Chang’s Madeleine: ‘Ugly Delicious’ and the Problem of Authenticity

Netflix

Ugly Delicious is billed as a “mouthwatering, cross-cultural hunt for the world’s most satisfying grub”. Delicious food is featured, sure, but Ugly Delicious mostly exists as as a therapy couch where we, alongside David Chang, chef and owner of Momofuku, et al., investigate cultural anxieties (to a certain extent) and (white) America’s relationship to Asian cuisine.

In order to examine something, it must be held in contrast to something else. David Chang uses Ugly Delicious to explore not just the significance of authenticity, but to examine why Asian food and, through it, culture, isn’t seen as authentic an experience as Italian cuisine. Authenticity takes on many meanings over the course of the series. It comes to mean nuanced, rich, expensive, painstaking, homey, refined, respected. The lack of respect given to Asian cuisine, to Chinese food in particular, is of great concern to David Chang. His fear that Korean food, now that it has entered fully into the American culinary zeitgeist, will undergo the same mass commercialization and American-taste adaptation as seen in certain areas of Chinese, Italian, and Mexican food, becomes more pronounced as the series progresses.

Chang’s anxiety is never more plainly addressed than in the fried chicken episode, which happens to be the only episode featuring Black people. I presumed Black people would maybe show up in the crawfish episode or the barbeque episode, but midway through the latter I realized Ugly Delicious’s purpose: to explore the fluctuating relationship between Asian cuisine and white people in America. My assumptions about Black people’s inclusion in certain episodes are informed by what I perceived to be their importance to, and influence on, particular aspects of American cuisine. A mistake I admit to. Ugly Delicious isn’t truly concerned with how the (white) American palate was formed, just how it can be convinced to take Asian food seriously, without it being watered down to suit what is assumed to be the (white) American taste.

But I digress. The fried chicken episode is a primer on the matter of appropriation, the insidious subtlety of racism, and the whitewashing of food history. Heavy topics, indeed, that must be viewed through the most immediately accessible perspective: Blackness. This tension is nowhere more clear than in the matter of hot chicken*.

When Nick Bishop Jr. explained to David Chang how he and his father came around to creating the hot chicken sandwich powering their burgeoning franchise, David Chang mentioned the criticism, and asked two tough questions: how they (Bishop and Sean Brock, another chef with a hand in the hot chicken scene) can be respectful of those who inspired them, and if they are worried about killing what inspired them. When I first watched this exchange, I thought it a sincere inquiry based on Chang learning the connection and history of fried chicken and Black people in this country. I thought it was borne of frustration on behalf of Prince’s and Bolton’s. Upon reflection, it is likely Chang substituted Bishop Jr. for any white guy making Korean food and subsequently making Korean food cool. He wants to know what that white guy is thinking and how he will defend against cries of appropriation. He doesn’t want to be Bolton’s or Prince’s. He doesn’t want to be left carrying the water while other people drink it. His fear, that only a white face can make a food authentic, is well-founded because it’s true, look at hot chicken. Look at tacos. Look at barbeque. Look at crawfish.

The other question, about ruining that inspiration, is more commercial in nature. Hattie B’s is more successful because it launched in East Nashville and operates out of a well-appointed space with lots of gleaming light and affluent traffic. Does this kind of success contribute to strangling the business that came before? Does placating bias in turn erase the story behind the success, the connective stuff that powers ingenuity? Chang is afraid the complexity behind certain cuisine, the reason for its existence, gets lost once it passes into hands only concerned with how to capitalize on it.

I have to break here and say, even though this episode truly pissed me off, David Chang’s incredulous response to Dollye Graham-Matthews, owner of Bolton’s, rather open and accepting view of Hattie B’s making hot chicken “safer” for white people to consume, is my reaction every time I hear this nonsense. It’s not real. If there’s love in your heart, don’t mention the rent in East Nashville or the white people. Why tack on that bullshit? Just speak plainly about it. Some proprietor of color, somewhere, done with being polite just because cameras are rolling, will say, “It’s spit in my eye. On the basis of color alone, these white guys can take what I’ve been doing for decades, market it to white people, and turn a profit. And they say ‘homage’ like its synonymous with ‘royalties’. It is infuriating. The only other option is to give up and die, so I have to keep living.”

