The famed Momofuku restaurateur chews on working in entertainment, and struggles swallowing a bit of deer tendon
Ugly Delicious, the new eight-part Netflix food show from Momofuku restaurateur David Chang and Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville, addresses the silly, profound, and sometimes uncomfortable bonds between the food we eat and the people with whom food associates — if that origin can even be truly known.
From Los Angeles to China, Italy, New York, Japan, Toronto, Mexico City, and beyond, the show outlines the cultural expressions of cuisine — including cost, class, color, identity, ethnicity, immigration, purity of ingredients, and purity of execution. Chang — who is Korean-American — appears on screen most frequently with Peter Meehan, his friend and former Lucky Peach TV and magazine collaborator, as they explore what’s meant by terms like “comfort food” and “ethnic,” and who really “owns” delicious foods. It’s an “exploration of high and low,” as Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) explained to EW.
For fans familiar with some of popular food show formulas, it’s also plump with sumptuous shots of exotic and stylish meals. And a couple days before the Ugly Delicious premiere, Chang hosted a celebratory private dinner of his own delectable treats for mostly family and friends in the back of his newest restaurant, Majordōmo in Los Angeles, introducing the courses with unfiltered jitters. Sitting outside on one of the few actually cold days in L.A., Chang spoke emotionally (and rapidly) about his experience making the show. Led Zeppelin played on the outside speakers and inside guests like The Walking Dead actor Steven Yeun and his wife Joana Pak, Roy Choi, Dan Nakamura (a.k.a. Dan the Automator), Julia Wong, street artist David Choe, and Chang’s mom Sherri were enjoying a meal of hand-patted jumeokbap, obscene slices of short rib, bing bread with savory dips, and smoked cabbage with macadamia.
But maybe don’t call such a menu food porn — or at least, as Chang reminds you, let other things occupy your mind besides the meal.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me about your friends here tonight.
DAVID CHANG: There’s a lot of people that I admire that happen to be sort of prominent Korean-Americans, and Asian-Americans. I’m just so overwhelmed. Because I’m not that guy.
What do you mean, “that guy?”
The older I get, the more I appreciate someone that is of my culture that’s been successful. I never thought I would be that kind of person that would appreciate that. And it’s just weird. As I talk about the meal and tell everyone I appreciate them being here, it was hard because I was like, “Oh shit, this is actually not a rehearsal anymore, it’s happening.”
When did you ever have a TV show in mind? Or a documentary?
Never. It was never, never, never supposed to happen. I keep telling my wife [Grace Chang] and my shrink this: I don’t understand, my entire career. I’m in constant disbelief. I think that my aloofness might come across as weirdly confident. Yes: I can simultaneously be completely unsure of myself and if you ask me to do something, like, I’m going to find a way to do it. But that doesn’t mean that I’m confident in anything I’m ever doing. I think every step of the way I’ve always been completely unsure of how I even got there, even though I work really hard. So the fact that we’re in a restaurant that seems to be busy and people are having a good time… I just came out of the Olympics and we’re launching a Netflix show. This was a nightmare month for me.
For a lot of people, you’d think this was the dream.
Do you watch these kinds of shows? Do you watch your kind of show?
I don’t. I love Tony Bourdain so much and I watch, but I don’t. The reality is, I don’t watch TV at all really anymore. I barely catch up on stuff.
Do you think of yourself as having to be an entertainer now? Do you gotta put on a show?
Oh man, that’s a lot of existential questions!
Let’s try this: Are you an entertainer?
That was the fastest “no” I’ve ever heard.
I think first foremost I work in the restaurant business. Everything else is sort of secondary, incidental. Truth is, I didn’t get into this to do [TV]. Do I want people to be entertained? Yes. So I hope you people are entertained.
Are you happy doing it? Do you like making entertainment?
[Long pause] If you asked me if I were happy doing restaurants, I can tell you yes. I feel like the show’s something that’s a mixture of many things, right? Happiness happens to be one of them. And I think one reason why the show happened was because it’s how we already spoke about a lot of stuff [in the restaurant business] anyway. I met Morgan doing something that didn’t air for HBO. I was just this huge fan of his work. Best of Enemies is amazing to me and 20 Feet From Stardom obviously… I’m like, holy s–t, this is the f—in’ guy. As we got to know each other, he was like, “All this stuff that we’re talking about, we can turn into something that people watch.”
I can storytell. If it’s not working, this isn’t something that happens. Simple as that.
What was the most harrowing experience you had together making the show?
I think it was the New Orleans episode. It was truth-telling in a way that I didn’t anticipate. I don’t know if people ever believe that — while there was some structure, most of it just happened. That New Orleans episode is completely off-the-cuff unscripted.
We just went out to dinner. He loves Galatoire’s, I love Galatoire’s, and we weren’t supposed to talk about crawfish: That episode was supposed to be simply about shrimp and it just went off the rails right off the bat. And that’s fun to me — being able to not think about something and just do it and trying to be honest about it. I think fun to me is not the same for other people, maybe [laughs]. We got drunk we had an amazing meal with the server, things got out of control. The entire time I see Morgan filming, I’m like, “What are you doing?” and he’s like, “This is crazy.” So, that is like a perfect example of how it doesn’t feel like work, because I was literally just documenting what was happening.
Morgan said that one of the most challenging meals for you was the traditional Chinese one, episode seven.
There’s a lot of things I don’t want to eat. But we were eating food that was in vogue 400 years ago. I understand Chinese food, I’m not an expert, but there are textures in classic imperial food that are slippery and slimy, that are considered delicacies. The one that was really hard was dried deer tendon. The master chef prepared this dish that’s incredibly hard to make, one of the most difficult things to make.
So here I am telling people on the show not to have preconceptions, but also here I had to eat it and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t eat it. So I was chewing it — and this is the problem — if I kept on swallowing it, I might have vomited. It’s a moral dilemma. And here’s the guy in front of me. I know immediately that whatever I happens will come off as extremely disrespectful, so I go for the lesser of the worst options, and I spit it out. I felt so remarkably terrible, but it was positive for me to see because it was, like, this is something that happens for a lot of people — eating something they’re not comfortable with. It was humiliating and humbling. I’m glad they captured it. I come off as a f—ing idiot, it was super challenging. The last thing I want to do is come across as disrespectful.
What is your reaction to the words “food porn?”
It elicits the same thing as the word “pornography” does to people. A dopamine rush. I see it all the time, when a beautiful piece of meat or a dessert comes by [the table] and they covet it and they have to have it and that’s all they think about. It’s something you see that replaces all and any other thought in your mind.
Do you want your show to be food porn?
No, I want people to see great food but food porn can be this monolithic thing and it doesn’t have to be.
Ugly Delicious is available for streaming on Netflix now.