With long, bleached hair, tattoos, and an arsenal of fashionable glasses, Danny Bowien, the 31-year-old chef-owner of permanently packed Mission Chinese Food on the Lower East Side, has been hailed as a key member of several new chefly tribes: hipster cooks, rock and roll toques, or the face of “the new Asian American cuisine.”
But Bowien, who was born in Korea and adopted as an infant by parents in Oklahoma, comes across a regular (and, most unusually for a chef) super humble guy. I caught up by phone with the onetime aspiring eye doctor–who let that dream go when he discovered music, then food–as he was on his way to the airport to catch a flight to San Francisco in order to check on the original Mission Chinese Food. As we spoke, the chef rambled candidly from topic to topic, touching on some new dishes the team has added to the New York menu (more fried rice!), his love for Japanese food, and his frustration with food blogs. Find out what else is next for the chef, below.
GrandLife: As a devotee of your Chongqing chicken wings and thrice-cooked bacon, I have to ask: Are you a total spicy foods fiend?
Danny Bowien: Not really. There’s a misconception about that. Probably because when we opened in New York we were serving so many Sichuan dishes. But I think about one-third of the menu is actually spicy. It’s not spicier than Thai food. The heat of Thai food–fresh chilies–that’s spicier. I would challenge anyone to eat a duck laab. The duck laab at Kin Shop, that’s spicy.
GL: What do you like to eat when you’re not at the restaurant?
DB: When you’re a cook, you don’t really eat a lot. You’re around this food and you taste. A lot of times you’re eating whatever staff meal is made, out of a little container. If you’re a chef and you get to travel, you get crushed with lots of food. I like going to see Justin at Il Buco Alimentari, but sometimes he’ll just hammer you with food. I don’t cook a lot at home, my wife cooks a lot. She makes a lot of Korean food. But really clean, not spicy. This morning she made — there’s Korean miso made of barley–barley miso with steamed fish. When I go out to eat, I eat a lot of sushi.
GL: Where do you go for sushi?
DB: For lunch, I’ll go to Yasuda. For dinner, Ushiwakamaru. I go with my friend Frank [Falcinelli]. He owns Prime Meats and Frankies. I like 1or8 in Brooklyn quite a bit. And there’s a Blue Ribbon on Orchard Street, which I go to because they’re open so late. I just sit at the sushi bar and let the chef feed me.
In San Francisco, there’s a place called Ino Sushi. It’s just a guy and his wife. He does sushi and she waits tables. It’s in Japan Center. He’s kind of a tough guy to win over. He’s kind of like the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld. The first time I went with my wife, I tried to order omakase and he said no. So I kind of ordered some of the weird stuff that sushi chefs like and not a lot of people know, and eventually I won him over.
Right before I moved to New York, I went in. He said, “Where’ve you been?” He gave me one of his old sushi chef coats. That’s a huge thing. From being some young annoying kid to someone he’d give a chef’s coat to. He’s threatening to retire, and there’s pretty much no good sushi in San Francisco. Kind of like how we don’t have good California-style Mexican food.
GL: Actually, I was going to ask that: Do you think there’s no good Mexican in New York?
DB: My friends and I always say there’s no good San Francisco-style taco here. You know, April Bloomfield at Salvation Taco, Alex Stupak at Empellon Cocina, and Jean Georges ABC Cocina. Those are good. It’s hard for me to say there’s not a good anything anywhere, because I haven’t eaten out enough to know. But I think people who move here kind of miss that California-style taqueria.
GL: I heard a rumor you were opening a Mexican place at the corner of Orchard and Stanton?
DB: Those are rumors. We haven’t signed any lease. That’s the problem with all these food blogs. These days with social media, things get so hyped that by the time you open you have to deliver, and that’s often impossible. When we opened Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco there was no expectation. The scary thing was when we moved to New York was there was all this expectation. There’s no confirmation, hopefully it all just unravels organically. You’re the first person I’ve talked to about this.
GL: Let’s say you did open your dream Mexican restaurant, what would you serve?
DB: I don’t even know if I’d open a Mexican restaurant. I’d be more inclined to open a Japanese restaurant. It’s hard enough to stay afloat in New York. That’s the problem with food journalism now: people want to have a scoop without confirming it with a source. I think we’re one of the most overhyped restaurants. We try to overdeliver. I would never say we’re the greatest thing ever. We’re not. We’re just trying to stay humble and learn. So I don’t have an answer about my dream restaurant. I already have my dream restaurant. It freaks me out. We won a James Beard Award… I feel like I’m a spokesperson for this bigger thing.
GL: You kind of are — for this young Asian-American chefs movement people keep talking about. Is that a real thing?
DB: I don’t think so. There’s a lot of people in our same age group who are getting recognized for things. LIke Carlo [Mirarchi] at Roberta’s; he’s doing his own thing. And he’s not Asian. And actually, that was one of our models. We were looking at them and he’s doing whatever the hell he wants to do, that’s awesome.
I don’t think it’s just Asian-Americans. We’re not doing anything revolutionary. There’s a lot of people stepping out. It’s no different. You work 8 to 10 years at a restaurant you want to do your own thing. Like the guys at Torrisi.
I think it’s just the time and place. If cooks can make what they want to make and it doesn’t fall into specific categories or demographics, that’s great. Especially in New York. I think it’s the best time right now to be cooking. There’s so much freedom. Customers are very open. Everywhere, too. I was just in Oklahoma, and there’s a restaurant that has sweetbreads and bone marrow, which I never thought I’d see there. It’s a great time to be a cook. And an eater.
