Danny Bowien, chef and co-founder of Mission Chinese Food, has taken the culinary world by storm. The 30-year-old chef, who was this year’s recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Chef award, is known for his "Americanized Oriental food" (Bowien’s words), exploring Sichuan flavors in unexpected ways.
Mission Chinese Food is a no-frills type of joint — the focus is on the food: adventurous plates like kung pao pastrami, dried-cod fried rice, Beijing vinegar peanuts, and broccoli beef brisket. And Bowien’s personal style is as flavorful as his dishes, with his often two-toned hair, skinny jeans, and penchant for designer labels.
I met up with Bowien at Mission Chinese Food in the Lower East Side, the wildly popular New York outpost of his pop-up location in San Francisco, and talked candidly about everything from his cooking essentials to his killer sense of style. Read the exclusive interview below then shop Danny Bowien’s must-haves in the slideshow above.
Lifestyle Mirror: Where are the best places to buy Asian ingredients in New York City?
Danny Bowien: Well, that depends. It’s kind of funny because we’re a Chinese restaurant but we tend to source a lot of stuff that’s not Chinese. I think for a lot of slightly more esoteric Asian ingredients — we use a lot of Japanese stuff as well — we typically go to Sunrise Mart over by St. Mark’s; they have some pretty cool stuff. And for an all-around great Asian market, we just get it from our purveyors now. The farmers' markets are a really great resource, too, because there are a lot more local purveyors that are growing Asian ingredients, which is pretty interesting.
Lifestyle Mirror: What are your cooking essentials?
Danny Bowien: A good chef of mine, a long time ago, got really mad at me because I kept coming to work and my knife wasn’t very sharp. This sounds really silly, but he was basically like, 'Just like if you’re a doctor and go to work without your stethoscope, it’s f*cked up.' You really need it. It’s an extension of you as a cook — I think that a good knife is really important. The knife that I use is Nenohi Nenox and it’s this crazy — I have a bunch of them — handmade knife from Japan with a calf bone handle. It’s really awesome. A good sharp knife and some decent utensils, as far as spoons go, are good. We tend to use a spoon called a Grey Kunz spoon — it was designed by a chef — but in the kitchen I just use a wok ladle.
Lifestyle Mirror: What’s your favorite item on your menu?
Danny Bowien: I don’t know… I’ve eaten everything so many times… I really like the mapo tofu, it's the dish that really started everything for us. That’s the first Sichuan dish that we had, so I think I’m really drawn to that still. I don’t eat it all the time but that’s probably my favorite, or the lamb.
Lifestyle Mirror: What’s the craziest ingredient you use?
Danny Bowien: I think the Sichuan pepper that we’ve been getting is really unique because it’s from the Sichuan province and it’s really numbing and intense. It’s more intense than any Sichuan pepper I’ve gotten in the United States. As far as crazy goes, that or some of the chili powders we’re using now are pretty insane. We get a green Sichuan pepper, which is a little less common from the red variety — it’s really floral and we only use it with our fish dishes.
Lifestyle Mirror: You always wear cool glasses, who are those by?
Danny Bowien: I got these from Moscot up the street. Before that, I would get my glasses in Korea.
Lifestyle Mirror: What’s your go-to outfit on the job?
Danny Bowien: I used to wear all my regular clothes in the kitchen and they got really f*cked up. As far as essentials in the kitchen, I tend to wear a button-up dishwasher coat that we order from a linen company. And as far as pants go, I try to wear something that’s pretty comfortable. I wear Acne jeans a lot.
Lifestyle Mirror: Do you wear typical cooking shoes?
Danny Bowien: Yeah, I wear Birkenstocks. I used to wear Air Jordans but I’d slip. The kitchen is not necessarily the best place to be the most fashionable person — I think you need to be safe.
Lifestyle Mirror: You have amazing style. What would you say is your go-to outfit when you’re not working?
Danny Bowien: I’m getting older, so I can’t dress like I’m 19 anymore. But, I like Raf Simons a lot. As far as shoes go, I like Margiela a lot. I’m really, really drawn to kind of simpler stuff — I bought a lot of Raf Simons this year — but Jil Sanders’ stuff is nice. For dress shirts, I like Dries Van Noten a lot. But then I also wear American Apparel — it’s so comfortable.
Lifestyle Mirror: Do you like to listen to music while you’re cooking?
Danny Bowien: At home I like to listen music when I’m cooking, but home and work for me are different because in the kitchen, there’s just so much going on. When I’m at work, I like to be very quiet when I’m cooking because there’s so much to do. At home, I like to kind of decompress and put music on. But in the kitchen it’s dangerous, too, when you’re running around with sharp knives and hot pans. I know certain chefs that don’t allow people to listen to music; I’m not one of those… Go-to music would be anything that’s pretty upbeat. I actually don’t listen to a lot of rap. It’s good but I feel like rock music makes me work more.
Lifestyle Mirror: What do you listen to when you’re cooking at home?
Danny Bowien: It always changes. If I’m trying to be motivated, I definitely listen to a lot of the Sarah McLachlan station on Pandora, just because it’s really relaxing but I also listen to a lot of rock. I listen to a lot of Smashing Pumpkins, old punk — stuff like that.
Lifestyle Mirror: What are some of your favorite restaurants in the U.S.?
Danny Bowien: It’s hard because in New York there’s a thousand. I really, really love the meals that I’ve had a Husk in Charleston. I grew up in Oklahoma so I never had real Southern food — I had a bastardized version of that, in a sense — so I think that the meal I had there was extremely memorable. I had an extremely delicious meal at Bar Tartine in San Francisco, it was really awesome; Manresa in San Francisco is amazing. In New York — there are so many places — Sushi Yasuda is definitely one of my favorite places to go. I miss Corton but I like The Elm a lot… Estela is amazing on Mulberry Street. They just opened. And all the Momofuku restaurants, obviously. That’s in a nutshell New York, California, and Charleston. I’ve never been to Chicago — I really want to go. I have a lot of friends that are chefs there and really want to go and try their food.
Lifestyle Mirror: What would you say your signature drink is? Do you have a favorite cocktail?
Danny Bowien: I haven’t drank in a while which is silly. But when I did drink, I liked rosé; I like wine, spritzers… a really good gin with a splash of soda is a really good drink, or sake.
Lifestyle Mirror: I love your hair. Do you do it yourself or get it done?
Danny Bowien: I get it done, but I actually did it myself for a long time. I have a hairdresser that comes to me at home. She works at Patricia Field on Bowery.
Lifestyle Mirror: Do you use any specific grooming products?
Danny Bowien: I use the stuff at my gym, which is Kiehl’s. I also really like Aesop.
Lifestyle Mirror: Kiehls at the gym — I’m assuming you go to Equinox. Are you a really big gym person?
Danny Bowien: I go there; I try to be. I’m not into Crossfit or anything like that but I try to go because as a cook, you’re eating so much stuff. Most of the time not because you want to, but because you need to taste something at the restaurant. It’s really important to stay healthy — I don’t want to be the token, really big, overweight, unhappy chef.
Lifestyle Mirror: What do you do at the gym?
Danny Bowien: I started rowing a lot more. I’m [also] that guy on the elliptical. When you’re in the kitchen, you’re standing all the time so running is hard on my knees. I ride my bike a lot, too.
— Courtney Porkolàb, Lifestyle Mirror
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