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The Audacious Korean-American Chef Who Mastered 'Mission Chinese Food'

Jan 21, 2016
Originally published on January 22, 2016 9:45 am

Danny Bowien, the founder of the Mission Chinese Food restaurants, didn't grow up cooking Chinese cuisine. Born in South Korea, then adopted by a family in Oklahoma, Bowien was already an adult living in San Francisco when he decided to learn how to cook Sichuanese fare, known for its bold, pungent, spicy flavors.

Burned out from working in fine dining establishments, Bowien considered applying to work in a Sichuanese restaurant as a line cook. But since he couldn't speak Chinese, he realized he would have a hard time. Plus, many of the restaurant owners he approached viewed him with suspicion. "They thought I was crazy," Bowien tells Fresh Air's Sam Briger. "They thought I was trying to steal recipes."

Ultimately, Bowien wound up teaching himself how to cook Chinese food. Later, he opened the first Mission Chinese Food — a pop-up restaurant with a punk-rock, DIY attitude. Located inside an existing Chinese restaurant in San Francisco's Mission District, it was a hole-in-the-wall takeout joint that drew long lines and rave reviews: Both Bon Appetit and GQ magazines named it one of the best new restaurants of 2001.

Looking back at his efforts to master his own brand of Chinese cooking, Bowien says, "It [was] audacious, but at the same time, the whole feeling behind what we were doing just felt very organic, and for me there was no risk."

Bowien took that audacious attitude with him when he opened the first Mission Chinese in New York City in a tiny space in the Lower East Side. It, too, earned accolades — one reviewer said Bowien did to Chinese food what Led Zeppelin had done to the blues.

But it broke too many rules: In 2013, the New York restaurant was shut down for various violations. Bowien describes it as a devastating blow. But he recovered. Indeed, later that same year, the James Beard Foundation bestowed Bowien with its prestigious Rising Star Chef award. And last year, Bowien reopened Mission Chinese Food in a new New York location.

Bowien is now the co-author, with Chris Ying, of The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook. Highlights from his Fresh Air interview are below.


Interview Highlights

On the allure of Sichuanese cuisine, and what drove him to learn to cook it

Sichuanese cuisine was something crazy for me, out of left field, because some of the traits and characteristics of that are like flavor profiles, such as numbing. Like, you eat Sichuan peppercorns and Sichuan peppercorn oil, which causes your mouth to literally — your tongue goes numb, it almost tastes like you've licked a battery. Which doesn't sound pleasant, but it really is. It's really interesting how that combines with the dry heat in Sichuan cooking. ... As a cook who thought I knew everything at the time, I never experienced that flavor profile.

A lot of super-fermented flavor profiles ... are really popular now in fine dining. But at the time, eating a piece of tofu that had been fermented for a couple of months was really crazy for me. I hadn't seen that. So I think very pungent, very spicy, very numbing, really loud flavors are what Sichuanese cooking [was] to me. When I first discovered it, I thought that was what the backbone of it was. And the more I dove into Sichuanese cooking, it's really about balance and restraint and not having things be over-the-top spicy, which I learned after my first trip to Chengdu, to the Sichuan province.

On how the original Mission Chinese Food started in San Francisco

It was just a pop-up inside of Lung Shan, and then it slowly took over, over time. You could order off two menus — I loved that about it — but the problem was that we'd be running our menu alongside their menu, and their chef was responsible for cooking 154 dishes off their takeout menu, just one guy on this little station. If they got really busy for delivery, which they would, and someone ordered something from their menu, I didn't know how to make their food. ...

Then eventually, I think they saw Mission Chinese Food, which was becoming very popular, and we were running out of storage space for two full-sized menus. So they actually were the ones that said, "Look, we're just going to change it and you guys just do everything, and our chef will work for you and we'll make your food. Just show them how to do it."

On opening a Mission Chinese Food in New York that closed — despite its many accolades — because of structural issues and a sanitary violation

In retrospect, should we have [had] a structural engineer go through the building with us and everything else? Yeah, probably. We just let our emotions get the best of us. We felt an energy in that space when we walked through it. ... It wasn't legally supposed to even be a restaurant. ... The basement wasn't even legally zoned to be used for any sort of kitchen prep or preparation at all; it was supposed to be a cellar. We opened the restaurant three months after we moved here. ... We didn't do any major construction, nothing structural — we just opened. ...

