Food is culture. That’s kind of the central premise of the Netflix series Ugly Delicious, which is part food show, part travelogue, and part documentary. The series’ eight-episode first season delved deep into foods like pizza, barbecue, and tacos as host/executive producer/world-renowned chef David Chang investigated what makes a pizza a pizza, or what technically constitutes a taco. But quickly, the show hit upon the idea of charting culture through food—how does a traditional pizza made in Naples become a Domino’s pizza? What does pizza mean to the people of Italy vs. the people ordering delivery? This offered a means to explore not just how the food changes from place to place, but who the people are in each place, and why they eat the food they eat.
That central premise continues throughout Ugly Delicious Season 2, but with a more personal bent in which Chang turns the camera towards himself in four all new episodes. It’s no coincidence that the first episode of the second season (which is also the series’ best so far) is ostensibly about “kids food” but is really an hourlong documentary film about Chang’s anxieties about his impending fatherhood. Director Morgan Neville (an EP on the series, but also the director of the Oscar-winning doc 20 Feet from Stardom) gets intimate with Chang and his wife Grace as they prepare for the arrival of their son, and in a revealing moment Grace reveals that Chang has been incredibly emotional about the entire ordeal.
Indeed, this first episode isn’t really about food at all, but about the work/life balance of someone who’s built a career out of non-stop work. Chang visits the restaurants of friends to see how they balance having a family and running a restaurant, and there are candid testimonials from other notable chefs about how putting work before their children affected their relationships. Chang wonders if his professional life will suffer while also worrying about not being capable as a father. It’s touching and intimate, and extremely relatable. Which makes it all the more special that it fits right in on this “food” show.
Ugly Delicious is, at heart, about people after all. In another new episode centered on steak, Chang operates under the premise that a person’s steak order says a lot about who they are personally, emotionally, and even politically. But through his conversations and travels, and as he investigates what a “steak dinner” means to different people, he comes to learn maybe just because someone orders their steak well-done doesn’t mean they’re automatically a rude/bad/conservative person. In a true moment of self-reflection, Chang and fellow chefs stop to consider whether they’re the problem. Who are they to say a steak bought at Costco doesn’t qualify as a “steak dinner,” if the socio-economic dynamics mean that a Costco steak is the absolute best that some people can afford. If they like it, and if it still feels special to them, can it be considered “incorrect?”
Self-reflection is a recurring theme throughout Season 2, as Chang travels to India with Aziz Ansari to learn about a food culture he knows little about and comes out the other end with his mind blown regarding India’s impact on food the world over. And in the last of the four new episodes, Ugly Delicious travels to the “Middle East”—an admittedly broad and unfair term—to explore how displaced people have shaped culinary history. It should come as no surprise that the episode hits hard on immigration, Trump’s “travel ban,” and xenophobia.
Chang’s charisma and cocksure attitude continue to make this show a fun watch, but it gets a fun twist when he’s frequently humbled by new revelations—food-wise or fatherhood-wise. The special guests make this season interesting as well, with a varied roster that includes Ansari, Padma Lakshmi, Danny McBride, and Bill Simmons. The latter accompanies Chang to an Outback steakhouse, and the renowned chef’s pure delight at the invention of the Bloomin’ Onion is indicative of his willingness to admit when good food is good food, regardless of price point.
At every turn Chang is learning something new. If Season 1 was about challenging long-held ideas about food, Season 2 is about exploring entirely unknown arenas, and what we stand to gain when we can admit, “I don’t know.” The show is all the better when Chang and its litany of wildly talented and smart guests admit when they don’t know the answer, which always provides a more satisfying avenue for understanding and knowledge. Not just about food. Not just about culture. But about humanity.
Ugly Delicious Season 2 premieres on Netflix on March 6th.