Confused? That’s the thing with Mission Chinese Food chef Danny Bowien. There’s no pristine back-story. No carrying on of family food traditions. No predictable professional trajectory. Bowien’s career has been more of a zigzag.
His many industry accolades and culinary highs have been paired with some pretty awkward public lows – like when the health authorities closed down Mission Chinese Food in NYC. Twice. It’s the kind of stuff most chefs would cover up with PR spin, or quit for good over. But in the context of a book, it makes for some brutally honest (and highly entertaining) reading.
Co-authored by Lucky Peach editor-in-chief Chris Ying, and featuring forewords by Bowien’s buddies, chefs Anthony Bourdain and David Chang, The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook is part cookbook, part memoir and all kinds of charming.
Adopting the eclectic, zine-like sensibility of Lucky Peach, it features 50-plus recipes from Bowien’s hit restaurant. They are paired with the story of a talented young chef who, through a string of heady successes and grubby setbacks, gradually found himself at a place of humble gratitude and newfound professional focus.
The New York-based chef is in town with Chris Ying for the 2016 Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. He’ll team up with pal, chef Ben Shewry for a sold-out event at Attica on March 13.
A US reviewer once said Bowien does to Chinese food what Led Zeppelin did to the blues.
“I’m Korean. I was adopted. I grew up Oklahoma. The food that we do is rooted in classic Sichuanese cooking, but it’s kind of grown into something of its own,” Bowien explains. “It’s very loose, inventive cuisine. Much of it is Chinese, but some of it’s not”.
“In the beginning we aimed to pay respect to the things that we were really into [traditional Sichuan], and tried to learn how to decode the flavour palate, asking, ‘What is Chinese food?’” he says. Take a trip through his backstory and it’s clear Bowien’s cooking is a reflection of his wildly contrasting influences: the years spent doing Italian fine dining, the gweilo-friendly Chinese he ate as a kid in Oklahoma, plus the deep Sichuan geek-out he undertook in later years. “Sure, that Americanised Chinese influence can be found in our food, but it’s not what drives it,” he says.
And the book? “It’s basically been my life for the past four years. With the amount of success we’ve experienced – and failure – it’s just a lifetime of experiences in that space of time,” says Bowien. When asked to pick a favourite recipe, Bowien struggles. “Each recipe has a different meaning to me, it reminds me of a place I was in my life, or what I was really into, or a flavour that I had just tasted for the first time. The book is all about discovery for me.”
He says the recipes are a mix of easier stuff for home cooks and some more complicated projects for pro chefs. “It’s not like they’re all dishes that my dad couldn’t do if he was at home in Oklahoma if he wanted to, you know? It might take him more than 15 minutes but there’s definitely a pay off, for sure,” he laughs.
Danny Bowien will appear at Mission Chinese Food at Attica (sold out) and Mission Chinese Food Chinizza Party (standby). Signed copies of The Mission Chinese Cookbook will be available for purchase at both events.
The Mission Chinese Cookbook is out now.