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Mission accomplished

At New York's Mission Chinese Food, Danny Bowien is turning the tables on modern Asian cooking more than any other chef in the US.
Samuel Zide

At New York’s Mission Chinese Food, Danny Bowien is turning the tables on modern Asian cooking more than any other chef in the US right now, writes Peter Meehan.

Like a king’s court that spent its days staring in the mirror rather than battening down the hatches, the mandarins of New York’s dining scene were not ready for the onslaught that came from the West last year. They had certainly heard that Mission Chinese Food – a restaurant that served “Americanised Oriental food” cooked by a Korean with long blond hair – was opening a New York outpost. Perhaps some knew that it had grown from a pop-up restaurant in a pupusa truck into one of San Francisco’s most coveted dining spots, even though it was housed in a dingy Chinese restaurant owned by someone else.

But then Danny Bowien – the aforementioned Korean – opened up in an uncomfortably slender, terribly lit space on the Lower East Side, and New Yorkers lined up like dominoes outside and were knocked over one by one as they got a chance to eat his food. Pete Wells, the restaurant critic at The New York Times, called it 2012’s most exciting new restaurant, writing, “no other restaurant I reviewed this year left me feeling as exhilarated each time I got up from the table”. Bowien says his is the “most overrated” restaurant in New York, but that doesn’t change its rating.

Explaining Bowien’s food is assisted by a bit of biography: he was adopted by an Oklahoman couple and his father worked at the local car-manufacturing plant. His childhood diet was more American than apple pie: smoky beef barbecue; fried chicken from a part of the country that takes its fried chicken seriously. His introduction to Chinese cuisine wasn’t auspicious. “My dad used to bring home leftovers from his lunch at this local Chinese place,” says Bowien.

“I loved the pork fried rice, which was, like, brown with soy sauce.”

As a teen he took a job washing dishes at a local Vietnamese place – there’s a significant Vietnamese settlement in Oklahoma – where he fell hard for the food, even the stuff like pig’s blood soup that the other Okies didn’t go in for. Through his twenties he worked at a sushi bar, honing his knife skills, and for a Ligurian chef, whose teachings are still very much at play even in the context of Bowien’s take on Chinese food. (There’s pecorino in that dumpling dough, though you’d never guess tasting it.)

His reference points in Chinese cuisine are the fireworks of Sichuan cooking and the sludgy sweetness of Chinese-American cooking. His congees are more flavour-dense than their Chinese inspirations; his salt-cod fried rice – the dish that seems to be on every table – lighter, brighter, fresher, invigorated with fresh herbs. He breathed new life into beef and broccoli – the very essence of bain-marie Chinese-American cooking – by swapping anonymously gloopy brown sauce for smoked oyster sauce and mystery meat for very Oklahoman smoky barbecued brisket. Rather than serve Chongqing chicken, a dish that American diners don’t always understand how to eat, Bowien took its flavour profile and applied it to chicken wings.

Bowien turns into a wild-eyed fanboy when he talks about chefs and restaurants, and he happily draws from his travels and dinners to add to his menu. It offers spicy pickled whole carrots and credits them to San Francisco bakery tartine. After a trip to Charleston, South Carolina, stomping ground of the chef Sean Brock, a country-fried hamachi collar appeared at Mission Chinese. Shortly after Ivan Orkin, the Tokyo ramen chef, started hanging out with Bowien (Orkin is opening a New York outpost), mapo la mian – a fusion of ma po doufu and Japanese ramen – was born.

Bowien has his detractors, including a Michelin inspector who tweeted that his ma po doufu tasted like lasagne filling (an impossibly odd accusation, unless there’s some lasagne tradizionale spicy enough to make your eyeballs sweat) and those who are looking for something that hews closer to tradition. But the goodwill the restaurant generates overcomes a lot of the hate. Anthony Myint, Bowien’s business partner and founder of the pop-up that became Mission Chinese Food, created a simple system: 75 cents from each entrée goes to a local food-based charity. The restaurants have raised tens of thousands of dollars for hunger relief through this initiative, and inspired other restaurants to undertake their own efforts.

It’s been years since anyone has moved the dial on Asian cooking in New York as much as Bowien. (The last guy, a Korean chef with an outpost in Sydney, is a business partner of mine, so I’ll spare you the plug.) He hasn’t brought us closer to the source (Andy Ricker, who cooks Thai food at Pok Pok in Brooklyn, did that, adding a range of previously unavailable Thai dishes and flavours to New York’s dining scene), but he has shown how tradition and creativity can be forged together to make new and exciting things to eat. “We just try to cook delicious food,” says Bowien. 

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