A Rolling Pin is a Rolling Pin is a Rolling Pin: A Phenomenological Rewatch of David Chang’s Ugly Delicious

Photo by Klaus Nielsen on Pexels.com

Emma Cullen

David Chang’s Ugly Delicious episode about filled pasta and dumplings, titled “Stuffed,” opens with a parody of a debate. The aesthetic is a cringe-worthy kitsch, where the representatives’ (Chang[1] and Mario Carbone[2]) ties match the flags of the country they speak for, and the setting is reminiscent of a middle school auditorium stage complete with worn podiums, fringed curtains, and the moderator (Peter Meehan[3]) sitting with his hands folded on a wrinkled tablecloth, set over the fold up table they’ve likely dragged from storage. This aesthetic works to unsettle the questions being asked in the debate, namely “who does it best?”[4] The debate, paired with the later scene of everyman Walter Green being served pre-packaged dumplings and stuffed pasta by his “fake butler”[5] and rating them with an inconsistent system, varying from “six point five and two-thirds out of ten,” “trip to hell and back,” and “D-plus.”[6] The farce of the debate is brought full circle when comedian Nick Kroll, who sits at the judge’s panel beside a row of motionless people, stands in false-exasperation, declaring there is no resolution to be had, and bizarrely revealing he has been wearing a winter coat as a blazer the whole time. The point is clear: these are not the right questions we should be asking.

The parody in the episode is complemented by an argument made by comedian Ali Wong, as she eats soup dumplings with Chang at the franchise Din Tai Fung. This is alluded to through a joke she has made in her stand-up about authentic Vietnamese restaurants. Wong paints a vivid image of a restaurant where the bathrooms feature gallon-sized discount soap and the waiters are too busy to focus their attention entirely on patrons.[7] This picture foils Green’s scene, characterized as it is by wide shots of the overtly affluent dining room he sits in, complete with a chandelier, oversized art, and formal table. Despite this environment and his fake butler, he is eating microwaved frozen food, none of which his pseudo-rating system characterizes as very good. In Wong and Chang’s scene at Din Tai Fung, they discuss the monetary value placed on Asian food versus Italian food, and Chang laments the cognitive dissonance.[8] This is one of the better questions the episode offers for the audience’s consideration. If pasta and dumplings are essentially similar, why is Italian food priced at triple the cost of Asian food? No doubt, this is at least in part because of racism, and the long history of how Asian cuisine has been treated in North America. Wong argues, “I think everybody knows that what you’re paying for [in Italian restaurants] is ambiance, and some bullshit story about where mushrooms came from, from the waiter.”[9] Indeed, the episode argues that whether you sit in a pristine dining room or have someone to wait on your every whim, these things have no actual bearing on the quality of the food you are there to eat.

The episode shifts dramatically when Chang goes to Tokyo, and discusses his past working in the city with vulnerable populations and coming to recognize the importance of good quality food being available to everyone.[10] This segment of the episode is opened with a lingering shot of a crowd of people crossing a busy street in Tokyo. The new focus on people, both those who eat and those who make the food Chang discusses, recalls the various close-up shots of hands scattered throughout the episode. Hands are treated tenderly with these close-up shots of different chef and sous chef’s hands, grandmothers and family members’ hands, and even Chang’s hands. Close-up shots seem to be reserved for hands, as they fold dough, roll it out with rolling pins, and then use deft fingers to fill and shape the dough. A sensory quality pervades these shots, as chefs ask Chang to smell, touch, and see the color of the dough. I am particularly aware of my own senses and my own hands during these scenes. In many of the shots, these close-ups are so close that it obscures what specifically the hands are making: pasta or dumplings? Near the end, Chang attempts to drive this to the point of complete obscurity, using a tortellini dough to try making dumplings, though the texture does not work. The camera zooms out to show three-Michelin-star chef Massimo Bottura’s sous chefs gag when they try it. Hands seem to suggest not only a universality in the process of making different cuisines, but also essentially humanizes these actions.

Despite the differences in ingredients, and despite the similar processes of making pasta and dumplings, it is tradition that seems to be what connects these different types of food. A rolling pin is a rolling pin is a rolling pin, in the small house in Hebei Province, China where there is no gas or running water and Chang watches “local dumpling expert”[11] Ming Zhi Wei make dumplings; and in Modena, Italy at Bottura’s famed restaurant Osteria Francescana where sous chefs make tortellini; and in San Francisco at Corey Lee’s three-Michelin-star restaurant Benu where sous chefs make xiao long bao soup dumplings. As Chang helps Wei shape dumplings, she says, “You’re like our kid. We wrap dumplings and you want to help out.”[12] Similarly, when Chang visits Bottura’s cooking class for autistic students, the latter tells him, “the grandmothers, they transfer the knowledge to the kids.”[13] A grandmother is a grandmother is a grandmother, passing knowledge down generation by generation, in a “transcultural”[14] process that sees the two forms “come together,”[15] both in the show’s graphics as cultural motifs and in approaches to epistemology. The pressure to evolve tradition is felt on both sides of the debate, labeled ‘East’ and ‘West’. The episode is brought to its conclusion by Cristina Bowerman, the Italian chef who prefers Asian food, and by Taka Kondo, the Japanese sous chef who prefers Italian food: “who needs a judge?”[16]


[1] David Chang is a Korean-American chef and restaurateur, known for founding the Michelin-starred restaurant group Momofuku. He is a staunch advocate for raising awareness of Korean-American cuisine in popular culture. Chang is the host of and a producer for Ugly Delicious.

[2] Mario Carbone is an Italian-American chef and co-founder of the Michelin-starred restaurant group Carbone. Carbone is a guest star in the “Stuffed” episode of Ugly Delicious

[3] Peter Meehan is an American food critic. He has written for the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. He co-founded the now-defunct food magazine Lucky Peach with writer Chris Ying and David Chang. Meehan guest stars in six episodes of Ugly Delicious.

[4] Ugly Delicious, season 1,episode 8, “Stuffed,” directed by Morgan Neville, featuring David Chang, Massimo Bottura, and Corey Lee, aired February 23, 2018, Netflix,  https://www.netflix.com/title/80170368.

[5] Ugly Delicious, “Stuffed,” 02:31.

[6] Ugly Delicious, “Stuffed,” 19:00-20:52.

[7] Ugly Delicious, “Stuffed,” 13:18.

[8] Ugly Delicious, “Stuffed,” 30:16-31:46.

[9] Ugly Delicious, “Stuffed,” 31:06.

[10] Ugly Delicious, “Stuffed,” 20:54-23:00.

[11] Ugly Delicious, “Stuffed,” 32:36.

[12] Ugly Delicious, “Stuffed,” 34:30.

[13] Ugly Delicious, “Stuffed,” 36:00.

[14] Ugly Delicious, “Stuffed,” 36:46.

[15] Ugly Delicious, “Stuffed,” 37:27.

[16] Ugly Delicious, “Stuffed,” 26:29.


Emma Cullen is a PhD student in the Department of English at Concordia University. She recently completed her MA in English & Film Studies at the University of Alberta. Her research explores the legacy of radical poetics in digital communities and considers how collaborative narrative forms can generate new modes of connection and cultural analysis. She holds a BA in English Literature and Cultural Studies from Trent University. .