It delighted me to hear Chang say he can’t like kimchi made by some white guy. That’s an honest response, because that’s relatable to the entire experience of having something that belongs to you subsumed by someone who generally views you as an ‘experience’ and any enterprising notion you may have as a ‘fluke’. My parents are West Indian and are excellent cooks, and whenever some white person asks my mother, “How do you make this?”, there’s the presumption the recipe will find its way to the market and be hailed as some kind of new culinary revolution. And I get it, God, do I get it, but the execution is baffling.

Let’s feature the only African-American guests of the series in the episode acknowledging how fried chicken is encoded with racist ideology in the U.S. The parallels Chang wants to make, especially with Edouardo Jordan of Salare and JuneBaby, are there but it gets lost in the cautionary-tale infused atmosphere. Jordan is a chef who also struggles with expectations of what he should cook and what he wants to cook, with authenticity and innovation, with carrying the water and drinking from it, and Chang missed an opportunity to put the questions plaguing him to a fellow chef who could probably relate more to his issues than Rene Redzepi or Wolfgang Puck.

It is what is. And Ugly Delicious is concerned with one thing and one thing only: figuring out how to make Asian cuisine as expansive as Italian cuisine. Pizza is as American as lo mein, but as Chang pointed out, a plate of four raviolis could be $20 but a basket of dumplings only $8. What would make an American go to a restaurant and spend $20 on four steamed dumplings? Why aren’t purveyors of Asian cuisine charging more for consistently delicious, high quality food? Why can’t that price variance applicable to everything from lasagna to meatballs to pizza be the same for dumplings and fried rice and pulled noodles? Chang is right to be vexed. Ali Wong is also right when she said people knowledgeable about food know that just because it’s more expensive doesn’t mean it’s better.

Wong, semi-jokingly, says people would riot if steamed dumplings cost $27. I could’ve sworn I heard Chang emit an agonal, “But why, though?” This is the ur-question. Why? Why won’t people pay more? Why is Japan (frequently visited as a counterpoint) able to adapt so many different tastes so well without the cultural appropriation angst? Why does authenticity matter?

I joked to my sister that Ugly Delicious is market research for how to sell Korean cuisine to (white) Americans. This was before “BBQ” (episode 5), the same episode where Chang vocalizes his desire to open a Korean restaurant. It makes sense. Throughout Ugly Delicious, Chang discusses his Korean heritage. He touches on the cuisine, but not too closely, as though it is too difficult to explain without stepping on personal landmines. He talks about his desire to be white, if only to belong to a group. He explains that, to Koreans in Korea, he isn’t considered an authentic Korean. He goes to Beijing and Tokyo and Copenhagen (a lot) but we never visit Seoul. He spotlights Rosio Sanchez, an accomplished Mexican-American chef, dealing with the perception she isn’t Mexican to Mexicans, but still forging that connection through a return to her roots. He features Edouardo Jordan who resists the stereotype of what an African-American chef is supposed to cook by marrying tradition and modernity. It’s no coincidence that these two young chefs of color who trained at renowned restaurants also own or head restaurants that cater to a white, affluent clientele, and serve food inspired by their culture for prices well beyond what their parents might have paid.

Ugly Delicious isn’t about deconstructing authenticity. It’s asking why authenticity matters so much to David Chang. Answering it requires looking inward, and looking closely. It matters because he wants to appropriate his own baggage and make a profit. He wants to do it without suffering for it. He wants Noma’s clientele to taste his family’s history in kimchi jjigae and pay $45 for it.

