behind chef-bro cliché is the best way to make his brand sell. To read his deconstruction (in Lucky Peach) of a tasting menu at L’Astrance is to understand that there is a ferocious, forensic brain lurking behind the media persona that his mother so effectively punctures by referring to her son only as “David Chang”; to hang out with him (in episodes four and seven, in particular) is to realise quite how much that brain could bring to bear on a medium that consistently finds way to undermine itself. Lowest-common-denominator commissioning means we rarely get genuinely thoughtful explorations of subjects that cut across cultures; the ease with which you can think of topics deserving of and fertile for this sort of approach (eight episode titles for Season Two, right off the bat: Heat, Blandness, Stress, Drinking (with) Food, Fine Dining, Figs On A Plate, Kitchen Equipment, Influence) indicates how poorly we are currently served.
Lucky Peach was always perceived as a Chang-Meehan joint, even (especially) at the end. The name of Chang’s new media company, Majordomo, is a neat reminder that he alone is master of the house now. Ugly Delicious Season One shows both the risks and rewards of giving someone like Chang their head, but this comes with a caveat that there were probably a bunch of ties that (at the time of production) Chang had yet to sever. A Season Two produced in-house may see him entirely free, set loose to pursue what he considers most worthy of attention. It could be ugly, it could be delicious. It would be a surprising and incredibly depressing outcome if it were boring.