Danny Bowien turned a weekly pop-up in the dingy Lung Shan restaurant into Mission Chinese Food – a brick and mortar that has relentlessly impressed cheap hipsters, bootleg foodies, and real-deal restaurant critics alike with his original take on Northern Chinese food. In two years, he went from unknown dive-chef to making hand-pulled noodles on Martha Stewart. Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo just recently made him a literal "style-maker" poster boy, plastering Danny on billboards here and across Manhattan.
Though we may have wanted to keep him all to ourselves, in May Danny handed over the reigns here in SF to chef de cuisine Jesse Koide to go open Mission Chinese on New York’s Lower East Side. There, he’s gotten back to actually firing food, aiming to cook the first turn of service every night. He single-handedly trained a whole new crew in Manhattan, including new cooks, most of whom had never even eaten Mission Chinese before. He sleeps four hours a night and takes naps in town cars.
Danny’s not totally gone from San Francisco – he’s kept his apartment in SOMA, and is in the city twice a month. In the two hours between a calm Saturday lunch service and what quickly became a dinner rush, we ate too much Delfina deliciousness, got some fresh Tartine bread love, and returned to Lung Shan to talk as the dinner crowd formed outside.
Why’d you open in New York, instead of a second San Francisco location?
That’s a good question. I love San Francisco. To come back here, it’s like seeing family that you haven’t seen in a long time. A lot of positive things happened for us here. But I don’t know if opening another one here would have gone over as well. I was turning 30, and just felt like I needed to challenge myself. It was way harder than I thought it would be, but I needed that personal challenge in order for me to stay motivated. If you asked me when I was younger if I was going to open a restaurant in New York I woulda been like, "Nah, that’s crazy."
It is pretty crazy…
Yeah, it’s insane! There’s naiveté in the whole experience. We approached it humbly. We weren’t saying, "We’re gonna go to New York and do this and this." We were just like, "We really hope that we don’t fail."
Pete Wells (New York Times restaurant critic) gave you two stars. That’s not failing, and is especially good for a restaurant only two months old when he reviewed it. But do you even care what critics say?
I think it’s my responsibility to. It’s hard not to take things personally. When people don’t like the restaurant, they’ll write stuff kind of personally on the Internet, and you have to be able to remove yourself from that. People love us, and people hate us. What’s important to me is that we’re happy with the food we put out. But as far as a food critic from a major publication, you have to be mindful of them. It’s insightful for me because I’m not eating in the dining room every night.
You’ve got your eye on two more locations – Brooklyn and Oklahoma City, where you grew up. What else can we expect?
I don’t know. I don’t even know what’s next week. It’s hard to keep up, I’m just busy. I definitely will be doing restaurant stuff for a while, but will I be doing this when I’m 50? I don’t know. I try not to think too far ahead. I don’t know how this all happened, it’s all whizzing by. It’s really fun. And really tiring, and stressful. But it’s all worth it.
Photo by Summer Sewell