David Chang, the Philosopher Chef

In his new television series Ugly Delicious, the man behind Momofuku turns food porn into intellectual exploration.

6 years ago

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The Netflix series Ugly Delicious is a portrait of chef David Chang’s discovery of the question to which his improbable life may one day serve as the answer. His rise to the very top of global chef stardom seems to be sustained by something other than pedigree or sheer talent. He has neither the establishment heft of a Thomas Keller or Jean-Georges Vongerichten, nor the monk-like obsession of an Andre Chiang or René Redzepi. “I don’t know how the hell it all happened,” he says of his extraordinary success.

The skeptical reaction to Ugly Delicious — the New York Times called it a “branding exercise” — comes at a time of rapid commercialization and expansion of Momofuku-named outposts of Chang’s original, beloved Noodle Bar. Chang himself seems to be in acceptance that his own brand of bastardized Asian cooking may be more about inspiration and rebellion than perfection. He tells Wolfgang Puck (over Puck’s ghoulish lox-and-cream cheese pizza) that he is a Korean American version of him, now an aged out relic of 80's chic telling stories about Johnny Carson and occasionally cooking a pasta dish on morning television.

Nothing about that seems to bother Chang, and he remains steadfast in his rejection and indifference to the snobbery and elitism of his haute cuisineroots, as personified by his patrician mentor Daniel Boulud. In terms of outlook, Chang has more in common with lesser-starred Asian American chefs like food truck OG Roy Choi and Eddie Huang, purveyor of sitcoms and something called “baos.” What this trio of Asian chefs have in common is a unique ability to ponder and articulate the conundrum of cultural authenticity in America, a society that seems to only get further away from authenticity the more it seeks it out.

Huang’s grammar is of appropriating hip-hop’s open rebellion. His is a belief that authenticity is found in unapologetic self-assertion, as encoded in the Death Row vs Bad Boy era of 90’s gangster rap. Choi’s grammar is the Chicano-oriented working class struggle, which he views as the foundation of an American authenticity that is always partial, emergent, and communal. Chang‘s grammar, however, is of the skeptical philosopher, unsure that authenticity even exists.

One of the joys of Ugly Delicious is in watching Chang reject the tidy and sentimental conclusions of other chefs and food writers. Writer Gustavo Arellano tells Chang that less than 20% of LA’s taco stands are “authentic” to Mexico, and takes him to eat a beloved shrimp taco. “It‘s like har gow,” Chang says unceremoniously after taking a bite. “You’re saying there’s a magical history of the Chinese in Mexico?” asks friend and food writer Peter Meehan. “I’m just saying this tastes Chinese to me,” replies Chang.

Chang then jets off to Mexico, where he learns that tacos Arabes originated from Lebanese refugees, who introduced wheat pitas in place of corn tortillas, and layered shawarma meat as a new filling. Everything is a copy of a copy. How far back then must we go to locate authenticity? At what point does the taco’s lineage trace back to a moment of pure invention, and who was responsible?

“What is the ur-wrap?” asks an epistemologically frustrated Arellano. “I’ll venture to say it’s Korean,” says Chang.

In every episode, almost everyone Chang converses with seems convinced that they have grasped authenticity in their hearts, but that it cannot be described, only tasted. This is what drives food television: the over-exaggeration of the social significance of the sense of taste and smell, which conveniently cannot be transmitted. Thus the viewer willingly submits to a deprivation that drives a desire. This desire is the intended commercial result of food television. Ugly Delicious is the first luxe foodie series to open the door, however slightly, into questioning this premise.

It’s unlikely that the philosophical questions surrounding authenticity is what propelled Chang onto his culinary business trajectory, but the search for its meaning — rather than the thing itself — consumes him throughout the series. This is what sets Ugly Delicious apart from previous celebrity food series like No Reservations or Chef’s Table, which presupposes that authenticity exists and can be found. In the case of Chef’s Table, authenticity is found in the intention and passion of the chef, which leads to grotesquely self-aggrandizing statements by the likes of Massimo Bottura, who claimed that his riso cacio e pepe was a “recipe as social gesture” (for having saved the local cheese industry after the 2012 Modena earthquake). Or in Anthony Bourdain’s case, that authenticity is found almost anywhere that’s not the United States, which is itself too corporate and too lame to know what’s real.

Chang criss-crosses America and the world in a global interrogation of what makes something authentically x, through such fascinating experiments as preparing Korean kalbi in the American barbecue manner — ribs intact, slow cooked in a smoker — and asking artist Dave Choe’s mother why she says it’s not Korean, if it’s prepared in his own family’s marinade recipe and cooked over charcoals just like traditional Korean barbecue. What is the variable I changed that suddenly makes you consider this not Korean?, he seems to be asking of both the ribs and, indirectly, himself. And what exactly did I do that makes it so clearly not authentic American? He remains thoroughly unsatisfied by everyone’s cheerful dismissal of his question as being totally subordinate to the one and only thing that seems to matter to everyone but Chang: that it tastes so good.

David Chang in "Ugly Delicious"

Ugly Delicious narrows the search for authenticity’s meaning within the intersection of food, business, and race. In a deadly serious moment in the final episode, he asks actor and comedian Ali Wong why a basket of six of Michelin-starred Din Tai Fung’s soup dumplings costs $8, while a plate of three Italian raviolis can go for $28? His left hand is furled in a half fist, shaking, his face demanding that someone finally confront his question head on without resorting to sentimentalism. He was smart to ask Wong, because she’s both an Asian — therefore sympathetic — and a stand-up comedian — therefore allergic to sentimentality. “That’s the shit that gets me mad,” he growls.

