To say that it’s impossible to watch David Chang’s Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner without seeing what it owes to the television shows created by Anthony Bourdain—and in particular, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown—is neither dismissal nor complaint. To have been influenced by a masterful work of art is not a flaw; it’s at times even unavoidable. Bourdain was not the first person to travel the world and eat food on camera, but his invention, ambition, and especially his skill as a writer made Parts Unknown feel groundbreaking and new. Bourdain had his debts, and Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner has some too. But one result of such clear influences is that comparisons are inevitable.
Chang’s new show—framed in the opening credits as something that “Ugly Delicious presents,” making it something of a spinoff of his first, excellent Netflix series—is a highly enjoyable four-episode jaunt. It’s often funny, occasionally thought-provoking, and beautifully shot, with four interesting, charismatic celebrity guests and four compelling locations. But the show’s successes only emphasize its shortcomings, when the former are so reminiscent of its predecessor. The occasional failings of Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner don’t stem from the fact that it is not, in fact, Parts Unknown. Nothing but Parts Unknown could be. But when both do A, and both do B, and only one comes close to managing C, it’s C that stands out. Still, that doesn’t diminish A and B—and more importantly, doesn’t negate the things Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner does that feel especially fresh.
BL&D’s formula is simple: David Chang (of Momofuku, the dearly-missed publication Lucky Peach, and a million other things) travels somewhere with a famous friend in tow. While there, they eat things, talk about things, see things, and ask people questions about things. He wanders Vancouver, British Columbia with native son Seth Rogen; travels to Marrakesh, Morocco with Chrissy Teigen; explores Los Angeles—a city that would soon become his home—with Lena Waithe; and ventures to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, with Kate McKinnon. With Rogen and Waithe, Chang’s destination is well-known, at least in part, to his guest. With Teigen, their destination is both a favorite and a mystery, as there’s much she’s never seen or experienced in the country. McKinnon’s is the outlier. Cambodia is simply a place she’s curious to see.
It’s a varied little group, each place and guest offering something distinct and engaging, and the focus of the episode depends greatly on what the relationship between location and companion. The best way to enjoy BL&D—and it’s definitely enjoyable—is to key into what that relationship is and let go of what it’s not. This is easiest with the Rogen and Teigen episodes. “Vancouver with Seth Rogen” would be better titled “Stoned and Nostalgic with Seth Rogen;” Rogen’s obvious love for his hometown is more palpable than any particular sense of place. That’s not to say you don’t learn much about Vancouver. Rogen’s stories of his childhood are as illuminating as any of the locations they visit (except maybe the aquarium, which just seems like a cool place to go when you’re super high). But the conversation is the real draw—and if that leaves little room for discussion of or information about the food, then that’s the price you pay.
It’s more of a sticking point in “Marrakesh with Chrissy Teigen,” but it’s hard to stay all that frustrated with an episode as honest-to-god, laugh-out-loud funny as this one. If “Vancouver” makes you want to smoke a joint with Rogen, then “Marrakesh” will make you want to just watch Teigen do anything, all day, forever. Again, accepting the episode for what it is is key. They eat a fascinating breakfast, and it’s overwhelmed by Teigen’s presence. They learn to make tagines from a potter, and it’s more about Ghost jokes than it is about culture. As with Rogen’s episode, it’s not as if there’s nothing to be learned in these 30 minutes, but the place isn’t the draw. Teigen is, and that’s okay. It’s a hangout movie in 30-minute, food-TV form.
That balance doesn’t quite work when the tone and focus become less ebullient. The L.A. episode plays more like a subdued, though interesting, interview Chang is conducting with Waithe that just happens to take place at various locations throughout the city—that is, until the pair walk into a bowling alley in search of some of the city’s best food. Once Waithe and Chang enter Gardena Bowl, there’s a palpable shift. The episode instead becomes about two people making new discoveries, learning and trying new things, and rejoicing in the fact that such wonderful things can exist in unexpected places. Here, it’s Chang’s personality and interests that come through, conjuring an energy that’s reminiscent of the best episodes of Ugly Delicious—and the best of Ugly Delicious is very good indeed. The draw is not personality, but ideas, questions, and philosophies about food and culture.
That’s the real, admittedly late-arriving strength of “Los Angeles with Lena Waithe,” but it’s the stumbling block of the most frustrating episode of the quartet. “Phnom Penh with Kate McKinnon” is the most solemn of the four—fitting, for an episode that takes place in Cambodia. McKinnon, still funny throughout, strikes a mostly reflective note, gamely engaging in the conversations Chang initiates about the nature of comedy, her relationship to politics, life as an oddball, and so on. But she’s also obviously curious about and drawn to this place. Yet the episode remains somewhat superficial, failing to offer any real insight into the country, the people who live there, or the emotional experience of the travelers. There’s a veneer of thoughtfulness, but not much beneath it. That only becomes more striking when Chang attempts to tie the adversity of his childhood, and McKinnon’s, to Cambodia’s past; of all of the slightly off-notes the series strikes, there’s none that clangs quite so loudly as the moment when Chang suggests that greatness can only come out of hardship—you know, like Cambodia, and like he and Kate McKinnon.
It’s a real head-scratcher, and while that’s by far the most jarring example, it’s a fitting one to point out. BL&D just isn’t quite as smart as it looks, or as a superficial overview might make it seem. That doesn’t mean it’s without value. The cinematography is beautiful, particularly when the camera soars high above the city that’s in focus. The show’s more experimental moments, such as the series-opening sequence that illustrates Chang’s concerns about shining a light on small, off-the-radar restaurants in off-kilter fashion, are often delightful, though that’s another arena in which the show’s debt to Parts Unknown doesn’t always serve it well (a Casablanca or Apocalypse Now reference does not a profound artistic statement make.)
Above all else, though, it’s fun. Profundity isn’t a prerequisite, and just because it’s not always achieved doesn’t make the attempt unworthy. But something that’s genuinely enjoyable, effervescent as Champagne, and comforting as a big bowl of soup, is just as difficult to achieve. That’s where Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner succeeds, and when it does, its successes are irresistible.
If we’re lucky, there will be another installment of this series—or, given Chang’s relationship with Hulu, a similar show elsewhere. If he’s interested in probing, layered, political storytelling about places, their histories, and how those histories affect the present, it’s likely that a second at-bat will prove more successful than the first. But whether or not there’s another Cambodia-like episode in his future, more of the joyful show glimpsed in those first two episodes could not be more welcome. Sure, it’ll make you hungry—but it’s likely to make you happy, too, and that’s far more rare.