Why are cooks the way they are?” asks Danny Bowien, as he leans against a spearmint-green wall in the foyer of his new restaurant on Orchard Street. “Why do they get paid to do so little? Why do they drink away their paycheck? Why do they wear flip-flops? Why do they have ugly-ass girlfriends and no quality of life?”
Good questions, all of them rhetorical. It’s a sloshy gray morning on the Lower East Side, where the 30-year-old Bowien will open (in six hours!) the first (there will be more!) New York outpost of his cultish San Francisco restaurant, Mission Chinese Food. That restaurant, launched in 2010 inside an existing Chinese dive, has earned praise from Mark Bittman and Alan Richman for its “Americanized Oriental food” (Bowien’s words), as well as a James Beard Foundation nomination for Bowien as Rising Star Chef. And in the opinion-stuffed culinary clusterfuck that is San Francisco, Mission Chinese has assembled an upmarket-underground fan club that includes everyone from the McSweeney’s crew (which published its cookbook) to Daniel Boulud (who will show up for the New York branch’s first night in business like he’d been waiting for months).
None of which is much comfort this morning for Bowien, who is tightly coiled and chattering as a couple of his cooks attempt to spark a reticent pilot light. About the fact that most Chinese food tastes “kind of horrible” without MSG (which he doesn’t use). And the little French machine he found in Paris that extrudes duck blood and funnels it out through a copper spigot (which is awesome). And his business strategy: “Undersell and overdeliver.”
“I don’t come from money,” he says. “We don’t have huge capital to open this restaurant. I just want a place where you can go and be happy.”
Happiness is a key metric in Bowien’s world, as are awesomeness (high praise), insanity (higher praise), and bullshit (the opposite). Wearing nylon shorts, a Supreme fitted cap, and Nike Air Force 1s the color of a dirty Ping-Pong ball, Bowien’s appearance places him firmly among the crew of piety-smushing hipster chefs favored by today’s influential eaters.
His food, too, is scrupulously on-trend. The menu at Mission Chinese in New York is pungent, subtly evil-sounding, inexpensive. There are high ingredients and low ingredients; chicken hearts, pork jowl, chrysanthemum, and a version of broccoli beef all mingle on a display board like you’d find at a no-name corner Chinese joint, minus the bulletproof glass. It’s all of a piece with Bowien’s “underselling” gambit: Artful touches of squalor coax low expectations from diners, priming them to be floored by intelligently gutsy food. That the strategy is ubiquitous doesn’t make it any less effective.
At the back of the restaurant, Bowien pours sparkling water into plastic cups and tells me about Oklahoma, where his adoptive parents live (Bowien is Korean). “I never even had Korean food until I was 19 and moved to San Francisco,” he says. Within hours of deplaning, Bowien was eating at the first Korean restaurant he could find. In a few days he packed on a half-dozen pounds and shortly afterward signed up for culinary school. “I got really focused,” he says, “I read all my books and everything.And then I discovered what partying was.”
Four partying-related leaves of absence and a proper hiatus back in Oklahoma later, Bowien is still not sure if he has technically graduated: “Did I get a certificate? How does that work?” he wonders, apparently for the first time.
After a couple of internships in New York, Bowien returned to San Francisco and opened Mission Chinese. The rest is brief and dazzling history. In October, Martha Stewart invited him on her show to make hand-pulled noodles. Two weeks later, Stewart stopped by with a fourteen-person entourage and requested that two seats on either side of her remain empty, so that more food could be arrayed before her.
Bowien whips out his phone and pulls up a photo of many dudes assembled in a kitchen, all of them hoisting Budweisers. The guy in the middle is Ferran Adrià. “He came in, and I was like, ‘Holy shit,’ ” Bowien says. When Adrià came back to the kitchen to thank the cooks, they presented him with a twelve-pack of Budweiser.
“Adrià was like, ‘What is this?’ and we were like, ‘It’s the king of beers!’ and he was all, ‘Okay,’ ” Bowien says. A tradition was minted: When dignitaries visit, Buds are pounded.
Really? Martha drank a Bud? “Well, she took a pull and then handed it off to someone.”
On our way out, he spots a bit of shmutz on the mint-green wall. “What are you? How’d you get here?” he addresses the shmutz. Then back to me. “Oh, man, I might puke. I’ve been puking every morning from the nerves.” This story appeared in the June, 11, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.