We didn't even have time to actually reflect on and really appreciate all the accolades we had gotten, because when you're working that much, things are just flying back. I didn't even know what "Restaurant of the Year" meant. I didn't even know there was an end of the year, restaurant of the year section in The New York Times. So when people said, "You won this 'Restaurant of the Year' thing," I was like, "That's amazing! What does that even mean?" And then I kept cooking. ...

[Then] all of the sudden it came to a complete halt, a screeching halt. The restaurant closed. We could've tried to reopen it again, but we knew just as much as everyone else did, we looked into doing it the right way, "OK, how much would it cost to level the whole entire [building], structurally rebuild it to where it is zoned [so] it will actually pass inspection and be up to code?" And that costs like three-quarters of a million dollars for a 1,000-square-foot space. It just didn't make sense.

On a bad experience he had working at an upscale Japanese-French restaurant

It was like a hazing period that never ended. ... There was a lot of physical abuse. There were pans thrown at my head while I was working. I had to dodge that. ... They would hit me. They would force me to do push-ups in the basement while sitting on my back. ... [The chef and sous-chef] would be doing massive amounts of cocaine and drinking beer the whole time. And I was just trying my hardest to keep up with these amazing cooks that were highly stimulated and drunk and super obnoxious.

That, to me, was really a proving ground for myself. I was like, "Gosh, is this really what I'm going to be doing?" I wanted to get better. It made me better in a sense of knowing how far I could be pushed. ... That experience, for me, taught me, really, mostly how not to treat other people.

Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

In his list of New York’s 15 top restaurants, Wells included Mission Chinese Food, the restaurant of our next guest, Chef Danny Bowien. Mission Chinese food is one of Bowien’s three restaurants. There’s Mission Cantina in New York and the original Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco. That restaurant started out as a hole-in-the-wall takeout place that Bowien and his friends took over to cook their version of Chinese food. Burnt out from working in fine dining, Bowien cooked food that had an irreverent, DIY punk rock attitude. Long lines of people waiting to eat it followed. It was named one of the best new restaurants of 2001 by Bon Appetit and GQ Magazines. Danny Bowien was born in Korea and adopted by a family in Oklahoma. He has a new cookbook called “The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook” with co-author Chris Ying. In 2013, the James Beard Foundation named Bowien Rising Star Chef of the Year. And in 2008, he won the World Pesto Championship in Genoa, Italy. He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Danny Bowien, welcome to FRESH AIR.

DANNY BOWIEN: Thank you, I’m super happy to be here with you.

BRIGER: In your book, you say, I knew nothing about Chinese food when we first started. I wanted to figure out how to cook it because I liked eating it. That’s pretty audacious, isn’t it?

BOWIEN: It started because I was curious, and I wanted to learn more. And I couldn’t really go apply at, like, a Sichuanese restaurant in San Francisco for a line cooking position because I don’t speak Chinese. And the people that I did approach about, like, trying to, like, come in and just do a trail or a kitchen stash, they thought I was crazy. They thought I was trying to steal recipes. So that wasn't going to work. So I was just, like, well, I’ll teach myself. And it is – yeah, I mean, I feel like, yeah, it's audacious, but at the same time, there was no risk.

BRIGER: So there’s a lot of different kinds of Chinese food. The one that you were particularly interested in was the Sichuan style. What are some of the traits of that kind cooking?

BOWIEN: Sichuanese cuisine was, like, something crazy for me out of left field because some of the traits and characteristics of that are, like, flavor profiles such as, like, numbing. Like, you eat Sichuan pepper corns and Sichuan pepper corn oil which is - it causes your mouth to literally - your tongue goes numb. It almost tastes like you've, like, licked a battery, which doesn't sound pleasant, but it really is. It's really interesting how that combined with, like, the dry heat in, like, Sichuan cooking - those flavors, for me, as a cook who thought I knew everything at the time, I had never experienced that flavor profile – very pungent, very spicy, very numbing. I mean, really loud flavors are what Sichuanese cooking - to me, when I first discovered it, I thought that was kind of what the backbone of it was. And then the more I dove into Sichuanese cooking, it's really about, like, balance and restraint and not having things just be over the top spicy, which I learned after my first trip to Chengdu, to the Sichuan province.

BRIGER: Well, so Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco gets great reviews. It’s named one of the best restaurants of the year by a couple magazines. You get great write-ups all over the country. You decide to try to open a Mission Chinese Food in New York. And you kind of do it on the quick. Like, you buy the lease off of this Thai restaurant that’s not doing very well. But opening was a lot harder than you thought it was going to be. You were throwing up every morning from the stress of opening?