She answers: “Well, it doesn’t get me mad, it just makes me feel non-Asian people get bamboozled easier… I think what everyone knows is that what you’re paying for is ambience and some bullshit story about where your mushrooms came from. And people eat that shit up. I eat that shit up.”

Chang cocks an eyebrow, rightfully unsatisfied. Her answer simply rephrases the question, which is if Wong knows it’s bullshit, why are both she and Chang still willing to pay for that bullshit so long as it’s Italian?

This is the ultimate question posed by Ugly Delicious. The unprecedented inspiration of the series is to end with neither a conclusion nor an appeal to sentiment. The last scene is a mock debate between Chang and his Boulud colleague Mario Carbone over the question of whether Italy or China produces a superior dumpling. After the argumentation goes nowhere, the judge (played by Nick Kroll) indignantly storms out of the auditorium exclaiming “There’s no resolution to this!” Chang then delivers the final line of the entire series: “Hmm.”

Chang’s search is relentless. The scenes cut and jump manically within each episode — and even across the entire series (his trips to China and Japan appear in numerous episodes) — as if the various fragments of his exploration are starting to take shape and form some semblance of an answer. Most revealing of all is his instinctual fixation on that most proletarian and universal form of food: the dumpling.

Hand holding ravioli

On the one hand, dumplings are deeply personal expressions of one’s own family life, especially of the matriarch. Whether she is a Chinese or Polish or Italian grandmother — all are equally evoked by the dumpling — the matriarch always leads her small clan at a table or counter, quietly folding the ideal shapes and sizes that everybody else tries to mimic. Folding wontons and stuffing tortellinis are among the most treasured and intimate family memories.

But on the other hand, dumplings as a food product are uniquely standardized. There are only two or three correct ways of folding any given type of dumpling, so they don’t vary much in appearance between families. They are prepared in the same assembly line manner, and the productivity of each person is closely tracked by how many rows they are making in relation to each other. Even when made at home, dumplings take on the form of manufactured and fungible commodities.

The dumpling’s dual identity as both family heirloom and universal commodity presents a contradiction that elicits Chang’s confounded frustration. He is told a story by an Italian chef about how the tortellini was inspired in legend by a vision of the goddess Venus’s belly button. The shape of the pasta is a visual approximation of the goddess navel, and the two ends are twisted and pressed together to complete a heart shape. The tortellini is a symbol of love and fertility. The chef then folds one for him, holding it up briefly to be admired, and then lays it down gently in a tray that is half full of the wondrous Italian pasta.

“This is a wonton,” Chang says. “How is this not a wonton?”

Indeed the tortellini is identical to a certain wonton shape that in the more pragmatic Chinese culture is meant to evoke a gold ingot, a symbol of wealth rather than fertility. It’s as if Chang exploded both origin myths at the same time, perhaps realizing in that moment that the dumpling is just something people invariably do, with a backstory made up after the fact. Perhaps the backstory is just the best bullshit story that any dumpling-wrapping grandmother ever came up with to pass the time.

The conundrum for Chang is that the wonton and the tortellini can be identical in the material realm, yet entirely different in every other dimension, particularly cultural status and price. That this conundrum needles Chang in a nearly existential way is what makes him the most interesting Asian American thinker of our time. Chang can make an Asian tortellini and sell it at his Italian-Korean outpost Nishi at a price equal to or higher than NYC’s finest Italian tortellini, and to great publicity. But few if any other Asian American chefs could do this, certainly not NYC’s most gifted wonton maker, probably an anonymous Chinese cook working in the back of a late night Flushing noodle shop.

This state of affairs does not serve to satisfy Chang’s vanity, nor does it provide him any tidy sentiment that his success is necessarily a signal that the social cachet of Asian food — and therefore Asians — is rising in America. Instead it only raises the question of why — why does Chang get to sell Asian food to great public acclaim and elevated prices, but almost nobody else? Could it be that it was neither the ingredients he painstakingly sourced, nor the cooking techniques for which he sacrificed so much to perfect, but instead the mass complex of bullshit Venus’s belly button-type stories about him printed in endless foodie blogs, magazines, and television programs — stories that he neither writes nor controls?

Perhaps that would explain why the food writer Peter Meehan is attached to Chang’s hip throughout Ugly Delicious, even at Chang’s parents’ home for Thanksgiving (the first white man to carve a Chang household turkey).Meehan is the man who broke the story of the original Momofuku and its mad-tyrant chef for the New York Times, who collaborated on the breakthrough Momofuku recipe book, who co-founded the defunct-but-legendary Lucky Peach magazine, and who now co-stars with Chang in the best food television series in a generation. Meehan describes his collaboration and friendship with Chang as “the most intimate male relationship” he’s ever had. Even if Meehan willfully plays the role of junior sidekick in the Legend of Momofuku, it seems that Chang is more than aware of the true value of his court scribe.

In short, while success has not gotten into Chang’s head, it has seemed to work its way under his skin. Ugly Delicious is not a celebration of food. It doesn’t plow the viewer with insipid calls for more passion and more truth, symbolized somehow by a slow motion pan on some cheese or wine or a piece of bread or maybe a goat. It is instead the skeptic philosopher chef’s investigation into why the same goddamn thing can be sold for three times the price just by calling it its Italian name. This question hopefully justifies at at least a couple more seasons.

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Published 6 years ago

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