GL: Any idea why?
DB: I think people are just more open. We’ve gone through the waves of super avant garde, comfort food. I think there’s this new generation of chefs who’ve trained with great, great chefs. How many people have trained with Daniel Boulud, Andrew Carmellini? Things are much more openly available right now. If you wanted to buy a cookbook or learn about a restaurant, you couldn’t just go online or on instagram. I feel like that’s one of the drawbacks. It kind of takes the mystery out of it. Things are much more readily available and at our disposal thanks to the internet. Farmers are much more willing to grow weird things for chefs. In San Francisco, we have a farmer growing long beans and shiso for us.
GL: People talk a lot about the San Francisco food scene versus the New York food scene. Do you think one is better than the other?
DB: That’s a stupid argument. If you’re fortunate enough to live in San Francisco or New York, you live in one of the two best dining cities in the United States, if not the world. That’s a question everyone’s asked me forever, and I have no response. I feel lucky to be living in either of these cities. I think people need to focus on the positive. People complain about New York not having the same produce as San Francisco. I think there’s great produce in New York. I think that time of comparison or competitiveness, it’s over. It’s like the old French chefs throwing sand at people. We’re not in that time anymore; we’re past that.
GL: You said you were just in Shanghai. Do you get to travel a lot?
DB: I’m actually going to Japan with my chef from San Francisco. Once you become a chef, it’s your job to continue to learn and to grow.There’s a lot to learn, and it’s really cool being in New York around such great chefs and restaurants. I have a great team and I don’t have to be in the restaurant and be on the line every single night. It’s the best thing you can hope for as a chef to trust your cooks. We’re actually going to Copenhagen in August as well to cook for the MAD symposium. And then after that, no travel for a while.
GL: I think you have great taste in food, so I wanted to ask you for a few of your favorite places to eat. Do you have a favorite Korean or Chinese place in the city?
DB: For Korean, there’s a restaurant you go to for this dish called naeng myun. which is good to eat in the summertime. They take pride in serving their hot dishes really hot, like the stews in stone pots bubbling over. And then the cold dishes–they’ll intentionally freeze the beef broth. There’s a place out in Queens [Tong Sam Gyup Goo Ee] that’s serving that dish in an ice bowl. If you want one in Manhattan, I like Gahm Mi Oak on 32nd for their seolleongtang. It’s basically just marrow bones they boil for a few days. It’s basically white, very clean and very light. You season it yourself with black pepper and green onions. They also do this dish called sundae, which is basically a korean blood sausage with sweet potato noodles.
As far as Chinese, I eat it sometimes. I like that restaurant called Spicy Village on Forsyth. I live in Nolita, so I go to a lot of places in Chinatown and I don’t really know the names of them. I actually like Dim Sum Go Go. I like their vegetable dumplings. East Corner Wonton: I like their roast duck soup with fresh rice noodles.
GL: You just did a pop-up in Oklahoma City, after the tornado, right?
DB: I did two, actually. When I was in high school, my school got blown up by the tornado in 1999. Both tornados hit the area where I’m from. It was funny because pretty much nobody in Oklahoma knew I was a chef. A lot of my friends were kind of taken aback by the fact that I was a chef. People thought I’d pay in bands. So I wasn’t some hometown hero. From 4 to 9, in five hours, we raised $45,000. It was insane.
GL: What were you guys selling?
DB: I don’t remember. We basically just made stuff up as we went. A lot of local purveyors donated a bunch of stuff. We definitely did Mission Chinese stuff. We did thrice-cooked bacon. Catfish. And we threw in some Oklahoma food like chicken fried spare ribs with gravy and soft eggs. People seemed to like that food a lot. But it was for charity. I don’t think anyone knew who I was.
GL: Did I hear you hope to open a restaurant in Oklahoma City?
DB: I would like to open a restaurant in every single city in the U.S. if I could. I was talking to Alex Stupak about this last night. People think if you have more than one restaurant, you’re rich. We went from having me and my business partner Anthony [Myint] in San Francisco to having like 80 employees. Of course I would like to, but there’s no game plan. I think the smartest people expand slowly and organically.
GL: I understand you’re into fashion. Any favorite places to shop in New York?
DB: I like Project No. 8. There’s one Orchard Street. When I go shopping it’s usually to get a suit for an event. I like Dries Van Noten. When I go to Paris I go to Dries. I like their dress shirts. I like Opening Ceremony, but I think I think some of it’s a little too young for me. I don’t want to look like a raver, because I’m 31 now. There’s a store called Creatures of Comfort on my block, Mulberry. I like Margiela, Jil Sander.
GL: What music are you listening to these days?
DB: I’ve been doing a lot of work. We’re working on a book. When I’m in the kitchen, I don’t really listen to music in the kitchen. Just because it’s so loud. I’ve been listening to a lot of rock. Last week I was listening to the new Kanye West album seeing what that’s all about. It’s okay. I’ve been spending a lot of time on airplanes. I haven’t really been into one thing or another. I think a lot of instrumental music is nice. So whatever channel that is on the airplane.
GL: Any food that’s inspired you recently?
DB: Everything we do, there’s some inspiration in everything. If I walk by Popeye’s Chicken and they’re doing something new… There’s inspiration in everything. I feel like I eat a lot of Japanese food and I think the Japanese aesthetic–the simplicity–is what makes it so amazing. I’m heading to Mexico City this week, so hopefully there’s some inspiration there.