David Chang: People Should Honor The Cultures That Ethnic Food Comes From

"All I ask is that it’s respectful. All I ask is that they pay tribute and understand it and [the food is] an homage to where it came from."
Courtesy of Netflix

Chef David Chang has always been known for challenging diners’ tastebuds. But recently, he’s making people look at different foods with fresh eyes.

The restaurateur, best known as the founder of the Momofuku restaurant group, has been the champion of the #uglydelicious movement on social media since sometime in late 2016. He’s frequently posted photos of dishes ― many of which are ethnic cuisines ― that are not seen as aesthetically beautiful in the Western mainstream media, yet are absolutely, well, delicious. Chang has said that it’s a way to embrace foods like those home-cooked Korean foods he once found “uncool.”

The movement speaks to many Asian-Americans like myself, who grew up experiencing a tug between two cultures. So many of our childhood memories include trying to navigate between our sometimes secret love for our cultural foods while withstanding the contempt directed toward our immigrant families for our “weird” or “smelly” dishes.

#UglyDelicious is something that perfectly encapsulates that perpetual dichotomy. And it’s also a mark of unapologetic pride. Because damn, our food is delicious.

HuffPost recently sat down with the Chang, who’s gearing up for his new Netflix show, also titled “Ugly Delicious.” The show, which premiers on Feb. 23, explores the intersection of culture and food.

Chang talked to HuffPost about his connection to his Asian-American identity, what he learned while filming the series and also why kimchi ice cream should not be a thing.

Many of us grow up embarrassed about our ethnic foods but as we get older and learn more, we reclaim them and learn to embrace our identities. Has your perception of your family’s own Korean dishes changed over time?

Absolutely. That sentiment of being embarrassed about it and hiding it ― my story is not unique. The only thing that’s unique is that I’ve been given a platform to talk about it. It’s something that, from an Asian-American perspective, it’s important that these stories are told. I don’t know if these stories have been told, at least in a national media audience.

I’m 40 years old, and maybe it’s just the sheer passage of time, but I’m comfortable with this ― I’m not comfortable with being American, I’m not comfortable with being Korean, I’m OK with being something in between. This is what I like, and don’t tell me it’s not valid.

Have you also had that moment in the lunchroom during which you opened up your lunchbox and people gawked at your ethnic food or made fun of it?

Of course! Those are probably some of my most impressionable memories ― being vilified and made fun of and bullied for the food I was eating. It’s only natural I’m going to want to reject it as I grew up.

And there was a double standard. In my house, I loved it. Outside my house, I hated it.

So there’s been a lot of criticism from the Asian-American community toward non-Asians who are claiming our native foods or cuisines and labeling them as trendy and subsequently legitimizing them in a way. What’s your take on this?

Asian-American food, Asian food in general, is not the predominant food and it’s going to be widely misunderstood ... My viewpoints on it are changing. It’s about moving the conversation forward. If someone wants to talk about it, and promote it ― fine. All I ask is that it’s respectful. All I ask is that they pay tribute and understand it and [the food is] an homage to where it came from.

Do you think there’s a specific way to respectfully present kimchi, for example, from a white chef?

Yeah, I think people do it all the time. For me, my simple litmus test is ― if someone wants to make Korean food, great. Doesn’t mean they have to be Korean. But ... It’s like, hey, I’m not trying to make kimchi ice cream. [Laughs] It’s making a dish and using it in a way that’s going to be respectful of both cultures you’re trying to fuse together.

In the series, we see you and Ali Wong talking pho. And she’s saying how good pho isn’t all about a nice bathroom and nice service― it’s the authenticity of the pho. What’s your philosophy on that?

I think what Ali was saying is you can still have a very clean bathroom and have great pho but the point is, don’t lose sight on the food itself. “Rude” service at an Asian restaurant might not mean it’s rude service. It might not just be Western service ― it’s about looking at it in a different light. If you’re looking at things from a Eurocentric point of view, it’s going to look “weird.”

The series explores the cultures behind the food. But did you feel closer to your own culture as you were filming the series? Or did you learn more about yourself?

I think what changed was I tried to be more respectful and more empathetic and know that many of the things that I believe might be wrong.

My viewpoints, for instance, on New Orleans have changed. One of the episodes deals with shrimp and crawfish in Houston and New Orleans. It uses shrimp as a vehicle to talk about change and respect and tradition. New Orleans is centuries old and part of the reason why people go there is the French Quarter and history and lineage. It has to carry this old beautiful tradition that Houston doesn’t. Houston can do whatever it wants.

When I initially finished the show I was thinking, “Houston to me is a better food town. It’s more interesting.” But for a lot of reasons, Houston is not beholden to history like New Orleans is ... Because I’m not from New Orleans, I don’t know what that’s like but for some chefs born and raised in New Orleans. That’s a burden they have to carry that I can never understand. I can’t be like, “Hey New Orleans, move faster.” Because they can’t. They have to be respectful. It’s wrong for me to be like, “New Orleans isn’t as good as Houston.”

What do you think Asian-American chefs are doing right, or what mistakes are they making? Do you have any advice?

My advice to Asian-American chefs is to find your own voice; find your own path. Because that can be a multitude of things. Don’t think it’s just one thing.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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