Question & Answer
What’s your name?
I'm Danny Bowien and I'm the owner of Mission Chinese Food in New York and San Francisco.
Where are you from?
I'm from Korea but I was adopted when I was 3 months old and I grew up in Oklahoma City until I was 19. So, I'm Korean but I grew up in the States and my adoptive parents were American.
How did you become interested in becoming a chef?
Growing up, I was kind of a fish out of water and with cooking it was the same thing. Whenever my friends would get together, I'd be the one that would always cook and host parties and I really loved entertaining. So I thought "Well culinary school sounds fun, it's a good way to get out of Oklahoma". So I moved to San Francisco when I was 19.
I went to culinary school for 3 years but never worked at a restaurant - I was working at clothing stores and just making new friends. But then, when I moved out of an environment that was very comfortable for me, I knew I had to get out to challenge myself. So after I moved to New York City and did my externship when I was 22, and got my first kitchen job, I realized I wanted to cook, because I wanted to still entertain people and make them feel a certain way. That's how I got into cooking.
Why do you feel like not fitting in is a good thing?
I spent most of my younger years just trying to fit in. I was probably the only Korean kid at my school. I spent a lot of time trying to acclimate. And I kind of realized that I wasn't being myself and I didn't know who I was was.
Then I realized that you don't have to be like everyone else, you don’t have to fit a certain mold. Create your own mold. That's what I did – it took me a long time, up until I was like 26.
I spent years working through other kitchens, other restaurants, from fine dining to Japanese restaurants, Californian restaurants in San Francisco. And I just didn't really have a voice, just felt like I was part of someone else's vision, someone else's idea - and people would ask me “What kind of food do you want to cook?” and I didn't really know the answer to that.
I think the most important part of learning that I didn't fit in with everyone else was that it actually gave me the ability to take the risk. Stepping out on that limb gave me the freedom to do what I want to do.
What do you like about the freedom of being your own boss?
I think the most important thing I learned from being a boss or an owner is that you're not always right, and that it's very important to learn from failure. You're not perfect and you're going to make mistakes. Take risks and welcome the fact that it may not work out the way you want, but you learned something from it, and you're going to get better.
I think that's the thing that I appreciate the most, is that there is this level of humility and earnestness that comes from the process of being at the top. When you're the chef and the owner, no one is there to tell you that “this tastes a little off”, or “service tonight was like this”, so you really have to be very aware and also very open to knowing that you don’t have all the answers.
Do you think you've made it in the restaurant business?
I definitely feel like I've made it a lot further than I thought I would make it, just in life in general. Yes it's challenging, yeah it's stressful, and there are a lot of risks that come with it, but I'm a very fortunate person.
It's like having kids, no matter what anyone tells you about it, about what's right or wrong for them, at the end it's your own journey. It's your own adventure.
I'm always trying to ask the question: "Why not?” “Why has it not been done like this before, why should we not try this, why should we not take that risk?”
Can you talk about a dish or a recipe you've made that you're particularly proud of?
If I were to talk about dishes that I'm most proud of, of course there's lots of new things that we create. But I would say the dish I'm most proud of is probably the dish that got me into Sichuan cooking in the first place. I still remember vividly, I was 26, I was in San Francisco, it was raining. And I was with my friend Brandon Jew, he's a chef and he said, “Have you ever tried this restaurant called Spices II?” I was like “No, what is it?” He's like, “It's a Sichuan restaurant.” And I went and I had Sichuan mapo tofu for the first time.
I had grown up eating mapo tofu as this ubiquitous brown-sauce tofu dish with pork in it and sometimes like frozen green peas. What I had was completely different. It was pork and tofu but like in this numbing spicy paste-like sauce, it was like a gravy. And I was eating it with rice and I couldn't stop eating it because it was so addictive. It was so impactful, it was like hearing a song for the first time. You know, it just hit me. I was like “What is this and how do I get more of it?”
When we started Mission Chinese Food, that was the first dish that I wanted to try to make. I'd never been to China, never been to Chengdu, never been to the Sichuan province. So the first time I made it, it was like 33 ingredients. I learned a lot about myself through that dish over the last 7 years, and now it's only about 12 ingredients. What I ended up doing was to over-complicate it.
I'd say mapo tofu is the dish that makes me the most proud of the because it's something that I've been able to learn a lot about myself through, learn a lot about restraint. You don't really have to overcomplicate things. And it was the dish that turned me on to Sichuan food. I think that I'm the most proud of that dish because I think it says a lot about me and where I am now.
You talked about music a lot, but how do you find inspiration?
Inspiration comes in many forms now. I used to just zone in on eating at restaurants, looking at food, reading articles about food, and to be quite honest I kinda got a little oversaturated and jaded because I felt like everything that I was taking in, everyone else was. Inspiration for me now, for food specifically, isn't just from food anymore, it actually comes from not working with food. Whether it's like being at the park, playing with my son and seeing how like – this sounds really cheesy – but like being in the park, playing with my son and seeing how leaves are falling down on the ground. I'm like "wow that's really great, the orchestration of that, can you re-invent that into a dish? Can you take that, whether the way that looks, or the way that it's moving?”
Obviously music is a huge inspiration, but I wouldn't say that music inspires my food directly. I think music has been a tool that I use when I'm writing menus, or trying to come up with ideas. I like to have a lot of noise around me, a lot of things happening, I can't create in complete silence. But I don't hear a song and think "Oh I should make preserved cherry fried rice."
A lot of time when I sit down to write a menu or something, if I see something like leaves falling on the ground, I'll make a note of it. And then I'll sit down with this long list of just very abstract things and try to remember. And that takes me to this abstract place where I feel ready to create.
What do you want people to take away from visiting your website?
I want people to leave the website and feel like they've had an experience different from what they've had from other websites, because that's what we do at our restaurant. The idea of food and restaurants, everything is very derivative these days. Everything is kind of a copy of a copy of a copy.
If we can at least incite some sort of emotion, and people can connect to it, by the time they're leaving they're like "Wow that was cool, that was different, I wasn't expecting that." That's kind of what I want out of our website, I want it to be able to be very democratic and very usable, it should be something that can be very approachable, but it's also fun. You know, that's like the most important thing about anything that I do at this point is that “it should be fun.”