Who is Danny Bowien?
There’s Danny Bowien, the South Korean-born, Oklahoma City-raised kid that worked as an optometrist during high school before moving to San Francisco to pursue cooking.
There’s Danny Bowien, the accidental chef that together with cook Anthony Myint, established Mission Chinese Food in 2010. A pop-up Chinese restaurant inside Lung Shan, another Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, Mission Chinese Food turned heads with its menu of radical new-wave Sichuan cooking.
And there’s Danny Bowien circa 2019, a 37-year-old chef that’s swapped coasts and now lives and cooks in New York where he oversees Mission Chinese Food outposts in both Manhattan and Brooklyn. It’s this Danny Bowien heading to Australia in November for the Western Australian Gourmet Escape (Nov 8-17).
“I didn’t think there was a place in cooking for me,” says Bowien to Broadsheet from New York ahead his trip. “But in the past 10 years the cooking world has changed a lot and I feel like I fit in a lot better than I used to. A lot of that has to do with the success of Mission Chinese Food. It was so different to anything. We wrote our own rule book. We weren’t trying to get a Michelin star. We weren’t trying to get reviews from a food critic.”
While the New York outposts have reined things in somewhat, the original San Francisco pop-up served as an early prototype for restaurant and frat-party cross-breeding. As diners tucked into kung pao pastrami and tingly Chongqing chicken wings spiked with Sichuan peppercorns, those in line would pass time with free beer out of a keg. It was, as the US food media hailed it, a “uniquely American” Chinese restaurant helmed by a chef whose daring, inquisitive approach has seen the Mission Chinese Food caravan travel around the world in the name of side-stepping borders and “authentic” food.
Plans, however, haven’t always gone to plan. The original Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco is no longer with us while Mission Cantina, a Mexican spin-off of the original Mission Chinese concept, never quite took off in the same way the mothership did. Bowien, however, is happy to chalk these up as learning experiences.
“If you don’t work against resistance, you don’t get stronger,” he says. “If you don’t push through an exercise, you don’t gain muscle.”
Beyond the success of Mission Chinese Food, Bowien has compiled an impressive CV over the decade since bursting on to the scene. Chief among his achievements are a prestigious James Beard rising star chef award, a starring role in season six of the Anthony Bourdain-produced Mind Of A Chef TV series, and fashion collaborations with designers such as Marc Jacobs, Alexander Wang and UNIQLO. He’s also ditched the drinking and drugs and replaced these former vices with SoulCycling and exercise.
But cooking remains Bowien’s central passion. In November the chef will return to Australia to prove it at Western Australia Gourmet Escape. Just as the chef did when he last came this way – in 2015, he cooked with Ben Shewry at Melbourne fine diner Attica – Bowien is approaching his appearance with a will to let the local produce dictate his cooking.
“I think there’ll be some signature stuff,” he says. “But I want it to be very spontaneous. I really want to lean on vegetables a little bit more but let’s keep it loose and fill in the gaps.”
On November 15 Bowien will team up with Malcom Chow of Yallingup Chinese-Malay destination Chow’s Table. There the pair will host a “new-school Chinese food feast” backed by beats and beers from Gage Roads Brewing Co.. Bowien says he hopes to use the night to recreate some of the startling flavour combinations that so made his name in the industry. “I want guests to feel like there’s something a little familiar on the tip of their tongue, but also things that make people go, ‘ah, what’s going on?’,” he says. “I don’t want things to be cookie-cutter. It should feel like a fun dinner party. That’s the vibe we’re trying to throw. I’m excited about getting there.”
Tickets to Mission Chinese x Chow’s Table presented by Gage Roads Brewing Co are selling fast. Book now.