Danny Bowien is wearing sweat pants and he doesn’t like it. “I need shorts,” the 30-year-old culinary wonder behind Mission Chinese Food says, coming out of a Chelsea gym on a warm August morning. It’s only ten in the morning, but Bowien’s already been up for four hours, in keeping with his strict daily wake-up time of 6 a.m. Going to the gym every morning revs him up for the rest of the day. He needs the energy.
It’s only been three months since Mission Chinese Food opened its New York satellite, eschewing a predictable Brooklyn venue and opting for a spot with a basement entrance on the Lower East Side. Opening the restaurant is the latest chapter in a culinary career that’s moving at breakneck speed. In less than three years, Bowien has gone from working out of a food truck and renting out a dilapidated Chinese restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission district to showing Martha Stewart how to hand pull noodles and rubbing elbows with legendary chef Fergus Henderson of St. John’s in London.
These days, Bowien runs in an elevated circuit.The night before, he met a few chefs after hours at the sushi restaurant Ushiwakamaru, where friends including Carlo Mirarchi of Roberta’s and Blanca in Bushwick, brought along dishes in what amounted to an impromptu pot luck most foodies can only dream of. In the past few months, Bowien’s traveled to China, France, England, and Denmark—a trip to Colombia this week was cancelled when he decided the restaurant needed his attention.
Today is Bowien’s turn in the rotation to make lunch for the MCF cooks. Winding his way to the Whole Foods on Houston Street, Bowien spots a woman waiting for a light who is also wearing sweatpants. He commiserates: “She must be hot, too.” Inside Whole Foods, he darts and ducks between aisles, disappearing and reappearing at an impressive clip. “Limes are 50 cents a piece,” he says incredulously, before moving on to tomatoes. Today’s lunch is super veggie tacos. “I’m coming from California, so…” he trails off, half guiltily.
From Whole Foods, Bowien hangs a right and makes his way to the restaurant. “I miss San Francisco, but I like it here a lot,” he says. “New York’s been great to us.” Glowing reviews in the New York Times and coveted attention on Eater mean that a wait for a table at Mission Chinese Food is a sad fact of life for anyone trying to sample Red Braised Pig Tails, Pig Ear Terrine, or the infamous Kung Pao Pastrami. At one point, a former chef says, they had a four hour wait at the door. At seven thirty they let the crowd know that if their names weren’t on the list already, they were better off eating somewhere else.
Meanwhile, it’s half past ten back at the restaurant, one of the few moments in the day when the dining room is relatively calm. A bartender with a San Francisco Giants cap busies himself behind the bar while servers lower chairs and set tables. Bowien lithely descends into the restaurant’s cramped basement kitchen, checks in with a couple of young cooks, grabs some dirty laundry, and rushes to the laundromat around the corner.
Pointing out a girl with a washed-out platinum gray dye job crossing the street, Bowien says, “I want to dye my hair that color, but it takes six hours. Or I might just shave my head.”
What’s next for Mission Chinese Food? “My end goal is to be done [expanding] in the next five years.” In that time, he projects having five restaurants open, including the Lower East Side and San Francisco locations. Of the three other locations, one will certainly be in Brooklyn, and another in Oklahoma City—his home town. The fifth might be in Atlanta, or even abroad. In the meantime, he’s working on a book with Chris Ying, editor-in-chief of Lucky Peach—an alternate take on the tell-all cookbook format Anthony Bourdain coined with Kitchen Confidential.
From the laundromat, Bowien makes his way down Essex toward the Essex Market, where he’s picking up the last ingredients for the taco lunch: avocados, green salsa, sour cream, Serrano peppers, and jar of Lawry’s seasoned salt. “I think he might’ve gotten too many,” his assistant says, giving a sideways look at a basket packed with soft tortillas.
Photography by Bradford Gregory