David Chang On Chloe Kim, Domino's Pizza, & The Bright Future Of Ugly Food

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
What is really great pizza? Depending on who you ask, the answer to that question could vary from a greasy New York City slice to Japanese sushi pizza to a late-night order from Domino's. But, what's the right answer if you're asking a celebrity chef and restauranteur? In the first episode of Ugly Delicious, somewhere between watching Momofuku mastermind David Chang eat a mayonnaise-based pie and complete his second Domino's delivery of the day, we started to realize that there isn't one.
Chang's new documentary series, which premieres February 23 on Netflix, explores the deeper meaning behind "ugly delicious," a term he has used extensively on Instagram. As to what it means exactly: "Anything that's ugly," he explained to Eater last year. "Like curry — curries are probably the ugliest food you could possibly make. A lot of Korean food, some Chinese food, is ugly if you look at it from a Eurocentric, American point of view. It's beautiful and quite natural for basically everyone else." In Ugly Delicious, Chang goes beyond appearances to unpack complicated food culture and history, while continuing to point out that taste is subjective and swings wildly based on the person or community.
To learn more about the series, Refinery29 spoke with Chang ahead of the premiere. Below, he shares his thoughts on why we need to embrace diversity in the modern food world, what it was like to cook for Olympian Chloe Kim, and how Domino's Pizza carved out a permanent space in his heart.
You've said that talking about "ugly delicious" food forces us to confront "the hard cultural questions that pretty food tends to obscure.” What are some of these questions?
"So many of the cultural truths that we understand about food are not always wrong, but are incomplete truths. I think the best way to describe it is talking about fried chicken. I didn’t have a full understanding until we actually started filming of how it embodies so much of American history — and actually none of the good parts of American history. Sometimes food can embody many historical things that are a legacy of hardship and turmoil and oppression. Ultimately good things can come out of it, too. There are good stories. Food is such a perfect vehicle to talk about culture because it’s something that we can all relate to. You can have many viewpoints and one can be just as valid as the other."
Do you think big restaurant meccas in the U.S. are moving toward embracing the concept of “ugly delicious”?
"Inclusion is happening — but I think it’s just the beginning. It’s not just New York or Los Angeles. I think you’re seeing great food happening in just about every town in America. I don’t want to be hyperbolic and say the world, but you’re seeing it; people care more about food, good food. Eating well is easier than ever before. I think a lot of these stories are going to come out naturally."
You recently surprised Chloe Kim with that delicious churro ice cream sandwich. Are you a fan? How did you hear about her tweet?
"I’ve been a fan of Chloe’s for a while now. I remember when she was trying to qualify for the U.S. team for Sochi — technically she qualified but she couldn’t [participate] at 13. The reality is, there just aren't that many Korean athletes, let alone female athletes that are Korean American, that are best in class in their sports. So, I’ve been rooting for Chloe from a distance for a long time.
"Being able to represent NBC at the Olympics was a very surreal opportunity. She was coming in to speak to Mike Tirico and I didn’t want to bother her, because everyone wants to meet and talk to and take a photo with Chloe Kim. I had my opportunity, but I actually declined; I wanted to keep my distance. Of course we were following her tweets about how she wished she ate her breakfast sandwich and talked about churros. She seems to be a precocious 17-year-old that happens to be the best snowboarder in the world. I think one of my friends or one of the producers, someone said, 'Hey, you can’t do this,' like it was a challenge. So I said screw it. I went into the kitchen and fried some pizza dough, found some ice cream, cinnamon, and sugar. It all happened in five minutes. But that was the least I could do — privately, of course, I wanted to meet Chloe, so it was awesome to be able to root for her — and the fact that she won gold, it was the least I could do to show my appreciation."
In the first episode of the show you talk about Domino's Pizza. What do you love about it?
"Well, that was the first pizza I grew up eating. I remember being able to get Domino's delivered and to get that as a treat once a month or once every couple weeks — that was just the best. I grew up thinking Domino's was the best. But there’s quite the contrast between the pizzas in Naples and Tokyo versus Domino's versus Lucali’s pizza in Brooklyn. Again you'd think a lot of people would dislike Domino's, but numbers prove otherwise — I think many many people around the world love Domino's. I think there is a time and place for it, at least for me.
"But I’m taking it from a perspective that just because someone likes Domino's, doesn’t mean that they may not love other pizzas. They just haven’t gone down that journey yet. They haven’t been to Tokyo to eat pizza; maybe they will. The worst thing that I could say is, 'Oh Domino's sucks, that means your taste sucks.' That’s not true. It just shows that multiple truths are available, you just have to take a step back and look at it. I think one of the things the show does in retrospect is to say that before you develop a firm opinion about anything, try to think about it from another person’s perspective as much as possible and collect more data before making an opinion and a judgement. And even when you do, realize that [opinion] should be open-ended as things are constantly changing."
What do you want to see more of in the food world in 2018?
"I’m excited about all the different foods that aren’t mainstream that are coming to the forefront, wherever that might be —whether that’s a small town in middle America or a big city like New York. As cliche and trite as it may sound, the fact is there’s so much diversity out there and that’s what we should be celebrating. Food shouldn’t be this monolithic thing; you should go out of your comfort zone and try something out. Even if it’s something you don’t understand, it doesn’t mean that it’s bad. I think probably what I’m most excited about with food in general is the fact that people are beginning to really be open to diversity in our business."
What was the best thing you ate while filming the show?
"So many things...But, now that I’ve been thinking about it a little bit more, I think when I had the Yakitori at Masakichi in Tokyo that was one of the best meals I’ve ever had; it was so simple. And I’ve had great Yakitori before, but that stopped me cold in my tracks in terms of how delicious it was. And I realized, as delicious as it was for me, it may not be for someone else — and that’s what’s so subjective about food."
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.