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.
It seemed an unlikely notion, but Mr. Bowien’s lack of experience turned out to be an advantage. Out came the dishes: Kung pao corned beef. Korean rice cakes, slathered in a volcanic red-hot oil, tossed with thrice-cooked bacon. It was Chinese food, reinterpreted and remixed. Somehow it worked.
Soon, Mission Chinese was generating real buzz. Everyone from Martha Stewart to Ferran Adrià dropped in. Mark Bittman at The New York Times compared the food to the creature in Alien (“an unreal exotic that bursts out of a normal skin”). The restaurant received accolades from Bon Appetit and the ever-grizzled Alan Richman in GQ, who declared himself “infatuated.”
In December, Mr. Bowien decided he was finally ready to give New York another shot. But first, he ran the idea by some writers he knew. His first call was to Mr. Bittman, who was thrilled at the prospect. He floated the scheme to Peter Meehan and Chris Ying, editors of Lucky Peach. “Chris was like, ‘You’re fucking crazy, dude,’” he recalled. “Meehan was just like, ‘Yeah, you’re fucking crazy, dude, but it would save me trips to San Francisco.’”
Their hesitations were understandable. Mr. Bowien was tempting New York’s malevolent restaurant gods. For one thing, the city is indisputably the most expensive place to open in the country, an obvious impediment to a spot that donates $0.75 off of every entree to charity. Moreover, while Mr. Bowien’s exotic dishes make for ideal food blogger photo bait, they’re not exactly accessible to the masses. Mission’s success in San Francisco seemed an auspicious sign, but New Yorkers don’t always take kindly to heavily hyped outsiders.
Remember Nate Appleman, who came from San Francisco’s A16 to open up Keith McNally’s Bowery pizzeria, Pulino’s? He’s now working for Chipotle. What about Texas import Tim Love, whose Lonesome Dove Bistro was laughed out of town by Frank Bruni? Even the famed Joël Robuchon just packed up his Manhattan shop.
New Yorkers have been particularly skeptical about their West Coast counterparts. There was the infamous moment at the 2009 New York Food and Wine Festival, when David Chang openly mused to Anthony Bourdain about San Fransisco’s food scene: “Fucking every restaurant in San Francisco is just serving figs on a plate,” he raved. “Do something with your food!” Mr. Chang promptly had an upcoming Bay Area appearance canceled by its offended host.
Which is why it’s telling that Mr. Chang’s Momofuku group had its James Beard Awards party at Mission Chinese Food.
Mr. Bowien said that well before the opening, he reached out to Mr. Chang for advice. His tips, Mr. Bowien recalled, were: “‘Power through,’ and ‘People are going to fuck you over,’ and, basically, just: ‘Take care of yourself, and make sure that you … don’t kill yourself.’
“It was probably one of the most beautiful conversations I’ve had, ever,” he sighed.
On a recent Thursday night, at 9 p.m., a crowd huddled around the front in sweltering heat, giving the keg a workout: There was a two-hour wait.
The critics had been ecstatic, most notably, New York Times dining critic Pete Wells, who recently awarded Mission Chinese Food two stars. That was the same rating assigned in 2006 by Bruni to the Flushing, Queens hot spot Spicy & Tasty, a restaurant with a similar taste profile to Mission’s, if a lot less whimsy.
And perhaps its the latter quality that explains the hype around Mr. Bowien and New York Magazine’s appraisal of his Szechuan-influenced “Asian hipster” cooking as “scrupulously on-trend.” Less so, the former.
What Danny Bowien cooks at Mission Chinese is indisputably interesting, but in a moment when the awe over molecular gastronomy is fading like day-old maitake foam, his success says as much about the audience and the Zeitgeist as it does about the quality of his food.
Playfulness is a key conceit: A spicy Chongqing chicken is served in wing-form, like a psychotic import from Buffalo. Take that, Grand Szechuan! Pig tails are braised in root beer. And so on. Such dishes pose a dare to diners, appealing to the would-be foodie within us all, while coolly shrugging off any questions about authenticity.
[It doesn't merit the lazy comparisons to Chang's Momofuku empire so much as one to the "authentic" Italian-American cuisine of Rich Carbone and Mario Torrisi. Their take on Italian food couldn't be further from Little Italy, let alone the real one, in the same way that Danny Bowien is less Chinatown and more "China Girl."]
Best of all, orders are priced to move at $15 or less. And as at the San Francisco location, $0.75 of every entree goes to a charity (in this case, Food Bank of New York).
“I don’t even look at it as fundraising; I look at it as just like helping people,” Mr. Bowien explained. “Hooking people up.”
In an industry known for its high turnover, Mr. Bowien’s retention rate is freakishly high. He runs a mostly female kitchen, free of the typical machismo that rules so many cooking lines. He speaks endlessly of his reverence for his culinary peers. “You don’t want to impress them so much as make them comfortable,” he said. “You don’t want to be like, ‘Hey, look at this new shit I’m doing.’ You want to be like, ‘Hey, eat this ’cause it’s delicious, and get a bunch of drinks. Just have fun. ’Cause you need to decompress. It’s your only day off.’”
Which is perhaps the real secret of Mr. Bowien’s success. He and his restaurant are likeable. Crazy, but it seems to be working. He even recently scored a book deal with Anthony Bourdain’s book imprint.
And of course, he’s expanding—first to Williamsburg, and then to his hometown, Oklahoma City.
“My goal is to open these next few restaurants very quickly,” he said, “because we’re not going to be the hot shit forever.”
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