There’s only an hour until the restaurant opens for lunch, so Bowien rushes back. In the dining room, he picks a corner seat and spares a few minutes to chat. “Working 96 hours a week,”—when in town, Danny is at the restaurant six days a week—“is physically and mentally taxing. I don’t really see my wife that often,” he admits. “The last five months have been grueling. Ahead of the opening of the New York branch, he says, “I’d wake up in the morning and barf. I’d be physically ill.” But between restaurant openings and international conferences, he can’t slow down. “You just keep going.”
With long bleached hair and an eclectic style (today, he’s sporting a black tie-dye button down, clunky white sneakers, and a white man-purse to match), Bowien is often tagged as the new rock star chef—a moniker tossed around so often that it’s had all its meaning shaken out. In his New York Times review of MCF, Pete Wells wrote, “Mr. Bowien does to Chinese food what Led Zeppelin did for the blues.” But Bowien has none of the temerity of Robert Plant. He speaks with conviction and authority, but there’s also a sense of mutual respect in his interactions with employees and acquaintances. Asked about who runs the San Francisco kitchen in his absence, Bowien replies, “My frien…,” before catching himself and rephrasing his response, opting for a more professional tone: “Jesse Koide, we’ve been working together for ten years now.”
Though Bowien’s insistent on running the restaurant his way, by not taking reservations or raising prices and abandoning the menu’s unique midrange territory—which he credits as key to MCF’s success—he isn’t immune to criticism. “I do care, and that’s the problem. I want to make people happy.” Coming to New York, “the only thing we could do was be ourselves and be really fucking nice to everyone and see if that resonated, and it did. It was really scary, because we thought people would hate us,” he says, referring in passing to San Francisco’s complicated love/hate reaction to the restaurant’s original incarnation.
Being a positive part of the community is important, he says, which is why the restaurant donates $.75 of the price of each entree to food-based charity. By Bowien’s estimate, in the last two years alone, the San Francisco branch has donated over $140,000. “Dining out is a pretty vain thing. If you go out and get drunk and eat and can help someone else eat, that’s really important to us.”
After opening the five locations, Bowien wants to take a step back. “I’ll always be involved with food,” he says. But life is also what happens outside the kitchen. “I want to have a family. I want to play music. I’m at the point now where I’ve done this and I don’t want to have 200 restaurants.”
For now though, the restaurant is a full time occupation to say the least. After an afternoon of cooking, Danny will go to a community board meeting tonight where, after a tortuous delay, the restaurant’s application for a liquor license will be approved, heralding another and likely more rowdy chapter for the Lower East Side branch.
It’s five to noon now and a small crowd is forming outside the restaurant—the first volley in a battery of visitors that will continue well into the night. Between running errands this morning, Bowien’s found a pair of black running shorts in the kitchen and swapped his sweat pants out. In this new outfit, replete with a cook’s shirt, he looks right at home. Downstairs, the cooks’ lunch is almost ready. “I’ve got to go make some guacamole,” he says, coming back to himself. As the front door opens and the lunchtime crowd files in, Bowien slips away into the kitchen below, as easily as a hermit crab into its shell.