That’s not a usable or inviting summary for a show about food, especially for a growing programming giant like Netflix, but it’s much more involved, and genuine, than the creation myths of Michelin-starred gods (Chef’s Table) or the quixotic wanderings of a culinary flâneur (Bourdain’s No Reservations and Parts Unknown). Because it is more personal, it will be political. And uncomfortable. And selfish. And problematic. It will leave people out of the story (women) and will box another set of people into one part of the story (Black people) and will glance over another set of people because a Michelin-starred god is doing something really cool with those people’s food (Mexicans and Rene Redzepi).

The Noma Mexico portion of “Tacos” bothered me for reasons I couldn’t name until I read Pete Wells’s non-review of the $750 per meal pop-up. It is a lesson in surreality watching Pete Meehan and Rosio Sanchez observe the local women making corn tortillas, then cutting to the low-key extravagance of Noma Mexico and seeing those same women making those same tortillas to be part of a meal they could never afford. The experience underscored that idea, Wells writes, “of a meal devoted to local traditions and ingredients that is being prepared and consumed mostly by people from somewhere else.” Ugly Delicious isn’t content to leave it there, however. It profiles Eduardo Lalo García of Máximo Bistrot and Enrique Olvera of Pujol, two renowned chefs of Mexican heritage running their exclusive restaurants in Mexico. They make traditional food using local ingredients, but the clientele are of the same group who probably snapped up a palm shaded table in Tulum. Near the end of Wells’s review, he states, “Luxury goods tend to float free of the everyday world and create their own cultural context, one of wealth and exclusivity.” This is a definitive criticism of Noma Mexico, but is the same applicable to those two restaurants? Is something lost when a person of color combines the exclusivity of wealth with the memories of their cultural kitchen? Is authenticity dependent on not just the people cooking it, but also the people consuming it?

It is easier to destabilize the concept of authenticity than to reckon with it. To do so would mean confronting whole histories when we’ve grown accustomed to cherry picking them. Confrontation means recognizing how a Rene Redzepi can be hailed as a visionary for making tacos while the women he employs to make that vision “authentic” are not. It means understanding that Edouardo Jordan and Rosio Sanchez and David Chang can be true to the memory of their filial palate and also serve these remembrances to a wealthy, majority white clientele.

Authenticity is mutable. It isn’t simple. Sincerity is required. History, memory, necessity, pain, love and more feed into it. It is a fraught concept, but not one that needs to be demystified or deconstructed. It isn’t a myth. Authenticity can’t be replicated unless it comes from a well of deep understanding, of personal attachment. It separates places like Bolton’s from Hattie B’s, my Mom’s johnny cakes from the crap in a packet, David Chang’s idea of kimchi from that white guy’s kimchi — it’s memory. It’s knowing where it came from, how it came to be, and, by knowing this, being able to carry it forward.

Through Ugly Delicious, Chang is trying to figure out the mechanics of how to preserve and build upon the authentic, rather than why it matters. Why is the concern of chefs in the Rene Redzepi class, they need why to fuel their avant garde. How is more grounded, closer to the grain, and seen in the work of Edouardo Jordan and Rosio Sanchez. How exists in the remembrance of home food, of a person, typically a mother or auntie or grandma, cooking either from memory or a mixture of memory and necessity, with varying levels of emotional investment. Whenever Ugly Delicious ventures into the home or into the interior life of a subject, it gets interesting. The closer to the ground, the harder the questions hit. It’s a formula Chang and friends stumble on, and it’s one they should use to ask more questions about identity, more questions about the value of food, and more questions about who cooks the food and their relationship to those who eat it.

*Google ‘hot chicken’ and the first result is a Bon Appetit recipe for Hattie B’s Hot Chicken. Then there’s the hot chicken Wiki page, then the second recipe for Hattie B’s hot chicken, then the website for Hattie B’s itself. You gotta scroll down to the bottom of the page to see Prince’s Hot Chicken mentioned with some prominence, and it’s a link to their website. Hattie B’s, in case you didn’t know, did not originate the local sensation that is hot chicken. That would be Prince’s. Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack was founded in 1945 by a Black gentleman named Thornton Prince. Hattie B’s was founded in 2012 by two white gentlemen, Nick Bishop Jr. and Sr.

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