Ugly Delicious is a new Netflix series brought to us by Chef David Chang of Momofuku and food writer Peter Meehan. Like many shows of this ilk, each episode explores a different food or concept – from tacos to fried chicken to pizza and more. Though technically titled “BBQ”, this episode does explore the food-over-flame customs of other cultures – Korean BBQ in Los Angeles, greens over flame in Noma in Copenhagen (huh?), Peking Duck in Beijing, and yakitori chicken from Tokyo. Those are nice and all (and well worth watching the entire episode) but I’ll focus on the barbecue I’m used to in this write-up.
The episode kicks off with Adam Perry Lang prepping and starting a beef rib smoke at 4am in the morning in Los Angeles. 10 hours later, he pulls the beef rib out of the smoker and serves it up to David, Peter, and novelist Amelia Gray. The conversation over the meat that ensues discusses traditional vs. new and whether barbecue is uniquely American, setting the table for later segments in the episode.
Choice quote from Adam Perry Lang:
“I think the traditional barbecue is freaking unbelievable and I don’t want to change that…but I really look at it as live fire cooking. Beef and pork with fire creates a super flavor.”
The episode then moves to the Whole Hog Extravaganza, a pitmaster convention at the famed 17th Street Barbecue in Murphysboro, IL with some serious talent in attendance from Asheville (Buxton Hall Barbecue), Nashville (Martin’s Bar-B-Q Joint, Peg Leg Porker), and Austin (Micklethwait Craft Meats).
At 8:50, they go back to the discussion in Los Angeles on the regionalization of barbecue but I honestly don’t understand the point that David Chang is making here:
“That’s what bothers me is that it became regional because someone decided to take a chance to do something a little bit different. And I hate when things become an institution”.
Huh? Is he saying that he wishes barbecue was somehow more homogeneous throughout the South? How does “things becoming an institution” fit into that at all? And what’s wrong with something becoming an institution? This is not a coherent argument to me.
The episode then takes a detour to Koreatown and Copenhagen from 9:55 until 16:21 before returning back to the Whole Hog Extravaganza in Murphysboro.
You may recall that Carey Bringle railed against the True ‘Cue pledge in 2015, rejecting their claim that true barbecue is only smoked over wood only because he himself uses both wood-assisted gas smoker as well as wood-fired pits in his restaurants. Well, it seems as if he is still at it in 2017:
People get caught up in pits and people get caught up in fuels. And they get really passionate about it. I’m passionate about telling people: “Don’t tell me how to cook my shit.” It’s about what ends up on your plate.
Next, we get an extended scene of Elliot Moss breaking down a pig and explaining his story behind Buxton Hall and why he does what he does (“it’s always been in my heart”). He mentions that being in Asheville means people care about where their food comes from so he uses pasture-raised hogs which are quite expensive. Which for Moss, just means that he uses every part of the animal.
For the amount of labor and love and how many people’s hands touch it, it should be one of the most expensive things you can buy for food.
Back to Koreatown at 18:11 where David Chang asks “why can’t you cook Korean barbecue like american barbecue?” – more on that later. Then, a detour to Beijing before back to Murphysboro at 27:12 for the late night hours smoking whole hogs. Elliott Moss describes smoking pigs as a psychedelic adventure or journey between the fire and being awake for 20 hours. Then, the pitmasters feed the folks, with Elliott with a nice touch of asking to feed the farmer of his pig first. That’s a wrap on Murphysboro before heading to another mecca of barbecue, but this time beef…
Peter Meehan gets to Snow’s BBQ to meet Tootsie and have a true Texas barbecue breakfast. And this segment really focuses on the story of Tootsie, the famed pitmaster behind Texas Monthly’s #1 barbecue joint in their 2017 list. You can see why she is so treasured in Lexington and it gets a little dusty when she reflects on how lucky she is:
It’s quite an honor…a lot of people out there love me and I love them.
One last detour to Tokyo at 35:04 before David Chang doing his own korean and american barbecue fusion back in Los Angeles (41:13) in the form of soy-pear marinated short ribs. Chang says he has never seen barbecue cooked this way but that just means that he hasn’t had the good fortune to have made it to Heirloom Market BBQ in Atlanta, which is doing exactly what he says he hasn’t seen. They use korean flavors but smoke american barbecue to somehow make it even more american.
I always appreciate new barbecue content, and Ugly Delicious certainly fits that bill with this episode. My minor quibble is that I get what they are doing with exploring meat-over-flame customs in other cultures, but I kind just wished it stayed in Murphysboro, Lexington, and LA instead of heading to Copenhagen or Tokyo.
I will say, writer Peter Meehan (who as of the filming was working on a barbecue book) did capture it perfectly when he said this:
Barbecue has become this thing that the further I’ve waded into the swamp, the further I want to go because there’s that much more to know.
I can completely relate.
Ugly Delicious is available from Netflix and all episodes are available now for streaming