Chef David Chang on When to Respect Tradition and When to Blow It Up

A discussion with the acclaimed chef about his new Netflix show's exploration of how culture and food intersect.

david chang massimo bottura

On a visit to Italy, David Chang—film crew in tow—stops by to see one of the world’s great chefs, Massimo Bottura, to discuss Italian food. As Bottura lovingly fills and shapes some tortellini, Chang stops him and blurts out, “This is wontons—it’s a mini Chinese dumpling! This isn’t tortellini!” Bottura laughs, looking around him incredulously as if he’s waiting for someone to tell him this is all an elaborate prank.

Though Chang laughs along, he’s not totally joking. Throughout his new Netflix series Ugly Delicious, Chang is in search of these cross-cultural connections in our food as he tries to divine larger meaning from what we eat. “It’s not talking specifically about the food, but using it as a vehicle to talk about subjects that give us a different perspective on the subject,” Chang tells Robb Report.

Each of the eight episodes is built around a single topic—like fried chicken, BBQ, or pizza. Chang and his friends travel the world from Tokyo to Shanghai to Denmark to Houston in search of how these foods are created and interpreted by different cultures—sometimes bastardizing a cuisine, while other times creating something new and amazing. Like how in Houston, Vietnamese and Cajun cultures have combined to make Viet-Cajun crawfish. Or in LA, Roy Choi has melded Korean and Mexican cuisines in his Kogi trucks. We spoke with Chang about the new project to discuss tradition, appropriation, and why he’s so opinionated about food.

For those not as entrenched in the food world as you are, they may be surprised to see you in Houston so much. What draws you to that city?
Houston is super interesting: Number one is, there’s no city ordinance to keep you from building many things, like you can almost do whatever you want. So, that in itself has a lot of freedom. There’s a certain amount of economic benefit that’s drawing people there. No state tax, blah, blah, blah. But on paper it has the most diverse population in America on this last census. It’s got the Gulf of Mexico. You’ve got great natural resources, and you have people who have money to spend it. That’s almost like a perfect storm to allow food to turn into something else, and, to me, Houston is that. The more I’ve gone to Houston over the years, the more I’ve studied it, it’s got some of the most interesting if not the coolest stuff happening.

So, of course, we want to tell that story, particularly with what is Viet-Cajun food. And that’s something a lot of people don’t understand, but Vietnamese food and Cajun food have a lot of overlap and similarities. And it’s turned into something that’s quite seamless in its crawfish—how they make crawfish. Then to be able to tell the other side of that story in New Orleans, the guardian of probably the oldest food culture in America. And how different they are. So, trying to just tell stories that are there but maybe give it a contrast like they didn’t have before.

When you traveled to New Orleans, you would challenge the way they approached food. How do you balance a respect of tradition and not just blindly adhering to the status quo?
I’m still coming to terms and thinking about it even after filming. It has pros in Houston. I love New Orleans. New Orleans is an amazing town. I’ve been there many, many times and I will continue going there because I love the history, I love the culture. But my initial reaction is to almost be like a bulldozer just to see what happens, because that’s just how I am as a person, and then I reflect about what I might have broken after the fact. And with New Orleans, I was just like sort of like, “Hey, why don’t you just change this? Why don’t you do this? Why just merge this, and evolve this?” And they were like, “Because we’re New Orleans. You’re not from here. You don’t have to carry the burden of being a citizen of New Orleans. We have to do this, or we’re not New Orleans anymore.” And the more I think about that, I’m like, “They’re absolutely correct. Like, why would I know what that’s like?” I can’t just be an outsider and be like, “Hey, yeah, you should change that.” You can’t do that.

And that takes time to reflect, and that’s what makes New Orleans, New Orleans. And I continue to think about how a city like New Orleans can be something similar to a food city like Kyoto, which has restaurants that are 1,200 years old and has a lineage that is incredibly long with food culture. And having got to Kyoto and knowing the chef there, someone like Murata Kikunoi who says to me, “Hey, change happens, it just happens very slowly.” We can be radical, we can be revolutionary, but that might take several hundred years because they have to be Kyoto. They can’t just do it overnight like I would like to, or they would like to.

You have strong opinions and emotions behind food. Where does that derive from?
Growing up and being told that I wasn’t right, or I was wrong, or what I believed was stupid. I think it was just grown out of that allergic reaction of being told that I can’t do something, I can’t like something.

You talk about your childhood in the show, where as a kid you were told by others that your food was stinky. And there seemed to be a resentment of people not growing up in the culture now getting accolades for cooking that culture’s food. How important is representation in cooking?
My opinion of that is constantly changing, and the show has caused me to rethink everything, even the opinions that I thought that I had fully developed. And part of that is if someone wants to take something, I want them to be respectful to the point of where like it’s an homage or they’re paying tribute, but they’re doing it different too. The reality is I’m beginning to think that even the act of copping a recipe off of a book or YouTube where someone from Ottawa, Canada, is making Korean, and before they were just making French food—maybe that’s okay. The passage of time might allow them to question who they are, what they’re eating, and maybe they’ll do the right thing. So, it’s a pretty complicated topic, but I’m beginning to think that you just got to do what you do, whether it’s right or wrong.

