10 The Unrest of Danny Bowien

After experiencing the alienating downsides of upscale kitchens, chef Danny Bowien tore up the rulebook and wrote his own at Mission Chinese. Doing things his way meant creating a punk-rock culture of inclusion and anything-goes collaboration, and the culinary world has been all the better for it. Sixteen years into the adventure, he still looks at every day as a fresh start. “I’m satisfied with my work, but I always want to learn more,” he tells Jonah Bayer.

Danny Bowien may be best known as the James Beard Award-winning chef and founder of the Mission Chinese Food restaurants in San Francisco and New York City, but he’s always been a punk at heart. As a Korean kid raised by adoptive parents in Oklahoma City, Bowien grew up feeling like an outsider, so it’s no surprise that he gravitated toward bands that didn’t conform to society’s standards.

The same is true of his cooking, which pays homage to both Sichuan and American culture via inventive dishes like Kung Pao Pastrami and Koji Fried Chicken—cultural fusions you truly need to experience in order to fully comprehend.

We caught up with Bowien to discuss how his personal identity and love of music (he also drums in the band Narx) have influenced his creative process, how he’s managed the strenuous effort that goes into making a restaurant successful, regardless of accolades, and why he’s ultimately thankful for failures he’s experienced along the way.

Where do you find the inspiration to keep innovating when it comes to cooking?
My interest in food has always been there. I grew up in a pretty unique situation compared to a lot of chefs. For instance, I don’t cook the food I grew up eating. I don’t make the kind of food that was passed down to me from my relatives. I’m not Chinese, I’m Korean, but I was adopted and I grew up in Oklahoma with American parents.

With a lot of chefs, it’s their life’s ambition to make a certain kind of food, so they’ll study in a place like France. But for me, it was different. I wasn’t really connecting food to my heritage. I didn’t even have Korean food until I was in my early twenties when I moved to San Francisco.

To answer your question about the creative process, I’m a chef and I’ve been cooking for a long time, but everything is still new to me and that’s what keeps me interested in Sichuan food. For me, Sichuan food was that new thing I hadn’t tasted before. In the beginning, I would just eat at Sichuan restaurants for inspiration. Now, Mission Chinese is still Sichuan at heart, but we travel far outside of Chinese food. We make whatever we want now, and I draw inspiration from everywhere.

I think collaboration with other chefs is important to my creative process, as well. In a lot of ways, running a restaurant is like playing music, in the sense that, when you’re fresh and you first start playing, everything is just so brand new compared to how you feel when you’ve been on the road for like fifteen years. When you’ve been doing something for that long, it’s difficult to keep that creative edge and not just play your hits all the time. I’m satisfied with my work, but I always want to learn more.

How would you define the culture at Mission restaurants?
At some of the kitchens I worked in before as a line cook, I didn’t feel accepted. I was different and I didn’t listen to the same music as everyone else or dress like everyone else. I was used to growing up as a Korean kid in Oklahoma, and I thought that was the norm, that I was always going to live on the fringes.

Photo provided by Danny Bowien

The decision to open Mission was me saying, “Okay, I’m not going to accept that I’m not accepted as part of the club, this boys club,” because that’s pretty much what it was like when I was working in kitchens. People like me and women weren’t really treated the way they are today. I don’t want to generalize, but when I worked in classic-style kitchens, it was a pretty abusive work environment and I didn’t feel comfortable.

When Mission opened, I wanted to do something where I could be me and do my thing and surround myself with people who might not feel accepted in haute-cuisine kitchens. At those places, you’re not really looked at as part of the team, you’re looked at as a cog in the machine, and everyone is there to fulfill the end goal of making really expensive food for people you don’t necessarily have a lot in common with.

So it was a reaction to that.
Exactly. Back then, I chose to work in classic restaurants in New York that served really high-end food, so it was partially me making the decision to go, “Maybe this isn’t my vibe and I need to move on.” It just wasn’t my thing. So I thought, “I’ll just do something else,” and that’s what Mission is now in the community. Mission Chinese is inclusive of people—whether they’re chefs or friends or artists—because we want to cater to people in our creative community. We forgo all the judgment found in restaurant culture and agree that no one knows everything and we all still have a lot to learn.
What are the biggest sacrifices you’ve had to make to turn your vision into reality?
When you open a business, it’s very demanding of your time and energy. You’re working 20-hour days and you don’t see your family, you don’t take holidays, you don’t see your friends, and it’s very difficult. When you’re just a chef and something isn’t working out you can go, “Maybe it’s time to move on; I’ve done my time here.” When you have your own business, you can’t walk away when the shit hits the fan, you have to be there.

Being the owner is a difficult transition from just being a chef at a restaurant—you’re not only responsible for the business and the brand, you’re also responsible to all these people employed by you. Everyone is affected by your decisions, and when you’re the owner, you don’t have a lot of people you can ask for advice. You have to have all of the answers, and no one has all the answers. It’s a lot to ask of one person.

