Ugly Delicious is not food porn. I don’t say that to diminish the appeal of food porn, mind you. If I flip past the Food Network and catch a glimpse of The Taste, or At My Table—or really just anything with Nigella Lawson in it—I’m so totally onboard. I’m in. And with Chef’s Table, Netflix has proven itself more than capable of producing some of the best food porn known to man.
So, when the first episode of Ugly Delicious popped up in my recommended watchlist, I nearly dislocated my thumb scrambling for the select button. And five minutes into the first episode, I thought I had the show pretty well figured out. It comes off, at least at first, as something like a more erudite Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, with a much more likable host (chef, author, and restaurateur Dave Chang, who you may remember from PBS’ The Mind of a Chef) and much less emphasis on unabashed gluttony.
By the end of its first 54-minute episode, I found myself drifting away from that comparison, because if anything, the tone and spirit of Ugly Delicious reminds me less of any food show I’ve ever seen, and more of some of my favorite food podcasts. A dash of The Sporkful. A sprinkling of Gastropod. A heaping helping of The Splendid Table. But even those comparisons fall short, because the truly delightful thing about Ugly Delicious is that it manages to carve out its own unique space in the landscape of culinary media.
And that might be because it’s really less about food and more about our relationship with food. The first episode, which focuses on pizza, really establishes the thematic undercurrent of the series brilliantly, especially in the way it grapples with the notion of authenticity versus honesty. We meet quite a few people during the course of the episode who have strong opinions on the right or wrong way to make a pizza. (In fact, after taking us to a pizzeria in Connecticut that makes a delicious-looking clam pizza, we immediately meet another pizza chef who scoffs, “You want clams? Have spaghetti and clams! That’s where clams belong—on spaghetti!”) But if there’s one message that comes through loud and clear, it’s that nothing is sacred. And yet, in a weird way, when it comes to food, everything is sacred. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such irreverential reverence.
Ugly Delicious manages to get away with such contradictions because, as I said above, it’s really about humanity—and humans are nothing if not contradictory. The show also manages to work in conversations about food as culture. Food as politics. Food as identity. Food as rebellion. It grapples with issues of race and ethnicity, of geographic bigotry, of tradition, and it does it all while fueling one’s desire to eat in so many of the deliciously delightful locales spotlighted in its eight criminally brief episodes.
Honestly, if Ugly Delicious had even a whiff of pretention about it, it might be a little too heavy-handed to enjoy. But if anything, it’s a backlash against the pretentiousness that permeates shows of its sort. True, the delightful cast rips hard into Taco Bell in the episode on tacos (while trying to come to some consensus on what even is a taco). But Dominos and KFC aren’t anywhere near as reviled in the episodes on pizza and fried chicken.
Perhaps the most curious thing about Ugly Delicious is that despite its use of food as a lens through which to view ourselves, it probably captures the essence of eating better than any food show I’ve ever watched. Each episode truly feels like a meal, and I don’t mean just the eating part. I mean the conversations. The camaraderie. Indeed, the arguments.
So, if you’re looking for some truly delicious food erotica, give it a try. And even if you’re not into watching people eat and travel and talk about food, give it a try anyway. Because Ugly Delicious isn’t merely the best slice of gastronomic programming since 2011’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It’s probably one of the best new shows of any genre to drop in the past year.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.