When you meet Danny Bowien for the first time, there’s something about his hipster-chic style that makes you rather imagine him playing drums in an underground punk band than cooking in a restaurant kitchen. If music actually plays an important role in his life - Danny plays drums in a band named NARX - he is also one of the most popular chefs in the US, although everything in his look and boundary-pushing cuisine is far from an old-school.
Born in South Korea, Danny Bowien grew up in Oklahoma City where his adoptive family lived. If his love for music began as a kid, his passion for food arrived later. He was 19 years old when the local rock band in which he played broke up, and he decided to move to San Francisco and go to culinary school. And that was the moment that radically changed his perception of food.
After having worked in several fine dining restaurants in New York and San Francisco, he started the Mission Chinese Food “adventure” in 2010 in cooperation with the chef and food consultant Anthony Myint. In the beginning, the project, called Mission Street Food, was a pop-up restaurant held two days a week in a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco's Mission District. When in 2010 it turned in Mission Chinese Food, serving exuberant and radically flavoured Sichuan food, it became one of San Francisco’s top 100 restaurants. In 2012 the second Mission Chinese Food restaurant opened in New York, making an immediate splash among food critics and being named Restaurant of the Year by The New York Times. In 2013, The James Beard Foundation awarded Bowien as Rising Star Chef. After being the subject of the sixth season of The Mind of a Chef in 2017, Bowien has opened a brand new “psychedelic” location in Brooklyn in December 2018.
Fine Dining Lovers caught up with the chef after his performance at Cookbook.19 exhibition and chatted about his cooking philosophy and the importance of finding a work-life balance.
How did you first get into cooking and fall in love with it?
I think I fell in love with cooking by accident. When I was a kid, I used to go home after school and watch my mom cooking dinner. Her cuisine wasn’t anything fancy, but it was made with a lot of love. She tried to make everything as delicious as she could. When she got sick, I took over her and started cooking dinner every night. By this time, however, I didn’t think I’d become a chef! After culinary school, I worked in several nice restaurants in New York and San Francisco, but in the end, I wanted to quit the fine dining world. I didn’t really feel I was made for this universe; I didn’t have a real connection with people that came in the restaurants where I worked. Most of my friends were musicians, and they couldn’t even afford to eat in expensive places. I just wanted to stop cooking, play music again and learn new things.
How did you decide to come back to the kitchen?
My friend and business partner Anthony was starting this pop-up, called Mission Street Food, in San Francisco, and he gave me the chance to take part in this new project. It was a sort of restaurant-within-a-restaurant concept: in 2008 this was pretty new in San Francisco. We really tried to feed people’s curiosity for new gastronomic experiences, inviting local chefs who made radical changes in the menu every night. This unpretentious Chinese restaurant gathered some of the best chefs in the city to share their vision of food. The whole experience fed my appetite for creativity both in making new dishes and being outside of my comfort zone.
Why did you start cooking Chinese food?
When the Mission Street Food came to an end we decided to concentrate on Chinese Food. But I didn’t speak Chinese, nor did Anthony. So I basically started cooking with this Chinese guy who didn’t speak English, just watching him and learning from the motions. It was like when I was a child and I helped my mother cooking, it was all about imitating her gestures. We’re definitely not serving authentic Chinese food at Mission Chinese, but it is an authentic and fun experience. It involves fine dining techniques, it’s a mixture of things and places I belong to. Chinese food has lots of variants.
The Sichuan style was your ultimate choice. Why?
When I discovered this kind of food, I totally fell in love with it. In 2008 in fine dining everything was “soft”, textures melting and delicate. Sichuan food was a powerful tasting experience compared to that. When I tasted it for the first time, it was astonishing to me: I had never tasted anything so electrifying before. It was like a drug: I couldn’t but learn how to prepare it. At that time, most of the Chinese restaurants in San Francisco didn’t serve Sichuan food, their dishes weren’t spicy at all. So I decided I would have to make it.
What kind of experience do you offer at Mission Chinese Food?
I’ve never felt totally myself when I went to nice fine dining restaurants. At Mission Chinese Food I want to give people a challenge. Sichuan food itself is very challenging and uncomfortable to eat all at the same time, it’s numbing and very spicy. It’s like in real life: I feel like there must be disturbing elements in restaurants, challenging but also fun. When you spend two hours in a restaurant, you hope to forget everything that’s happening outside, it’s like a rock show: it’s loud, people jump around, it’s not always the easiest and the most pleasant thing, but it rocks!
Do you think your cuisine is evolving?
Yes, I do. In the past, I used to think about food as a way to impress other people. I think that I have been evolving and my food also has. I’ve got more confidence in myself and I understood that sometimes “less is more”. You can always improve. In the beginning, my mapo tofu dish was made of 33 ingredients, while now it's only about 12 ingredients. Right now everything is about slowing down, especially with social media, where everything has always to be so fast.
Social media had a great influence on your career. What do you think are the effects of the overproduction of food images?
Social media are powerful marketing tools. You have to remember that when you publish something on them, it is immediately at everyone's disposal so that people can love, hate or imitate it. It’s your responsibility. Social media has changed a lot of things in our lives. In the past, if you wanted to get in touch with the work of a chef you had to visit his restaurant or to buy a book. Now food visuals travel very fast, so in restaurants, food should stop to be the only element of surprise.
What do you think about chef welfare and work-life balance?
Work-life balance is possible, but the balance is different in different moments of the life of a restaurant. When you open a restaurant, it takes a lot of time and energy. It’s like having a child: the first six months are crazy, you just have to be there all the time. But then you realize it is growing and you can take more time for yourself. I had been really unhappy for so many years because I had been spending all my working time trying to make other people happy. But I realized that if you don’t treat yourself right if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of other people. A chef’s life is very militaristic, you have to do and accept whatever it takes to do your job at your best. Of course, everyone and every kitchen is different, but at the end of the day, the most important thing is taking care of yourself and of your body.
What’s next for you? Any news or plans you’d like to share?
Never say never. When the Mission Chinese project began in San Francisco it was just a pop-up. There was a time when I used to think: “I’ll never open my own restaurant”. Five years later I had a restaurant. Then I said: “I’ll never open another restaurant” and five years later I did it, and so on. Chef’s world is crazy if you think about it. You get into a profession because you love cooking, and in a few years you turn from cooking into owning your own business. I personally never went to business school. I’m learning a lot, and most of the time I learn from my mistakes.