Deliciously Ugly: What storytellers can learn from David Chang’s bingeworthy feast
Break expectations boldly.
If you haven’t heard much about David Chang’s Ugly Delicious yet, I’ve gotta introduce you to my latest obsession.
David Chang is the founder of Momofuku, and a legend in the food world. His defunct Lucky Peach Magazine hinted at his ability to tell stories. Ugly Delicious, however is the full marriage of his food expertise and storytelling prowess.
I didn’t think I needed another binge watch focused on a mastermind chef or culinary adventurer. When Ugly Delicious showed up on my screen, however, it broke expectations in the tastiest way possible.
While Chef’s Table features a Vivaldi soundtrack and tweezer-plated elegance, David Chang runs in with loud visuals and confrontational interviews. While many food shows revere chefs that make meals most of us will never be able to afford, Chang bounces between four star restaurants, mom-and-pop Cajun joints, and Japanese convenience stores. Even his mom’s kitchen.
Chang colors outside the lines and in doing so rejects elitism, embraces new cultures, and provokes thought in the most refreshing way.
There’s a lesson in that for storytellers of all stripes. Breaking expectations is a strength. It’s tempting to apologize for the ways we don’t match expectations. Don’t! If Ugly Delicious had been a show that met my expectations, I wouldn’t watched beyond the first episode.
Instead, by leaning into the ways we won’t be the typical version of whatever-we-are, we find a way to be remembered.
Be refreshingly honest.
All throughout Ugly Delicious’ first season, David Chang questions the concept of “authentic” food. He argues that almost all dishes evolved from somewhere and continue to evolve.
This take is a bit ironic, because “authentic” is one of the words that come to mind when thinking of David Chang’s approach.
He’s direct and comes across as rude in some scenes, but he also seems to always say what’s on the viewer’s mind.
In a world where sales pitches and PR responses are overly canned and scripted, audiences are hungry for storytellers who can say what’s on their minds.
There’s one scene in particular where a group of chefs are talking about pizza and snobbishly dismiss Domino’s Pizza as terrible. Chang immediately questions if that chef has ever had Domino’s and calls out the group on their elitist attitude. One scene later he’s in uniform behind a counter at Domino’s about go on a ride-along.
I found myself cheering him on as he stood up for the unglamorous fast food, not so much because I love Domino’s, but because the other chefs were coming from a high and mighty world where the only pizza consumed have Michelin stars.
The script then flips a few hours into his ride-along where he asks the delivery driver if Domino’s makes the best pizza in the world. The driver unconvincingly says yes, and Chang is immediately turned off by the insincere sales pitch. He ends the ride-along abruptly.
Go where the story leads.
One of Ugly Delicious’ biggest strengths is that it feels like a natural story is being told. Chang often acts as a surrogate audience. His interactions feel genuine because of his emotional intelligence being tuned to how his viewer might respond to other people on screen.
There is no typical episode structure, no formula, and no stale predictability. He starts by investigating one question and allows that to lead into the next.
Chang is able to indulge his curiosity, ask more difficult questions, and make fascinating connections because he doesn’t force the show to follow any rules that aren’t necessary. If he wants to interrupt a diatribe about Nashville Hot Chicken with an animated retelling of the time he had an unbearably hot serving, so be it.
The episode that starts with Nashville Hot Chicken then goes to Japan to talk about how the Japanese associate Americans so strongly with KFC. This leads to a conversation with two black Americans living in Japan, and the challenges of stereotypes. Chang explores the uncomfortable origin of fried chicken as a stereotype and traces its roots back to slavery.
While understanding the structure of a story is important for storytellers, it’s also important to remember to stay in tune with your story’s energy and to see where it leads. Ask follow-up questions. Think of causes and effects, not always in that order.
By following the story, rather than forcing it, Chang puts together a show with heart. One storytellers can really learn from.