Netflix's new food show 'Ugly Delicious' shows why authenticity in food doesn't matter
Celebrity chef David Chang’s latest TV venture is uncompromising. Much like his signature Momofuku brand, Ugly Delicious is not worried by the pretension and vagaries that often affect others. This is viewing for a new generation of foodie freethinkers, unapologetically blaspheming all over a series of beloved traditions, whilst revealing the hypocrisy at the heart of one of modern food’s defining obsessions. By unpacking and unpicking the intricacies of iconic dishes such as barbecue, pizza and tacos, Chang and his band of rebellious foodie Merry Men reveal a new way of thinking about food. After eight episodes, Chang’s message is clear - authenticity is an illusion.
The show takes viewers on a whistle-stop tour through some of the world’s most celebrated dishes. Drawing on strong cookery traditions from across America, Chang and a cast of colourful culinary characters, from world renowned Noma chef Rene Redzepi to 82-year-old pitmaster Tootsie Tomanetz, explore the history of familiar staples and reveal how food continues to evolve. By exploring the history of a host of techniques and flavours, Ugly Delicious reveals the international network of ingredients and styles that underpins all great cookery. Each episode reveals the importance of tradition while simultaneously showing how the evolution of food is essential. Presented with eloquence and passion with input from experts and enthusiasts from a range of different fields, the premise makes for compelling viewing. For anyone with an interest in food, it cannot be recommended highly enough.
There is a certain type of foodie for which the pursuit of the ultimate authentic eating experience is the ultimate aim. Such is our modern romanticised view of food that “authenticity” and the history that it implies is one of the biggest USPs in a restaurant’s arsenal. All over the world, restaurants promote authentic dishes, and draw in clientele desperate to say that they too have had “the real thing”. It is this attitude that clearly irritates Chang. “I view authenticity like a totalitarian state,” he declares from the outset of episode one, adding, “It’s not that I hate authenticity, it’s that I hate that people want this singular thing that is authentic.” While exploring a series of other important issues, Ugly Delicious manages to show how pointless an argument over authenticity actually is.
America’s status as a culinary powerhouse undermines the very notion of authenticity in food. The nation is a glorious mish-mash of cultures, peoples and religions hailing from across the world. America is the vibrant, dynamic place that it is today thanks to the multitude of influences that have been poured into the melting pot. “Authentic” European, Asian, African and indigenous attributes have all been corrupted to form a completely new American identity that may share old DNA, but is entirely distinct. The idea of anything that we have today being at all “authentic” when it is so heavily influenced by so many separate cultures is patently absurd. As Ugly Delicious makes clear, if previous generations had decided that cultural landmarks like food should not be shared, America - and every other country around the world - would not have the identities that it has today.
The concept of ownership is one of the key conceits that underpins our misplaced notions of authenticity. A gentrified and romanticised view of food has helped create a situation where, for some privileged restaurant-goers, only dishes prepared by people from specific cultures in certain settings can be said to hold any value. But food should be about enjoyment. A combination of different contrasting and complimenting ingredients does not automatically become tastier because of who cooked it. Chang’s own bastardised restaurant empire, featuring Thai pork buns and Japanese rice cakes all cooked by a Korean-American, is living proof that authenticity does not equal quality. Every kitchen in every great restaurant around the world is populated by chefs from every conceivable country and culture, all cooking dishes often far removed from their own culinary heritage. Should the food that they make be disregarded because of where they come from?
This is not to say that food should not be recognised and revered as a cultural touchstone. Ugly Delicious highlights the importance of food in creating a unique identity in the face of oppression. The episode “Fried Chicken” shows how willful historical ignorance from white chefs has been instrumental in the erasure of black culinary culture. Tradition, identity and heritage matter. For someone who does not belong to a particular culture to masquerade as an equal owner in shared history is problematic and justifiably protested by the people for whom that type of food holds a special significance.
But real food never stands still. Just as the show demonstrates food’s role in subjugation through assimilation, Chang also reveals how those stubbornly clinging to authenticity become backwards. An episode examining the crawfish traditions of New Orleans and Houston is a perfect example. In New Orleans, locals refuse to change centuries-old cooking techniques, dismissing Chang’s pleas with a chorus of “this is how it’s always been done”. Houston, meanwhile, is shown to be one of the most exciting foodie cities on the planet, bursting with a kaleidoscope of colour that draws on Asian influences to fundamentally change, and ultimately improve, crawfish cookery. These two opposing views on the pursuit of authenticity make it clear how self-defeating our authenticity obsession can be.
Ugly Delicious has lessons for anyone who has an interest in food. Food can and should be a source of identity and pride. But it is also fluid. To try and fight intercultural change and influence is to miss the point of what great food is. Cooking is and always has been a hybrid, combining varying textures and tastes as well as cultures and countries. To be inspired by something alien is at the heart of being a chef. Ugly Delicious demonstrates that the best cooks are constantly reimagining and repurposing tradition to create something new. In every culture, recipes and traditions are in a constant state of flux, with each chef and generation giving them their own unique spin and flavour. Ultimately, Ugly Delicious shows that it's not only possible to balance the respect owed to culture and history whilst simultaneously driving food forward, but that it's also necessary. That Chang is unafraid to shine a spotlight on these big issues is what marks Ugly Delicious as a food show like no other.