NEW YORK (AP) — Reality check: The kung pao pastrami at Danny Bowien's Mission Chinese Food on Manhattan's Lower East Side doesn't ACTUALLY arrive on a flaming dish with dangerous sparks flying in all directions, despite being illustrated thusly in his entertaining new cookbook.
But make no mistake: After a few bites, your throat indeed feels like it's on fire. And that's the point. Bowien's bustling and yes, hipstery (though he really hates that word) restaurant specializes in the kind of Chinese food that makes you seriously glad to have some plain rice, some ice water or, best of all, some cold beer close at hand.
That kung pao pastrami could be seen as emblematic of Bowien's success in several ways. Most obviously, there's the fact that it contains, er, pastrami. Bowien loves kung pao chicken, don't get him wrong — but this is smokier and a lot more interesting. In fact, Bowien says, it's an ode to corned beef hash more than kung pao chicken, a radical departure from the original — and classic Bowien.
And that flaming dish in the cookbook? That could be a metaphor for Bowien's own career. After all, his good friend and mentor, the chef David Chang, describes him in a foreword as a man who "flew too close to the sun," like Icarus.
But though he caught fire — in ways good, then bad, then good again — he recovered. And now Bowien, two years after the city's health department shut down his first Mission Chinese in New York, is thriving at his new location on East Broadway, judging from the crowds packing in on a recent Sunday night.
Finally, the whole concept of a kung pao pastrami raises that thorny issue of authenticity — a hot-button topic, but one the chef and his many fans see as pretty much irrelevant, even boring. After all, Bowien is not Chinese: The 33-year-old was adopted from Korea as a baby and raised in Oklahoma. Second, his New York cooks are not Chinese. Third, in Bowien's words, "Who cares?" His pastrami is, he says proudly, a "totally inauthentic" dish.
On a recent afternoon, Bowien sat down to discuss "The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook" as his staff readied the restaurant for its 5:30 p.m. opening (and if you think downtown Manhattanites wouldn't be caught dead eating dinner at 5:30, you're wrong). He wore his trademark baseball cap to hold back his long bleached hair, and gave such generously expansive answers that it was sometimes hard to recall the original question.
Bowien is equally expansive in his book. "It's a cookbook but it's also really a story," he says. "What's the deal with Danny Bowien? I feel like that's what people want to know."
It is, indeed, quite a story, beginning with the haphazard way Bowien got into the industry — culinary school as a means of escape from Oklahoma and the breakup of a rock band. "Our band breaks up, and I get a call from friends in San Francisco, and they say there's a culinary school. And I was like, "I'll try it. I just want to get out of Oklahoma."
Later in New York, trying to break into kitchen work, he lived on instant ramen and potatoes and warm Diet Pepsi, warm because he kept it under his bed. At a French-Japanese restaurant he won't name, he was badly mistreated by fellow chefs — like a "zoo animal." But even though it was horrible, "I took it, and it made me better," he says now.
Back in San Francisco, though, Bowien had a breakthrough, when a two-night-a week popup gig at a restaurant grew into the fast-rising Mission Chinese Food. He became popular so fast — written about by top critics — that he eventually had to shut down for a month. "We couldn't keep up," he says. "An avalanche."
Then Bowien, who doesn't own that restaurant, decided to open his own place in New York. He knew it could be tough. "There was a target on my back," he says. "I mean, how can you possibly live up to the hype?"
Success followed, but also trouble. The early location had loads of structural problems. His quick fame also meant he was torn away from the restaurant frequently for other things. Then came the blow from the health department.
Flash forward to a year ago, when Bowien re-opened Mission Chinese, in roomier digs — about five times the square footage. He has an 18-year lease, and insists that now his definition of success is different. "Success to me now is sustained happiness," he says. His plan is no longer "world domination."
In fact, his immediate new goal is a couple of Chinese takeout places; it would be a way for more people to get his food, with the added benefit that he wouldn't have to be there physically, creating time for his wife and toddler son.
About a week ago, Bowien says, he was in the kitchen and pulled aside his executive chef, Angela Dimayuga. "We had done 450 covers that night," he says. "I said, 'Look at what we've done. Let's just take this in for a second, OK? 'Cause this is CRAZY."