Danny Bowien is done trying to prove himself. In 2013 everything changed for the quirky chef behind the Mission Chinese Food restaurants in San Francisco and New York and Mission Cantina in New York. That year he went through a well documented battle with New York City over Mission Chinese Food. The health department shut it down twice. Mission Chinese Food eventually reopened, in a new location the following year, but Bowien still felt like he had to overcompensate for what he saw as a failure. He would often spend 22 hours a day in the kitchen. “I was trying to prove to myself that I still could do it, that I had something,” he says. “I was like, OK, I can keep working this hard and killing myself to prove a point, or I can just eat my slice of humble pie and say at least I have a product that people want. A light went off. That’s when it stopped being so difficult.”
Bowien’s first book, The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook, which also documents the openings and closings and reopenings of all his restaurants, comes out today. We talked to Bowien as he walked his son to school about what made him finally decide to stop caring what people said about him.
What can people expect from The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook?
It’s pretty amazing. And I’m not saying that because that sounds cheesy. This book wasn’t us climbing the mountain and looking back down and writing a book about what we’ve accomplished. It started three years ago before Mission Chinese New York had even opened. And it’s just been a crazy ride. It chronicles the opening of New York, the closing of New York, the reopening of New York, the opening of Mission Cantina and where it all stands now. What’s funny is this book was intended to just represent Mission Chinese San Francisco and maybe the beginning of New York. But we strung writing it out over three years.
There are like 49 recipes as well. It’s crazy because we’re still building on all this stuff. At a certain point we had to cut it off and stop putting recipes down. If someone wanted to open a Mission Chinese Food, not saying we would want them to do that, but with this book, they could open the first version of what we did. I mean we’re already on version four. The book is basically versions one through three.
Since you just recently sifted through all of your recipes, how would you say your style has changed over the years?
My cooking style has gotten a little bit smarter. A lot of times, especially when you don’t know what you’re doing, you start out with the idea that you want to make yours as good as something else. There’s obviously a benchmark, so you try and achieve that. So for the longest time I operated under that pressure of, well, it’s got to be as good as it is here or else it’s not good. That’s kind of how I started, but then after a while, over the past five years of doing Mission Chinese, we’ve come into our own.
The best advice anyone ever gave me was, ‘the moment you stop paying attention to what everyone else is doing is the moment that you really find yourself and you can actually do your own thing.’ That’s very important. At a certain point we just stopped and said look, we’re going to make the food we want to make, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a certain way.
My approach to cooking has grown up. When you own restaurants, especially in New York, you kind of have to zoom out a little bit. When we started, I was like zoomed in to just being all about the food. Then you realize you have to run a restaurant and a business. You have to balance it all out. When I moved to New York and we opened our spot, I was like, it has to be done a certain way, especially with a Chinese kitchen. But now I think I’m a little bit more economic with respect to the time some of the recipes take. I’m a father now so I feel like I’m always trying to whip something up pretty quickly.
Is cultural authenticity, whether it be Sichuan or Mexican, important to you at all?
No. I can see how it’s important to people for sure. But to me, at this point, it’s like OK. We’ve talked about it. Everyone understands what it is and why it’s important or why it’s not important. That word conjures up so many emotions with people. I definitely respect authenticity. But do we run a restaurant that’s based solely around that? No. I’m not Mexican and I’m not Chinese. You can’t always be basing everything off the Old World, old techniques, because things have changed drastically. At the same time I’m not putting Snickers bars on top of chow mein noodles. I respect authenticity, but I’m not striving to run an authentic restaurant. We just want people to have a very authentic experience.
So you think the cultural authenticity conversation is done.
Yeah. In the chef community, chefs are talking about running their restaurants and businesses. Any time I sit down and talk to a chef, it’s not about food. It’s about running a restaurant. It’s about how we can make it better for our cooks and ourselves. We talk about the ideas of our industry, but we’re not really sitting here talking about, oh, I believe it’s authentic because of this. I feel like authenticity, whenever you get into that conversation, unless you’re super secure with what you do, it can be a touchy subject for a lot of people. For me, for a while it was, and now I don’t care. I’m secure in what I do. To answer your question, no, it’s not as big of a topic today as it was three years ago when David Chang was yelling at everyone about authenticity.
