The debate wasn’t exactly fierce. In fact, as David Chang sat around a table with Angie Mar and a couple of food writers, they pretty much agreed that you could judge someone for how they take their steak. Ordering it medium well or opting for a filet mignon over a ribeye made you worthy of derision. But in typical Changian fashion, he immediately started poking holes in his own assumptions about doneness and cut, causing the group to carry on like a gaggle of philosophy majors going down the rabbit hole. But this wasn’t a dorm room at 2 am; this was the opening scene of an episode of the new season of Ugly Delicious.
From there follows a globetrotting journey to explore the cultural, class, environmental and gender assumptions wrapped up in steak. They go to Australia to see steak cooked at the live-fire restaurant Firedoor. There’s a trip to a ranch to talk about meat production’s negative effects on the environment. They go to an Outback Steakhouse and wonder about how steak is wrapped up in luxury. And the trips go on. In watching Chang’s travels, you realize that beef may seem simple on the surface, but it actually contains multitudes once you start peeling back the layers. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the Netflix series’ sophomore effort, which debuts today, where an otherwise benign topic serves as a gateway to traversing the twisting labyrinth that is David Chang’s brain. And like the best version of dorm-room debates, season two of Ugly Delicious is fun, informative, engaging and occasionally grasping for depth that’s not quite there.
Like the first season, episodes are structured around themes instead of delving into a single location as most travel-food shows are. Along with the episode simply titled “Steak,” there are three others focused on food for babies, Indian cuisine and meat on vertical spits, which is really a Trojan Horse for talking about food from the Middle East (a term in and of itself that comes under scrutiny). But season two is different than season one. It opens with Chang telling his parents that his wife is pregnant with their first child. It’s an episode about pending fatherhood as much as it is about baby food and is an early indication that this season is more personal to Chang than the first.
Part of the increased focus on Chang comes from the absence of Peter Meehan, Chang’s co-creator of the influential and dearly departed food magazine Lucky Peach (Meehan and Chang’s disagreements over the magazine caused them to stop working together). Meehan was an integral part of the first show as a guide through topics like barbecue and a counterpoint to Chang’s arguments. Without him, the show leans more on Chang and the cast of characters surrounding him. It works because the Momofuku chef exists now at the cross section of food and entertainment, where he comfortably moves between conversations with chefs like Mar, Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi and comedians Danny McBride and Aziz Ansari.
Yet, with half as many episodes as before, and clearly time pressures in filming with Chang’s travel schedule rightfully curtailed by needing to be with his pregnant wife, season two is a less expansive adventure than season one, which was gleefully shaggier and a bit more raucous. And there are moments that fall flat. In one scene, a writer opines on the environmental degradation of factory farming and then later visits a single ranch that farms in a sustainable way. After the visit, the writer seems content again with eating meat because the cows are happy. In truth, a single ranch selling premium meat to those who can afford it still doesn’t solve the problem of factory farming. It simply salves the guilty conscience of liberals who understand the problems of the world and want their anxiety about it eased.
And yet, there are genuine improvements on season one. It seems the team led by Academy Award-winning documentarian Morgan Neville took seriously the criticism of season one that was a bit of a brofest. Thus season two has more female voices leading thought-provoking conversations, like when Priya Krishna, Sonia Chopra and Khushbu Shaw explain to Chang what’s wrong with a vast array of Indian cuisine getting lumped together under the term “curry.” It’s an illuminating discussion that shows that despite Ugly Delicious’s occasional flaws, it’s still the best food series being produced right now.