David Chang is no Bourdain

“Phnom Penh. Shit. What have I got myself into?” David Chang opens in the Cambodia episode of his new show, Breakfast Lunch, and Dinner. Phnom Penh, a city where, I might add, at any given moment, a decent portion of the population is 18-year-old Australian backpackers on gap years.

His sidekick for the episode is noted Cambodian history expert Kate McKinnon. Her reasoning for going to Cambodia, she states, is that “she likes countries that there’s no cohesive American conception of what is there.”


Look, I get it. At least, kind of. We’re supposed to be watching two people who have enough name-recognition to get you to click on the little Netflix thumbnail and watch them work their way through a certain culture, to learn from what they’re experiencing, and to see how it affects them. Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner more or less accomplishes that, with some fancy camera work to boot.

The conversation throughout most of the show, although taking place in an exotic locale with a complex culture and deep history, revolves mostly around themselves, lamenting about the stress of their professional lives, celebrity and, essentially, how nice it must be to be ‘normal’ (oh what wonderful lives of ignorance those average joes must live!). There are a few flashes of Cambodian dishes and their names across the screen, but there’s little context given to their significance as our two heroes go from stall to stall in a street market turning their nose up at all of the “weird” stuff they see.

For an episode about Cambodia, there are scant few Cambodian voices to give context to the country or what it has experienced in its recent history. The exposition is mostly left up to some newsreel footage scattered throughout the episode. There’s a bit with a (decidedly not Cambodian) foreign correspondent who remarks that the country has become a lot more comfortable to live in lately. That must be nice for him. However, aside from a tour guide leading the pair through a temple, depictions of locals are usually left to b-roll of tuk-tuk drivers or food preparation, whether that be street food stalls or kitchen staff. There’s a lot of shots of Chang and McKinnon having revelations of how the difficult history and poverty they are witnessing is affecting them, but aside from a brief conversation with a Cambodian filmmaker and a pair of Buddhist monks, we’re largely left to our own devices when it comes to imagining why exactly they’re feeling like that. Not to mention the near-complete absence of Cambodians showing how they’re getting along in their day-to-day reality that’s relegated as a backdrop for most of the episode.

Shows focusing on travel, food, and culture occupy a precarious space. Without making a conscious effort, it is extremely easy to slip into the role of us-versus-the-other, of the privileged westerner observing the poor lives of those in far away before jetting away to another episode in a multi-million-dollar TV deal. Breakfast Lunch and Dinner does not escape this, and there is little indication that much of that dynamic had been considered at all. Things would be a little different if David Chang didn’t claim that this show is meant to pay tribute to Bourdain’s work. It simply doesn’t. Not yet, anyway.

What made Parts Unknown and No Reservations so special was Bourdain’s unlikely ability as a six-foot-four New Yorker, to immediately break down the barrier of the other when it came to creating exposition about the people and cultures that he visited. While a certain part of that may have had something to do with innate talent, there was also his approach to sit down at every meal with an open mind, to listen, and to treat those across from him as equals. The end result of that process speaks for itself; there’s a whole catalog of intimate portraits of the places he visited, that aren’t so much reflections of his travels as they are of the people and cultures that inhabit them.

Nobody has a monopoly on the travel-food show. Bourdain wasn’t the first, and he certainly won’t be the last. It’s a space where, in my opinion, the more voices the better. So long as those voices are conscious of the responsibility they have in responsibly shaping the relationship between the observer and observed, and that they properly account for the responsibility that they have to properly tell the story of the people and places they’re featuring, ultimately, for their own profit.

David Chang has a lot of work to do before he can start paying homage to Bourdain if that’s truly what he’s setting out to do. It looks like he has no intention of putting the breaks on his media empire, for the time being, so let’s hope his next effort is a little more contemplative of its responsibilities.



Travel, culture, and food. I spend my days working for a Culinary Incubator Program in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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Xavier Quintana

Travel, culture, and food. I spend my days working for a Culinary Incubator Program in Salt Lake City, Utah.