To use a music analogy, would you say that coming up with new menu ideas is like writing a song? Do you carve out time to create or does inspiration just come to you?
Well, in some bands there’s one person doing everything. For instance, Billy Corgan played most of the parts on Smashing Pumpkins’ Adore, but I don’t really see that as a sustainable thing. It’s good for the person doing it, but it doesn’t further the whole team. Having a democratic process with food is good because people have different skill levels, so having a team of people who bring different perspectives is very important.

A dish at Mission Chinese is never only my vision because I don’t think I’m always the best at everything. We have younger cooks who go out every night to other restaurants and they have ideas like, “I saw this thing last night, what if we did this?” It’s a really collaborative effort.

When I was young, I would massage my own ego as a chef. I was the creator of this place, and whenever people would say, “What you’re doing is really amazing,” after a while it’s like everyone just wanting to hear one song. Eventually you’re like, “I could do so much more than this.” I definitely see a creative struggle with that. Everyone wants to hear Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, they don’t want to hear Adore, even though it was a huge creative detour for them. It’s really difficult to be putting so much time and energy into something and the world is just judging it, whether it’s food or music.

Do you have any regrets?
After Mission Chinese got shut down in New York for health department issues [editor’s note: the restaurant was closed due to building conditions beyond Danny’s control], I should have taken a break. I can acknowledge that now. But I don’t regret it, because I think you learn from your failures and that’s part of the process.

In the early days, I bought into my own hype a bit. And from a creative perspective, it’s great because everyone loves to see people doing crazy shit. But you can’t maintain that. Again, just because people love your album doesn’t mean they’re going to love the next album. You make an amazing album and then everyone says the next one isn’t as good. And you’re like, “I’m the same person making the food!” So, it’s a challenge and it’s a risk, and you have to just not have a nervous breakdown when that stuff happens.

I’ve opened three restaurants in New York in the past five years and I only have one still going. I was talking to my wife about it one day. I was really sad and down on myself about it, and she said, “Look, it’s one thing to sit around and have all these ideas and never act on them; it’s another thing to take risks. It’s very admirable to put yourself out there in a very vulnerable moment and go for it.” That really helped me overcome where I was at the time.

How did becoming a father affect your creative process?
Having a son helped me find myself. I’m from a working-class family, so having a child has helped me grow. It’s also made me look inward and think about everything I do and what kind of effect it will have—not only on myself, but on everyone else, as well. Everyone wants their kid to think they’re the coolest person in the world. I think my dad is one of the coolest people in the world and I really admire how hard he worked. I think that’s why I work so hard now.

I’m also trying to make sure that I’m happy, so that when I’m not working, I can spend real quality time with my wife and kid without being distracted by other things. I’m really glad that I’ve gone through what I’ve gone through because it’s given me a chance to really learn. It’s not realistic to go through life without some bumps in the road. I’m actually fulfilled through my work and I love what I do, without letting it control my life. I think I’m in a good spot now. It’s about making time for what’s important.

What is the future of Mission Chinese and just food culture in general?
We spend a lot of time thinking, “What more is there to do now?” I think for a long time food culture and food in general was like music in the sense that there were defined genres. There’s nothing wrong with classical music, but it’s one of those things where everything happens for a certain reason and everything is carefully composed. That’s how restaurants were for a long time; there’s a respect for the craft, and I appreciate that, but it’s not necessarily something I always want to listen to.

These days, there are a lot of new chefs who are thinking outside the box and they’re able to build up confidence and have more fun. They’re not just chasing things that people have done for so long, like always copying very classic fine-dining-style service. Now people eat at all different kinds of restaurants. You can have a five-hour meal if you want; you can have a one-hour meal if you want.

I think food culture is evolving, specifically because it’s so acceptable now. If you have a cool dish, you can put it up on social media and into people’s consciousness now. Because it’s evolving so rapidly, I think people will innovate, innovate, innovate and then go back to simpler things and then maybe trend toward the way things were a few years ago, when food wasn’t really food. That was what was really exciting to me—being tricked into eating a bite of something and having it be something else.

I think the food is only going to get better because people are sharing so much information out there, so food culture is going to continue to grow and hopefully you don’t become a one-hit wonder. At the end of the day, you want to create something that means something to people. It’s like being a pop star versus being a singer-songwriter. What you create can be generic and just made for mass appeal and become viral, or it can mean something more. Maybe not everyone knows about it, but it’s important.

If people can eat at the restaurant and walk away feeling like they connected and had an experience… that’s important to me. For example, maybe they tried a dish that made them feel like they were a kid again or they enjoyed a certain beverage that reminded them of a certain time in their life. That’s the power you have, because you can’t download food. It’s not like DVDs or music. So, I think restaurants will be around for a while… and I think that’s good! I’m excited to be a part of it. I just want to make sure that we continue to build on what we have and just get better.

Conversation edited for length and clarity.