A lot of reviewers can’t comprehend Mission Cantina. They say things like, ‘this isn’t even Mexican food. I don’t know why it’s called Mexican food.’ How do you keep people’s expectations in check—people who are going to a restaurant called a cantina—while also doing your own thing?
If you read anything about us, half the people hate us and half the people love us. Honestly I hope this doesn’t come off in the wrong way, but I spent plenty of time worrying about what other people think. I spent enough time beating myself up. Say you’re comparing yourself to another Chinese chef or another Mexican chef; all you do is you get caught up in that. I just now got to the point of having enough self confidence to be like great, there’s someone else opening a Sichuan restaurant and it’s not a Sichuan chef? Cool. I’m fine with that. Let them do their thing. There’s plenty of room for everybody.
Other than managing the customers’ expectations, I think I learned to manage my expectations as to what a customer wants. My job is to give someone what they want. It’s a lot of learning. The problem with Cantina was that I was too busy paying attention to what all my other chef friends were doing and I kind of got caught up in all of that. Like the burrito thing. At the end of the day, people don’t really care about how great my tortillas are. Ten people care. And then everyone else is coming in for a fucking cheap taco.
As far as keeping expectations in check, we just try to stay true ourselves. I know that sounds really hokey. But I don’t know how to manage peoples’ expectations. I just try to keep myself in check and not let myself get too far out there.
What was your tipping point? What made you say, I’m over it. I’m not going to worry about what other people are doing anymore?
It was a business decision. We were bringing in corn from Anson Mills [to make our own tortillas at Cantina] that was like $5 a pound, and by the time you pay shipping on it, it comes out to like $7 a pound. I was trying to prove something that didn’t need to be proven. It was basically me battling with myself. Mission Chinese’s closing was a lot of reason I was doing this stuff. I was trying to prove to myself that I still could do it, that I had something.
Once Mission Chinese reopened and everything settled, I looked at how the business was performing and how many other taquerias were opening that were doing the same exact thing. I was like, I don’t want to be like everyone else. That’s why Mission Chinese doesn’t have sweet and sour pork. We don’t want to do what everyone else is doing. And we found ourselves doing what everyone else was doing with Cantina. It just didn’t feel organic. We looked at the numbers and the amount of time I had to be there to make that thing run. And I was just like, let’s push the reset button. People come to Mission Cantina because they really want the burritos. I was like, OK, I can keep working this hard and killing myself to prove a point, or I can just eat my slice of humble pie and say at least I have a product that people want. A light went off. That’s when it stopped being so difficult.
Did becoming a father play into this?
I had my son during the closing of Mission Chinese Food and the opening of Mission Cantina. So it was a pretty turbulent time, I would say. But, yeah, it defiantly has taken a toll on how I handle things on a day-to-day basis with all three restaurants. I look further down the road more now. Before my wife would yell at me, she was like you’re running Cantina like a pop up! You can’t change it all the time. I feel like I was just very scattered, and then having a son grounded me. It balanced me out. I zoomed out and looked at the bigger picture. I want to spend time with my family and I don’t want to spend 19 hours a day at a restaurant if I don’t have to. Before I had my kid I would just work 22 hours a day if I needed to. But it’s not all about me anymore.
How do you see the New York dining scene changing over the next couple of years?
Luckily Mission Chinese Food is in a sick spot. We got in at a really good time. And hopefully downtown doesn’t turn into a bunch of restaurants we don’t want, but I think inevitably that’s what will happen. And then everyone kind of moves somewhere else.
The metrics to run a restaurant in New York City are crazy. Not to mention that once your doors are open every city department comes through and tries to fine you and bill you. Everyone comes and takes their piece. The restaurant industry is insane.
When people ask the question, ‘what’s better, San Francisco or New York?’ I’m always like that’s a dumb question. If you’re fortunate enough to live in either city, what the fuck would you complain about? I’m not going to complain about San Francisco. They made me. People have held on to us there through the whole ride. And I’m not going to complain about New York either. We’ve been through everything, hell and back, and it’s taught me how to be an adult. About businesses and about families. I don’t have anything bad to say about either.
What other projects do you have coming up?
I have the book tour. But this next year for me is just really about getting everything running fucking tight. It’s about setting up a really, really good infrastructure so that the businesses can perform for the duration of the lease and beyond that in New York City. For the first time it’s going to be pretty nice to just reflect and manage.
Alyson Sheppard writes about restaurants and bars for Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep