Dear David Chang

A plea for foodie celebrities like Chang, the host of a popular Netflix show, to take African cuisine seriously.

Still from Ugly Delicious on Netflix.

Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.

– Anthony Bourdain

The first season of the Netflix series, Ugly Delicious, drew considerable criticism for its lack of representation of women and African Americans. Honestly, only featuring black chefs on the fried chicken episode? Favoring male chefs and celebrities over female voices? What was the rationale for those decisions? But it seemed that the mistake had been recognized and would be addressed in future iterations of the show. At Recode’s 2018 Code Conference, Chang said that he had heard the criticism and promised that, if he were given a second season, he would “be able to do it better.” So, now season two is out and, in some respects, Chang did do better. “Don’t Call It Curry” may be one of the best episodes of culinary television that I have ever seen, focused heavily on female food writers and chefs in the Indian diaspora—including Padma Lakshmi, Priya Krishna and Sonia Chopra—and overlooked culinary masters like the late Floyd Cardoz. Kudos! But there are still some issues that could be addressed to make the show more impactful and relevant.

Is Ugly Delicious insightful? Often. Star-studded? Absolutely. Balanced? That’s hard to say. This show is about food from Chang’s perspective, and that outlook is inarguably shaped by the foods he himself is known for. The food he ate while working in Tokyo, the Korean meals his family made, the genius food that he created for Momofuku and his other successful restaurants. Of course Chang’s show is going to be heavily tilted toward Asian cuisine—his personality and his palette have been irrevocably shaped by these influences and his perspective is one we haven’t often seen in contemporary food media. But this is a man who begins this show by saying that he wants to learn about why food is delicious—and I think it’s difficult to talk about why food is delicious without considering why African food is delicious. I’m a huge fan of Chang and the show. None of this is intended to take away from the work he’s done to bring attention to underrepresented global cuisines. At the same time, Ugly Delicious focuses on the interconnections of peoples throughout the world through the prism of food. What better microcosm of that story than the impact of African food on the rest of the world, and vice versa?

On more than one occasion, Chang’s explorations have taken him within a stone’s throw of this exact subject matter, not only literally, but also metaphorically. In season one, in the episode “Shrimp and Crawfish,” Chang explores the Viet-Cajun phenomenon, visiting Vietnam, New Orleans and Houston. His visit to Houston placed him just blocks away from one of the most vibrant African immigrant food communities in the US, as evidenced in Marcus Samuelsson’s recent episode of No Passport Required. Of course, Chang’s episode focused on the intersections of Vietnamese and Cajun food traditions, and an African perspective on that may not have fit. But Houston is a true melting pot, and the African immigrant population in that city has profoundly shaped the food culture. You wouldn’t know that from watching this episode. In the season one episode on fried chicken, Psyche A. Williams-Forson, the author of Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs, tells Chang that West African slaves had a tradition of cooking chicken in palm oil, which barely registers with Chang before the episode moves forward to another subject. And, in the aforementioned brilliant episode on curry, Chang chooses to use the example of Herta Heuwer and currywurst to illustrate the global reach of curry flavors. How many African cuisines could he have explored that have been fundamentally shaped by the integration of Indian flavors? Bunny Chow in Durban, South Africa? Curry dishes in the Caribbean?

In season two, episode three, “Steak,” Chang explores global approaches to eating steak—or, rather, American, Asian, European and Australian approaches to eating steak. In Sydney, on Danny McBride’s recommendation, Chang visits Macelleria, basically a bourgeois shisanyama. What a missed opportunity to talk about how people eat steak in these non-white spaces. In the second season of a show that has visited every other continent save for Antarctica, you can’t help but wonder if the oversight is intentional or if Chang and his production team really have no knowledge of Africa at all.

However, Chang is aware that Africa exists … or, at least, South Africa and Morocco. In Ugly Delicious: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner—a spin-off show that sees Chang travel the world with celebrity friends such as Seth Rogen, Kate McKinnon, and Lena Waithe—he spent a day in Marrakesh, Morocco with Chrissy Teigen. And, during the aforementioned “Steak” episode, between his treatises on foodie culture and the absurdity of customers asking for well-done steak, Chang chides artist David Choe for ordering at Outback Steakhouse using a pseudo-Australian accent. “It sounds like apartheid-era South African,” Chang says before breaking out in giggles. Bill Simmons, the founder of The Ringer, joins, in saying “He sounds like Leo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond.” This exchange gets worse moments later when Outback’s famous Blooming Onion arrives at the table and Choe tells Chang that he thinks the franchise should develop an aboriginal backstory for the appetizer. “I love it. I think they should make up a whole story. This aborigine went on walkabout and, on his spiritual journey, came up with the blooming onion,” Choe elaborates. Simmons chimes in: “His name was John Blooming.” And Choe delivers the final blow with this gem: “All the steaks are cooked in the marsupial pouch of a kangaroo.” Chang shakes his head and wonders: “Why did we invite fucking Choe?” Why did you invite fucking Choe?