Where do you draw the line between homage and appropriation?
I always use the sort of thesis, for me, personally, that in the era of like 10 years ago when everyone was doing modern gastronomy and, for lack of a better term, molecular gastronomy. I would tell cooks, “Hey, would you serve this if Ferran Adria came in to eat?” And if the question was, “Yeah.” And they were confident, then that’s what we would do. And if you can’t serve it to the culture that you’re sort of paying homage to, then you shouldn’t do it at all with a clean conscience.

But a white chef like Chris Shepherd, he’s someone you think doesn’t cross the line.
He’s a great person who gives credit to all the inspiration.

In an early episode, co-creator Peter Meehan seems more optimistic that food can lead to broader cultural acceptance, but your remained skeptical. Did your opinion change over the course of filming?
I don’t know if it’s changed per se. I still feel pretty confident that acceptance, true acceptance, only happens with reflection. And I think that still goes with food, today. Let’s just talk about fried chicken. The world over wants fried chicken, but like to really accept it and to understand, maybe you’re going be way more respectful if you understand the history of how and the hardship it’s born out of. So, there are two kind of ways you can do it. You can just eat it blindly, but like I think in order to take it to the next level, you should understand where it came from and the history behind it and the culture that shaped it.

A subject that kept reoccurring during the show was what is food worth? Where does the price you can charge for a dish come from? Aesthetics? Affluence of the population that consumes it? Race?
Increasing the value of dishes that I think people should charge more for is going take time. And part of the show is to not expedite, but to have these conversations so that change can happen. So, if you go into a restaurant, and you don’t understand why the service is curt, and what you believe to be rude, or you don’t understand why they’re using a different kind of silverware, but you’ve read that, “Man, people really love this restaurant,” but you don’t understand it. It doesn’t mean that it’s not a great restaurant. I think first and foremost, you can’t do that until you’re ready to accept a culture that you’re not familiar with. And not to label it as, “Oh, it’s foreign, and because it’s foreign, because it’s different, it’s not as good as what I’m used to.” That’s going to take a long time.

Why do you think Japanese cuisine has commanded higher prices?
That’s a tough question that I really don’t have an answer to because I think it could be a variety of things. And I’m not a sociologist, or economist, so it could be simple immigration patterns. It could be the media portrayal. I don’t know. Maybe if we ever do a season two, that should be a whole episode in and of itself. But it’s like, why is it cool to do Japanese food and not okay to do like Malaysian food, and why is that considered less, or whatever? Not to just make examples. Like, I don’t have that answer. I wonder it myself all the time, but it definitely seems to be an acceptance of things Japanese more than any other Asian food.

That notion of a cuisine’s worth is explored in the final episode, where you poked a little fun at Italian food when you debated Mario Carbone about whether Asian food or Italian food is better. From Nishi to this, it seems to be a subject you’ve been thinking about a while.
I think about it a lot. I mean, the good thing is I’ve been friends and cooked with Mario Carbone for a long time, and those that know me, know that I always complain that everyone loves Italian food, and it’s got way more acceptance even though the population numbers in America are roughly the same between the aggregate of Asian Americans versus Italian Americans.

Yeah, Italian food has won over the world, and we could go on and on about that. It was simply having a tongue and cheek jokey thing with someone that I joke with about all the time. All we do is make fun of each other, and that was it. And through that humor, maybe we can provide some larger points, like, “Wait, why do we charge a bowl of noodles 50 percent less than a bowl of pasta?” Why is that when they’re essentially the same thing? That was really it. And to break down some of these preconceived notions, these biases that we have. We all have, including myself.

shrimp boat

You said some opinions you’ve had were really challenged in the making of this show. What was the most profound one?
It was during the Trump Muslim ban and we were filming with a Vietnamese family. It was interesting to see that there was quite a parallel between this family of war refugees coming to America, living the American dream. And I was shocked to see that in this moment where the world needed openness—and this was a family that just did it themselves 34 years ago into prosperity—that they would be close minded and closed off. I was disappointed that I wasn’t more open to hearing it myself.

That this family wasn’t as willing to pay it forward and offer others an opportunity in America?
What I’m trying to say is just because they feel that view doesn’t mean they’re wrong. That’s really hard to listen to, be patient, and not finger point. I was really trying hard, and I wanted to be more open, and maybe the only way for them to change their viewpoint is to just listen. And the reality is, privately, I was like really bummed out, and I think some of that was captured on the camera. But after I thought about it, after I’ve seen the edits of that episode, I’ve begun to think that, “you know what? If I’m truly trying to be empathetic, maybe I would be no different if I was in their situation.” It’s easy for me as someone that’s Korean that didn’t grow up in that conservative town, that didn’t have to be persecuted by the KKK, that didn’t have to work a shrimping boat. My life is very different. If I’m truly going to try to be devil’s advocate then I would probably be just like them, because quite frankly, they had to assimilate to survive, and I’ve never had to live that life.

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