BOWIEN: It’s crazy. I mean, opening anything in New York is insane. Everyone was kind of – we were under this microscope. And the amount of pressure to perform on, like, the grandest stage of them all was just really insane. I don't even know how I got through that.

BRIGER: You did open and to great reviews again. You know, people called it the best restaurant of the year. Pete Wells in The New York Times said that what you were doing to Chinese food was like what Led Zeppelin did to the blues. And he meant that in a very positive way.

BOWIEN: Right.

BRIGER: But it sounds like you were working at this unsustainable pace. Like, I think you said that you were there from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. seven days a week. What was your typical day like?

BOWIEN: You know, there’s not a lot different in what my typical day like is now than then accept for I think that back then, I would start drinking around, like, 6 or 7 p.m. while I was working ‘cause I was just so stressed out. Now I have a 2-year-old, so I'm up at, you know, 5 a.m. And I don’t really go to bed until 2. But my typical day was waking up really early in the morning, going to work, dealing with every problem that you can have ‘cause in the restaurant industry, there’s always something wrong. And then you work and you try to motivate and inspire the rest of your cooks and stay motivated and inspire yourself. And you just work until you’re closed. And then you kind of wrap it all up and do it again the next day. I mean, I still work seven days a week. I still work over 90 hours a week. But when you own something and you’re doing it for yourself, it’s, like, you don’t look at it as, like, work. I don’t look at it as, like, a job. You know, I look at it as, like, my life, and it's what drives me. But, yeah, I just take a lot better care of myself now. I don’t drink anymore. I don't do drugs. You can’t work that much, physically, and do those things. It’s unsustainable.

BRIGER: Why are - everything's going great at the restaurant until it isn't anymore. A health inspector comes and shuts you down twice in a matter of months when they find mouse droppings in the basement. And you write in the book, (reading) short of poisoning and killing someone, there's nothing worse you can have happen at your restaurant. I was a failure. Was that a turning point for you?

BOWIEN: Yeah, of course it was a turning point. I didn't really know how much of a turning point it was for me at the time. I was in shock, and it was extreme failure is what it felt like. I did feel that more than I felt the extreme success we'd had at the time because all of a sudden, it came to a complete halt - like screeching halt. The restaurant closed. We could've tried to reopen it again, but we knew just as much as everyone else did that if - you know, we looked into, like, doing it the right way. Like, OK, how much would it cost to just structurally rebuild it to where it will, like, actually pass inspection and be up to code? And that costs like three quarters of a million dollars for a thousand-square-foot space. You know, it’s like we just didn't make sense.

BRIGER: Well, in 2015, you reopen the restaurant in a new location. And, you know, again, listed in The New York Times as one of the best restaurants of the year. But this time, the reviews seem to make it sound like the restaurant’s maybe a little more mature. And even in your book, you write, (reading) we can’t be a young, punk band forever. Is this a sort of more grown-up version of Mission Chinese food?

BOWIEN: I think that, like, no matter what, like, I'm older now. And I think that I'm a lot more mature. And I was talking to a friend that was visiting the new Mission Chinese. And he's a comedian in New York City. He's lived here for his whole life. And he was just like, you know, when I stepped into that first Mission Chinese, it just felt like the last gasp of, like, what the Lower East Side used to be. And he’s like, and I knew when I stepped into that restaurant, I was like, this is amazing, but he knew it wasn't going to last. It was too good. It was just, like, this crazy, thrown-together party. And he was just like, yeah, but now you’re – this is amazing, too, in its own way.

DAVIES: Chef Danny Bowien speaking with Sam Briger. Bowien's new cookbook is called “The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook.” We’ll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We’re listening to FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger's interview with chef Danny Bowien. His new cookbook with co-author Chris Ying is called "The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook."

BRIGER: You were born in Korea and adopted by a family in Oklahoma. Your mother did most of the cooking, I think, in the house. What kind of food would she make?

BOWIEN: Yeah, I mean, Oklahoma at the time wasn't the most adventurous place for eating. And my family also did not eat very adventurously. So I grew up eating a lot of ground beef. I think every night our meal was based around some sort of ground beef – it was usually a casserole or Hamburger Helper or something like that. The thing I loved about eating as a young kid was that every day, my dad got home. And we'd all sit down around the dinner table and - at 5 o'clock and ate. And it was really special for me. You know, that's when - my parents at the table. I was there with my siblings. And it wasn't really about the food as much as it was about just being together. There were no fancy ingredients when - growing up with mom's cooking. Like, I never had asparagus growing up. I didn't know what that really was. I didn't have fresh peas. All the vegetables we ate came out of a can and then just had a really nice-sized knock of Country Crock or, like, some margarine in there. And, you know, it wasn't like anything fancy. But my mom cooked with a lot of love. And, you know, she definitely tried to make everything as delicious as she could, especially given the amount of - the budget that we were on.

