The first thing you notice is The Keg. Unless you serve on the party planning committee of a Columbia U. frat house, or work behind a bar, kegs aren’t something you see a lot of in New York City, let alone at the front of a restaurant on the eve of its debut.
The beer barrel is a fixture of Mission Chinese Food, the San Francisco transplant tucked into an inconspicuous storefront on Orchard Street. The restaurant is disguised as an average neighborhood Chinese joint, complete with a neon menu board and photographs of dishes in the window. False modesty is nothing new in the local food scene. A kegger is.
During a “Friends and Family” dinner in late May, three days before the restaurant’s opening, the 30-year-old owner and head chef, Danny Bowien, explained the philosophy behind The Keg. A soundtrack of Fleetwood Mac and Elvis Presley boomed from the PA as he sprayed beer from the nozzle into plastic cups and handed them over. The keg, he assured us then, would not be a temporary fixture.
“It’s just like, if you’re gonna make people wait to eat at your restaurant,” he said, “you might as well give them something for being there.”
In the bruising landscape of the New York City restaurant industry—in which an hour-long wait is seen less as a drawback than as confirmation that a diner can expect a decent meal—a spot that gives customers something for nothing is an anomaly. But then again, very little about the curious Mr. Bowien and his food really computes.
His standard for hiring? “I go off of gut feeling a lot.”
Tradition? “None of our cooks have previous Chinese cooking experience, which is good.”
Background? “I never called myself a chef until these past two months, opening up a restaurant.”
Never mind all the accolades: Mr. Bowien himself insists he has never aspired to be anything more than a cook, albeit a chef’s cook.
“You can be the best line cook in the world, and that’s fine, and that’s what I wanted to be for a long time,” he explained. “Or you can move it to the next level and teach people and help other people to grow, and eventually manage or,” he exhaled, “become a chef.”
He’s still ambivalent about the transition. “You become a chef and it sucks,” he sighed, “because you don’t get to cook anymore. Like you’re basically just managing, doing paperwork and making sure your dishwashers show up. You know, it’s …” he trailed off.
Mr. Bowien did not take the usual route to culinary stardom. He didn’t struggle under the Navy SEAL-like tutelage of Andrew Carmellini at Café Boulud or marinate in the mythological mastery of Gray Kunz. Nor did he grow up on the bottom shelf of a prep table, a restaurant brat.
At 19, he left home—Oklahoma City, where he was raised by adoptive parents—moved to San Francisco and started eating. After a brief detour to culinary school (he never finished), Mr. Bowien made his way to New York and began working at restaurants. The experience was, he said, “a complete failure.” His first gig was at the Tribeca Grill. “I didn’t even make it to the line,” he recalled, burying his face in his hands, recalling the naïveté of his younger years. “I got up to garde manger, and then I was like, ‘I’m ready to go to fine dining.’ That was, like, the dumbest thing in the world.”
He landed at Sumile, an Asian-Fusion restaurant. “I was super underqualified,” he said. “It was like if Sonic Youth brought in some kid who didn’t know how to play the drums. I was very, very green.” A family emergency brought him back to Oklahoma City. After a few months, he thought about returning, but he knew his wasn’t ready.
“I went back to San Francisco and thought, what’s the one thing that those guys”—the hardcore cooks he looked up to, the ones who kept the line locked down—“what do they do after work? And what do they like to eat? And what can I learn? And it was sushi.”
Between working various line-cook jobs, he took a “stage”—an unpaid internship—with a sushi chef. Mostly, he washed dishes, but every day the chef would buy him a fish to butcher on his own. His first day, it took him an hour. The chef promised him that eventually he’d be doing it in a minute and a half, but he never made it that far. Realizing he needed a paycheck, Mr. Bowien left for other gigs. One of the stops on his tour of San Francisco’s restaurant scene was Bar Tartine, where he met a guy named Anthony Myint.
When Mr. Myint and his wife, Karen Leibowitz, opened a food truck called Mission Street Food in 2008, it was a hit: “PB & J” sandwiches were stuffed with pork belly and jicama, and nachos were topped with duck confit. Mr. Myint and Ms. Leibowitz went looking for a brick-and-mortar home, but with limited funds, they wound up making an unusual deal with a typical Chinese-American restaurant called Lung Shan. On Thursdays and Saturdays, Mission Street Food took over the Lung Shan kitchen and served their own food. The pop-up quickly became a local favorite, and soon, Mission Street Food was operating seven days a week. That’s when Danny Bowien got involved.
In early 2010, Mr. Bowien—on a whim, mostly—decided he wanted to cook Chinese food, or what he calls “Americanized Oriental food,” something he’d never done before, and he mentioned the idea to Mr. Myint, a drinking buddy.