Chef David Chang is probably the most trending celebrity chef in the world right now, thanks in no small part to his hit Netflix series, Ugly Delicious. If you haven’t seen the show, it’s outstanding. Educational both gastronomically and culturally, with a healthy dose of Chang’s unique brand of raw honesty and opinionated commentary. For Houstonians, particularly those of us who are invested in this city’s food scene, the show marks an important milestone in our city’s struggle for culinary respect. Episode 4 of season 1 brings to global attention what proud Houstonians have known for years; the Bayou City is a food destination on par with, or better than, any of the world’s great food towns. In terms of diversity, authenticity, and creativity, H-Town may well be second to none.
“Crawfish vs. Shrimp” is the name of the Houston-centric episode 4 of Ugly Delicious, though the first 20 minutes could have been called “Houston vs. New Orleans”, as this is the comparison that Chef Chang uses as a launching point for the episode. As a lifelong Houstonian who spent three years living in Louisiana, and has more Cajun friends than one cares to admit, I’ve heard more than my fair share of Houston trash talk. Nowhere is this anti-Houston sentiment felt more strongly than in New Orleans. New Orleanians just seem to hate Houston (because I guess they hate strong economies, diversity, functional roads, and competent government). But honestly, for those of us Houstonians who truly love the Big Easy, their irrational hatred of our city kind of stings. So I must admit that watching Chang gush over Houston’s Viet-Cajun crawfish while absolutely lambasting New Orleans chefs who refuse to break tradition was deeply satisfying. Chang does conveniently gloss over the fact that, while culinarilly creative and culturally inspired, Viet-Cajun crawfish is typically much spicier than traditional Cajun crawfish, and as such does not tend to agree with the average American palate. Nevertheless, his outpour of support for Houston’s multi-cultural food industry is pretty fun to watch.
The show is not without its faults however. Around the thirty minute mark, Chang sits down for a traditional Vietnamese dinner at the home of a Vietnamese-American family of shrimpers. During the dinner Chang peppers the self-described “Vietnamese Rednecks” with loaded questions about Middle-Eastern refugees and whether they should be given the same economic opportunities as Asian-Americans received back in the 1970’s. Johnny Tran, the son of Vietnamese immigrants, born and raised in the Gulf Coast as a fisherman and shrimper, answers Chang’s questions in a more conservative way than the obviously progressive chef was hoping for. Chang later uses Tran’s answers as an indicator that the city’s immigrant populations have naturally integrated with Texas’ strongly conservative mindset, which the host sees as a tragic loss of empathy for modern immigrants. I took issue with this assumption for two reasons. First, the Tran family are shrimpers living along the Gulf Coast, most likely in Pasadena or one of the many fishing towns that, while technically still within the greater Houston area, are far more politically conservative than Houston proper. Second, as Chang mentions earlier in the episode, Vietnamese immigrants in the 1970’s faced a harrowing journey to America, followed by years of racism and attacks by the Klu Klux Klan. In the 40 years that followed, families like the Tran family have found acceptance in the Gulf Coast, in part due to their willingness to assimilate, both culturally and politically. Chang, in an unintended display of his East Coast mentality and privileged upbringing, fails to see the Tran family’s conservative values as a fundamental aspect of their ability to coexist within their community.
As the episode draws to a close, Change sits in the dining room of Houston’s culinary crown jewel, Underbelly, with his makeshift panel of Houston chefs, led by Underbelly owner and executive chef, Chris Shepherd. Chang poses a question to the group that illustrates an unfortunate misunderstanding that he has about Houston. He asks the group if Houstonians will soon be able to accept Middle-Eastern food as widely as they have accepted Asian food. Immediately every member of the panels responds that Houston already does accept Middle-Eastern food and culture in the same way. Of course, they are absolutely correct. Houston has more shawarma shops and Halal grocers than nearly any American city outside of New York. In fact, sitting in the dining room of Underbelly, Chang was less than two miles away from Halal Guys, Houston’s widely popular food-truck turned brick and mortar, and within five miles of dozens of halal-fusion eateries serving anything from fried chicken to Chinese food. Chang sadly brushes off the emphatic responses of his panel and quickly changes the topic.
In the end, episode 4 of Ugly Delicious is still a triumph of Houston’s cultural diversity and incredible culinary attractions. Despite his political interjections and brash oversights, Chef Chang does far more good for Houston’s reputation and image than harm. His approach of brutal honesty and controversial questioning is a refreshing alternative to food shows that typically feature a host pouring undeserving love and admiration onto every restaurant and/or chef that is ever featured on their show. When dealing with Chang’s brand of unbiased coverage and raw opinions, one must learn to take the good with the bad. Despite my objections to some of his opinions, I applaud the show for its goal of cultural outreach and political education through the medium of food.