A restaurant is, metaphorically speaking, a chef’s baby. It consumes their life, demanding tunnel-vision focus, round-the-clock attention, and above all, enough love and care to justify working 14-hour days. But what happens when the chef has an actual baby? The restaurant, the cooking, the singular focal point — “All of a sudden, that changes,” says chef Tom Colicchio in the Season 2 premiere of Ugly Delicious, David Chang’s hit documentary series about food and culture. “You have something else that you’re responsible for.”
A parent’s life can be divided into the stages B.C. (Before Child), and A.D. (After Delivery); for the majority of “Kids Menu,” the first episode of Ugly Delicious’s second season (now out on Netflix), Chang exists somewhere in the middle, anxiously awaiting the birth of his first child. His Momofuku restaurants, he points out, have “more or less” been his kids since the first one opened in 2004. The difference, his sister Esther and wife Grace remind him as Chang fails to get his niece to use her toy kitchen correctly, is that a child is not one of his employees — he can’t get mad and yell at a baby. It’s a time of apprehensive introspection for the chef, as he considers the unknown territory that lies ahead, one that will fundamentally change him and the life he’s built. In his words, “There’s a big moment of reckoning right now between old Dave Chang and ‘Dad’ Dave Chang.”
This four-episode season of Ugly Delicious is filled with such moments of uncertainty. At first glance, two of the episodes — “Don’t Call It Curry,” about Indian food, and “As the Meat Turns,” about the collection of disparate cuisines that make up “Middle Eastern” food — seem like they could be slotted right into Season 1, which cohered around the shifting boundaries of of iconic dishes and cuisines, and a questioning of culinary “authenticity.” Really, though, if there’s one theme that undergirds this season, it’s that Chang is owning up to what he doesn’t know. That’s not an entirely novel development; as Helen Rosner writes for The New Yorker, “Chang’s appeal as a celebrity chef has always been his raw candor” and how he likes to “chew through thorny issues in public.” But here, Chang’s admissions of his own ignorance are imbued with a new thread of personal humility, forming the basis of a season in which Chang freely declares himself “that asshole” who knows nothing about Indian cooking, who mixes up Arab and Iranian cuisines, whose previously held notions of steak and politics are rendered, if not wrong, then at least further complicated. So please, the season’s ethos seems to say, watch him learn.
Part of that comes through in how Chang delegates his work to others this time around, sending even more of his friends and collaborators around the globe without him. In the third episode, “Steak,” some of the most memorable scenes take place with Chang nowhere to be found, like when artist David Choe enjoys a schvitz and steak in a Detroit bathhouse, or when writer and historian Lolis Eric Elie dines at the famous Bodega El Capricho in Spain. Rosner herself meanders across the green hills of a California ranch that touts happy cows and sustainable agricultural practices. The spectrum of guests lets the show go to more places and do more things this time around, while also appearing to address criticism of the first season of Ugly Delicious for a lack of diversity, particularly when it came to including women and black people.
The steak episode is the most uneven installment of the bunch. Yes, it’s ambitious in scope, breaking new ground for the show in the questions it raises about beef consumption and gender, politics, animal welfare, and the environment. But in tackling all of these heady issues, the strength of Ugly Delicious — in being, essentially, a series of sprawling, probing essays in television form — becomes a shortcoming here. The question of whether or not one should still eat beef in a time of climate crisis is not an easy one to answer, but the vague conclusion — “Life is hard, but we’re gonna celebrate this moment and the time we have together,” says Chang — elides any sense of personal culpability or deeper reckoning. It’s perfectly fine not to have an answer to everything, but should Ugly Delicious get renewed for another season — and I would be thrilled if it does! — I hope to see Chang delve deeper into untangling moral ambiguity. (In other words: I’m calling for a “Vegan” episode.)
Of course, the greatest unknown in the Ugly Delicious universe is what comes next for Chang. Can he continue to burn the candle at both ends as his life is shown on the precipice of a momentous change? In “Kids Menu,” he imagines two diverging paths: “I have a picture of me being a bad parent. I have a picture of me not being able to be present, me being on planes. The alternative is, I just want to make bento boxes for their school lunches. That would give me a lot of pleasure.” He doesn’t yet have an answer to this, either, but watching him work through it with naked vulnerability is the emotional peak of the season. It’s undeniably compelling to see a chef like Chang, often referred to in the press as a “bad boy” in the early days of his career, crying multiple times throughout the episode: while telling his parents over the phone that Grace is expecting; while talking about his friend Anthony Bourdain, whose death coincided with the the couple learning they were pregnant; while filming Grace in the hospital before the delivery, Chang’s sniffles audible from behind his phone camera.
The baby episode is the perfect beginning, and the perfect end, to round two of Ugly Delicious. In fact, that’s how I would recommend viewing it: Watch the entire season once through, and then go back and watch “Kids Menu” again. There’s a satisfying feeling of resolution to see that this season premieres almost exactly a year after the birth of baby Hugo Chang. On the show, Chang posits that parenthood is a form of reincarnation: being the best version of yourself so your children can be the best version of themselves, “a continuous link.” Feeding his kid, too, is a link in that chain: “It almost brings cooking back to why you cared about it to begin with: I’m here to put all of myself in this so you can get some nourishment and love from it.”
All four episodes of Ugly Delicious Season 2 are now streaming on Netflix.
Disclosure: David Chang is producing shows for Hulu in partnership with Vox Media Studios, part of Eater’s parent company, Vox Media. No Eater staff member is involved in the production of those shows, and this does not impact coverage on Eater.