BRIGER: Your mom was diagnosed with breast cancer when you were 12. And she got diabetes and had to have a heart transplant. And she spent a lot of your childhood in the hospital. So said you had to learn to fend for yourself at an early age.

BOWIEN: That was my thing. When I got out of school, I didn't have baseball practice or football practice or anything like that. I would go home at 3 o'clock. I would get home by 3:30. I would start making dinner with my mom so when my dad got home at 5, it would be ready. And, you know, it was kind of funny. And now I think about it; it's like with the whole thing at Mission Chinese, you know, I started cooking there. And we would basically just be cooking alongside this Chinese takeout guy that spoke no English. And I spoke no Chinese. And I would just watch him, like, every night, doing stuff. And he didn't have to explain anything. I just kind of picked up the idea and the motions. And with my mother, there was really no instruction when we would cook stuff. She would just say, hey, grab me a measuring cup or this or that. And when she got sick, you know, my mom was the one that cooked. No one in my family knew how to cook. My dad didn't know how to cook. He knew how to make eggs and spaghetti, you know. And when she went to the hospital, I kind of took over. And I started cooking, you know. And actually, she was in and out of the hospital. But she'd be home and I would cook for her 'cause she was kind bedridden and couldn't get out of bed. So, yeah, after a while, I started making dinner every night.

BRIGER: You moved to New York in your 20s, after you had been at culinary school. And you were working at this - sounds like a pretty fancy Japanese-French fusion restaurant. And they treated you awfully. I mean, it sounds really abusive. What would they do to you?

BOWIEN: It was like a hazing period that never ended. I would come to work at this Japanese-French restaurant, which I won't name the name of. And it was like no matter how hard I tried or no matter how good I was or tried to get better, I was never good enough. And there was a lot of physical abuse. I mean, there were pans thrown at my head while I was working. You know, I had to dodge that. There was...

BRIGER: They'd hit you - right? - too, when...

BOWIEN: Yeah, they'd hit me. They would force me to do push-ups while working on the line. And all this is, like, in a three-person kitchen where the chef and the sous chef are the two people next to me. I'm in the middle of them working at a vegetable station. And they would just be doing massive amounts of cocaine and drinking beer the whole time. And I was just trying my hardest to keep up with these amazing cooks that were highly stimulated and drunk and, you know, super - just obnoxious. And that to me was, like, really a proving ground for myself. It really was like - I was like, gosh, I mean, is this really what I'm going to be doing? You know what I mean? Like, it made me better in a sense of, like, knowing how far I could be pushed. You know, I haven't run into that chef from that restaurant and, you know, the sous chef from there. And they both went on to do pretty good things with their careers. But they both work for other people still. So that experience, for me, taught me really - mostly how not to treat other people.

BRIGER: What do you like to cook when you're home?

BOWIEN: When I'm at home, I don't really cook that much. You know, I cook for my son now. And I love cooking food for my son because it's amazing. As a chef, you know, at the end of the day, you don't want to go home and eat really salty food or really spicy food. You want to eat really bland food, food that's, like, really healthy - like, lots of vegetables. So my son - the best thing in the world is making him, like, just steaming broccoli. He loves that. And, you know, I love doing that. But at home, my wife is an amazing cook. And it just boggles my mind how she can make stuff taste so delicious. And she just kind of doesn't over-think things. As a chef, you kind of start getting one pan going. Then you're like, oh, I have this idea, and you start doing other stuff. At home, if I'm cooking anything, you know, usually I'm making, like, something really restorative, like a soup or a - something steamed. Definitely there's no fried food at my house or - you know, I've kind of been banned from making steak at home because I set off the fire alarm or - there's no wok (ph) cooking happening at my apartment. So it's just simple, healthy - you know, really healthy food at home. But if I can get away with not cooking, I will.

BRIGER: Danny Bowien, thanks so much for being on FRESH AIR.

BOWIEN: Thank you.

DAVIES: Chef Danny Bowien speaking with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Bowien's new cookbook with co-author Chris Ying is called "The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook." Coming up, John Powers reviews BBC America's new drama series, "London Spy," which premieres tonight. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.