That raises another point: in each episode, Chang brings together food writers, chefs and celebrities to comment on the food tradition or phenomenon in question. Lolis Eric Elie, the writer and son of noted civil rights attorney Lolis Edward Elie, is a regular participant, but he frequently has to address questions that his white and Asian/Asian American counterparts do not. In season one, while visiting Busy Bee restaurant in Atlanta, Chang asks Elie if he should be referring to the food on the menu as “black” food or “soul” food. Later, in the same episode, the controversial Southern chef, Sean Brock, waxes poetic about the good intentions of white chefs cooking Southern food, while Chang nods along smiling. I defer to Michael Twitty here on the problematic nature of Sean Brock’s work. Chang has also garnered criticism through his frequent incorporation of comedian and foodie Aziz Ansari, causing some to wonder if Netflix hoped to set up a comeback for the scorned actor. The uneven representation on these “expert panels,” and the choices Chang makes in who he invites to participate, raises essential questions about Chang’s goals for the Ugly Delicious enterprise, not just in terms of his incorporation of African food cultures.

Honestly, it’s not Chang’s fault. The overlooking of African food cultures and destinations is endemic in food writing and television programing. For example, Anthony Bourdain—arguably the most important voice in modern food media before his death in 2018—filmed a cumulative 246 episodes of his shows Parts Unknown and No Reservations; only 11 of those episodes focused on the continent. On Somebody Feed Phil, the writer and producer Phil Rosenthal traveled to Cape Town and mostly frequented the white hipster restaurants that the Mother City has become known for—although he did take the advice of a local production assistant and went to grab a Gatsby at Golden Dish. Somebody Feed Phil has its own issues, but what it lacks in terms of insight, it makes up for in his charm and interviews with legendary New Orleans chef Leah Chase. Chang visited Dooky Chase, but didn’t bother getting interviews with Chase or any of her children.

On the most recent season of Bravo’s hit competition cooking show, Top Chef, Ghanaian-American chef Eric Adjepong made it to the final three, before his elimination after cooking the first course of a meal tracking the history of the trans-Altantic slave trade. (Adjepong later cooked his entire menu at Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio’s Craft restaurant in New York City). Adjepong’s elimination came on the heels of a season rife with excitement about his unique flavor profiles and a profound lack of knowledge on them from the judges and fellow chefs. When he made egusi stew, the judges described the dish as “too gritty” and, on other occasions, categorized his dishes as too simplistic. The lack of representation among the judges caused Vonnie Williams, writing for Food and Wine, to suggest that Adjepong’s:

season would have been the perfect opportunity to feature other guest judges of color … who would’ve been able to provide a more fluent understanding of West African food on the panel. While Adjepong’s third-place showing was admirable, his dishes and their reception were also a case study in the importance of diversity on both sides of the judges’ table—and that what makes a “good dish” can be as culturally subjective as it is personally.

These insights could be applied to the industry as a whole, which continues to highlight other food cultures over those from the continent and the diaspora.

This is a call for Chang to at least consider incorporating Africa into his global food explorations. Perhaps, in season three, Chang will consider including an episode on some aspect of African food and its massive impact in the diaspora. Chang loves to have a celebrity join him on his travels (witness Ugly Delicious: Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner series), so why not celebrities with connections to the continent like Issa Rae, Yvonne Orji, Idris Elba, Trevor Noah, Lupita Nyong’o, Jidenna, Daniel Kaluuya, Danai Gurira, or John Boyega to name only a few? Or, if Chang is looking for chefs or food writers, consider Kwame Onwuachi, Tunde Wey, Osayi Endolyn, Hawa Hassan, Essie Bartels, Eric Adjepong, Yewande Komolafe, Marcus Samuelsson, Pierre Thiam, Vonnie Williams, or Michael Twitty. Chang could even loop in Peter Meehan, the co-author of the Momofuku cookbook and frequent guest on Ugly Delicious, who reviewed several African restaurants in his capacity as restaurant critic for The New York Times, or Lolis Eric Elie who brought up South Africa’s love of Chicken Licken in the first season.

In a recent interview with Eater, Chang expressed his desire to expand his knowledge of food through his travels: “In the past few years, I’ve realized that there are huge gaps in my understanding of the world … For my own sake, I needed to know more.” Hopefully, even after a second season, he still strives to further expand his horizons.

Further Reading

Food is power

The World Food Program says COVID-19 will bring about a famine of biblical proportions, so it is a good time to revisit why food has never just been about the simple act of eating. Food is history. Food is identity.