Why David Chang Thinks Houston Is the Most Exciting Food City in America
In his upcoming Netflix series, Ugly Delicious, Chang examines the notion of authenticity.
If you ask David Chang his favorite food city in America, there is no hesitation: It is Houston. This, despite the fact that he just opened his first L.A. restaurant, Majordomo — the latest addition to his impressive pantheon, none of which are in Houston. This, despite the fact that he does not care for the weather in Houston, or the landscape of Houston. But if there is a single city that captures his own food philosophy, it is here.
Because the thing about Houston is that it's not bound by tradition, or stifled by it. Part of that is the sheer diversity of the place. “On paper, it has the most diverse population in the world,” Chang points out. But it’s more than that — lots of cities are diverse. It’s the Houston is a place “that’s trying to forge a new narrative for itself.” And so there’s room to innovate, to combine and recombine cultures. It’s a city after Chang’s own heart. (It's worth noting that Houston was incredibly well-represented on this year's list of James Beard Award semifinalists.)
According to the press materials for Ugly Delicious, Chang’s new Netflix series, a collaboration with Oscar-winner Morgan Neville (premiering February 23), is about “coming face to face with hard cultural questions that pretty food tends to obscure.” And it does do that, in a slow-burning, Chang-ian sort of way, as the chef travels the world exploring what might be described, in a college course catalogue, as “Topics in Food.” There is an episode on barbecue, and one on fried chicken, and one framed as a debate over whether Asian or Italian-style dumplings are best.
But the show is also an argument, not against authenticity, but against the fetishization of it.
“There’s good authenticity and there’s bad authenticity,” he tells me. “I think authenticity is good when you’re trying to preserve something, or trying to introduce a cuisine to someone who hasn’t had it before. But if you only pursue authenticity, I think that can be a bad thing.” Take pizza, Chang says, pointing to the subject of the series premiere. “If I tell someone I think the best pizza in the world is being made in Tokyo, people immediately get offended about it — or not offended, but they just question your judgement.” But in a way, Tokyo’s Savoy and Seirinkan are “arguably doing more authentic, Neapolitan pizza than any other pizza outside of Naples, because they’re not importing anything.” And isn’t that actually more in the Neapolitan spirit, to use local ingredients, even if those ingredients don’t have the Italian seal? “Sometimes,” he philosophizes, “being authentic is not doing anything that’s authentic.”
Which brings us back to Houston, site of the “Shrimp & Crawfish” episode, which is, it goes without saying by now, not just about shrimp (or crawfish). Instead, it’s a tale of two cities: Houston and New Orleans, and how one city changed, and one city didn’t. The case study: Viet-Cajun, a hybrid cuisine — Vietnamese and Cajun — that evolved in Houston. In theory, it could have evolved in New Orleans, too — the city also had a huge influx of Vietnamese refugees in the late '70s. But it didn’t. In New Orleans, the crawfish has remained mostly unchanged. Why?
“New Orleans is all about tradition,” Chang says, a little baffled. “Which I really didn’t appreciate.” It’s not that he’s a gadfly, exactly, he clarifies, but “I’m always going to be like, 'Why don’t you change everything?’” And so New Orleans’s devotion to the way things are done in New Orleans doesn’t totally compute. “I don’t come from any tradition, really. I can’t understand what that’s like, because I’ve never had that lineage before.”
But Houston — Houston he gets. “It’s still on the Gulf. It has a lot of Cajun culture,” he says. “But it’s not beholden to anything, because it’s so diverse. The fact is, they can screw around with crawfish in a way that people in New Orleans cannot, at least currently.” Not that the show is trying to unravel the social and cultural history of the Gulf — and the world — in a single 47-minute episode on crustaceans. “We’re simply trying to say, ‘Hey, maybe you should look at this in a different way, but that’s up to you do decide.’”