At its best, the first season of Ugly Delicious—Netflix’s globetrotting culinary documentary series from David Chang, Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom), and others—took a dish, ingredient, or cuisine and used it as a jumping-off point for a bigger discussion about the world, all while remaining a solid food show. It was always the latter, but when it managed to accomplish the former, it became something really special. That was the case with “Fried Chicken,” the excellent sixth episode, which put Chang’s inquisitive mind and self-awareness to fascinating use. And it’s true, as a whole, of the show’s outstanding second season. In these four episodes (half the length of the preceding season), the Ugly Delicious team consistently asks questions and follows where both food and history lead, and that willingness to learn, to acknowledge where their own knowledge and cultural awareness might fall short, has resulted in a series that’s even more surprising, enlightening, and personal than before. Ugly Delicious was a solid, interesting TV show. Now, it’s essential viewing.
The format remains the same, though it’s more fine-tuned than before. Chang has something on his mind, food-wise. Whatever it might be—food made for children, Indian cuisine, steak, or shawarma/döner—that subject serves as a delicious catapult, sending him toward new ideas and questions. But the dishes remain a kind of gravitational force, and Chang and the series return to them again and again. Many of the episodes are anchored by a meal he shares with someone else (usually a few different someones), their ongoing discussions forming a throughline even as Chang wanders further and further afield; those guests sometimes go exploring on their own, too. (Ever wanted to visit a carbon-positive cattle ranch with Helen Rosner? Now you can.)
While the format hasn’t shifted, the conversations have, and that’s due in part to a change in who’s sitting down at the table. There are still famous faces from outside the food world—Danny McBride, Edi Patterson, Aziz Ansari, Bill Simmons, artist Dave Choe, and Nick Kroll all turn up—but by and large, the guests either work with food directly or write about it from a critical or historical perspective. It’s a group predominantly made up of people of color, many of whom are also women; all are able to speak with authority and passion about food, culture, politics, gender, sexuality, economics, history, race, the list goes on. This means that while many of the series’ themes start at kind of a 101-level examination (How can steak be both prohibitively expensive and affordable? What is curry, exactly?), the show arrives at thornier, more complex conversations more quickly, because that’s where the people involved tend to live. “I can’t believe we’re eating with hands on camera,” Ansari’s brother Aniz says casually, as Chang sits down for a meal with that family. In another such moment, baker Reem Assil gently points out that the term “Middle Eastern” is a meaningless “colonizer’s term”: “East of where?”
“So much good food happened out of bad things,” Chang says at one point, referring to the path taken by the practice of cooking meat on a skewer—a path forged by people forced to flee the place they were born. But he also says that “deliciousness, as a whole, is like a meme. It’s going to find a way to survive.” There’s a lot of pain in that fact, and it’s reflected in these conversations, which return again and again to the idea that white people take what they like from the foods of other cultures and then erase the culture from the food (turmeric lattés, chocolate hummus, etc.). With Ugly Delicious, Chang and Neville are doing their part to erase that erasure, following question after question back and back and back as each episode radiates outward from its starting point without ever leaving it behind.
Nor are the conversations limited to race, geography, and culture. Of these four episodes, the one that spirals outward most effectively is the remarkable “Steak.” In 51 short minutes, it manages to use sliced beef as a springboard to explore economics, gender, sexuality, privilege, and the drive to eat what we’re told is elite and judge those who dare to do otherwise. Every time you think the episode (directed by Dara Horenblas) has arrived at its most interesting point, another emerges. It is a top-tier example of how to explore all the nooks and crannies of a particular subject without losing the thread. By the time the episode arrives at its final meal—a quietly moving conversation at Washington, DC’s Annie’s Paramount Steak House, a restaurant beloved by many in the gay community—it’s likely that the hour will have upended some of your thoughts on steak as a signifier of wealth and masculinity.
In the course of that conversation, writer David Hagedorn says, “Without community, a restaurant is just, what? Eating.” It’s a fitting end to that hour, but also a lovely sentiment for the series as a whole, particularly the first episode, “Kids Menu.” It’s a dramatic departure from the rest of the series, but with its unparalleled intimacy and honesty, it’s also the epitome of what Ugly Delicious aims to do. Directed by Neville, the episode begins with a recording of Chang telling the director that he and wife Grace are expecting; it then cuts to an interview with an emotional Chang sharing video of the moment the couple told their parents, all immigrants, the news. That’s how it begins, with weeping parents celebrating new life and an introspective Chang wrestling with what that all means. That’s the baseline. What follows is a profoundly personal hour, a portrait of two parents-to-be offering an honest, open look at their relationship, their hopes and fears, thoughts of mortality and failure and weakness and judgment and joy. It even makes time to interrogate the “rules” that govern what people can and can’t eat while pregnant, why those rules exist, and what they say about our perception of motherhood.
It’s poignant and unflinching, and while perhaps not as formally impressive as “Steak” or “Fried Chicken,” it’s an hour of television that feels like a privilege to watch. The food is, as ever, important, whether it’s Grace visiting a sushi bar or Chang learning to make school lunches for a band of judgmental third graders. (There’s also a taste test with a baby, and this writer would support any law demanding that more baby taste tests be committed to film.) And like the other episodes of this excellent series, it is unafraid to admit what is unknown, and to demonstrate that learning about the world, through food or any other lens, is a process that never ends. Food is something with which we have a lifelong relationship; it is a need that never goes away. Ugly Delicious asks us that we treat the pursuit of knowledge the same way. What a delicious idea.