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Chef and restaurateur David Chang, founder of the Momofuku group of restaurants, has earned numerous awards during his career, including Michelin stars and a prestigious James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Chef. But he’s up for a different kind of award right now that has him feeling perhaps a little flummoxed: an Emmy. His Netflix culinary series Ugly Delicious, on which he serves as both executive producer and host, is nominated for Outstanding Hosted Nonfiction Series or Special.
“[I’m] totally honored and floored, but I just don’t know. This is a completely different thing for me,” Chang admits. “When I spoke to people, they were like, ‘Holy s**t, Dave, this is amazing.’ If this was a culinary award, I would totally understand… But I think part of me is just trying to understand and maybe not to think about it too much.”
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Ugly Delicious, now in its second season, is a different kind of food-themed documentary series. In Season 1 Chang explored not haute cuisine, but food mistakenly perceived as less worthy of appreciation, like pizza as made in New York and Italy, and street tacos served up in LA and Mexico. Season 2 encounters him examining “culture surrounding steak” around the world, and the endless complexity and extraordinary tradition of Indian cooking, both in the U.S. and India itself.
“You could do a 10-hour series on just the difference and the variety in the food of India, and it would still barely scratch the surface,” Chang notes. “It wasn’t supposed to be this conclusive, definitive thing… We’re hoping that we can leave a trail of breadcrumbs for people where they could find out more information on their own.”
Chang represents a different kind of host, with a wealth of knowledge and passion, and yet a humility about what he explores.
“I wanted to be someone that was an expert in something and also wasn’t at all in other areas,” he observes, “and just wanted to see that sort of fallibility from a host perspective, where we’re going to leave in things where I messed up, or I look stupid, and we could have easily edited out… That was an important thing, is the screw-ups we wanted to leave in as a host.”
There’s something else that makes Chang distinctive in this nonfiction arena—his heritage.
“Being an Asian-American and specifically Korean-American was something that you don’t really see at all on television,” he notes. “I think that was something that made me realize that I had to do the best job I possibly can do, because that was important to me to have that kind of platform… Just like in the food business, I want everyone to leave a restaurant being completely satisfied and feeling they got value, but not trying to compromise along the way.”
Season 2 begins with a very personal journey for Chang, becoming a father for the first time with his wife Grace Seo Chang. Their son, Hugo, is now 17 months old. Chang says it wasn’t easy to be so open about personal matters.
“I’m, by nature, not someone that likes to reveal anything about myself, but everything we want is on the other side of fear,” Chang comments. “And I want to challenge myself and the more transparent I can be, I think that is a positive thing… I knew having these conversations with my wife first and foremost, that she needed to sign off on this, was going to be imperative… And I think that overcame any kind of nerves that we had about doing it.”
As with other episodes of Ugly Delicious, “Kids Menu” approaches a topic—baby food and food specifically prepared for children—and subtly introduces other ingredients.
“There’s always something that we’re trying to use as a Trojan horse, because we don’t want this show to only be for people that like food,” he insists. “We want it to be a sort of gateway to explore different topics and how things are connected in culture… So maybe someone doesn’t care about food, but now they will care about food a little bit more because they were parents.”
The Emmy nomination comes at a time of incredible challenge for the restaurant business, which has been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic. Thousands of restaurants around the country have been shuttered, many fated never to re-open. Chang’s Momofuku Group has adjusted.
“We’re just doing take away delivery. We spent a considerable amount of time creating protocols about how to handle food in a world of COVID-19,” Chang tells Deadline. “That’s what we can control is how to operate best in class, in a safe way for our employees and for potential diners. And we’ve closed three restaurants. We hope that number doesn’t increase.”
Chang and other industry leaders, including Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio, have authored a proposal urging major changes in the restaurant business that eventually emerges post-COVID. It outlines steps to forge a more just and equitable industry, including elimination of “tipped minimum wage” for wait staff.
“I can sort of help reimagine what the future of the business needs to be, and in some ways, creating solidarity in our industry… and asking ourselves, what do we need to fix? Because we’re going to have to rebuild,” Chang states. “Let’s not rebuild it on the foundations that were poor to begin with… I think we need to really help out the people that work in restaurants first and foremost.”
Chang is also forward-thinking about food shows. As Deadline reported earlier this month, he is creating a new documentary food series for Hulu with his Ugly Delicious producing partner, Oscar winner Morgan Neville, to be called The Next Thing You Eat.
“It’s going to be different than obviously what we’ve done with the Netflix team, and intentionally,” Chang confirms. “We want to talk about the future of food in all its myriad of ways.”
In the meantime, he is spending quality time with his wife and baby son.
“He’s been an absolute joy,” Chang says. “In some ways, quarantine, as difficult as it’s been, I oftentimes think to myself that this is weirdly the best time as well, because I would never be able to spend this much time with him. And for that regard, I’m incredibly thankful that we did say yes, and we did document his birth and my wife’s pregnancy, because I think it’s beautiful. And I’m really proud of what the entire team did, and it’s our story.”
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