by Anna Mowry
When Danny Bowien moved to New York City last spring, he had Szechuan peppercorn-scented winds at his back. His pilot location of Mission Chinese in San Francisco was an undisputed triumph. Meanwhile, the upcoming Lower East Side sequel was already New York's most discussed opening of the year, well before the kitchen had sent out its first mapo tofu. Could the Oklahoma City native recreate his success in a town that doesn't always warm to outsiders? We all know how the rest of the story goes.
Below, the winner of the 2013 James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year tells us about his recent trip to Paris and reveals a surprising favorite movie pick.
JBF: You recently got back from Paris. Where did you eat?
DB: Everywhere! My best bud Brandon Jew came along with me; one night we met up with Jason Fox at Septime and had an incredible meal. Later that evening we met at Le Dauphin and then snuck over to Le Chateaubriand. I've admired Inaki Aizpitarte for so long now -- it's always a pleasure to enjoy his wonderful and creative food. The next night we went to a lovely wine bar, La Buvette, then over to Bones, one of my favorite new restaurants. It's already caused quite a stir in the local food scene. We also did lunch at l'Arpege -- amazing! The vegetables were amazing, plus Alain Passard was there cooking for us. He's the coolest, smoothest chef ever.
JBF: We read that you did a cooking demo at the Omnivore festival. What was that like, and, as far as you could tell, how did Parisians respond to it?
DB: I felt that the reception was very warm, not only from the audience, but everyone involved -- fellow chefs, the event coordinators, everyone. These things always keep you on your toes, keep you sharp. It's one thing to make something from your own restaurant or even your home, but it's completely different to be taken out of your comfort zone. I had a general idea of the dish I wanted to make, but it's always fun to completely immerse yourself in the available products. We are cooking in Copenhagen this summer, and I don't think there's a ton of cilantro and other things we are used to using here, which makes it a fun challenge. No lemongrass in Copenhagen? René Redzepi uses ants.
JBF: There have been a lot of rumors flying around about Mission Chinese expanding to Brooklyn, your hometown of Oklahoma City, even Paris. Can you reveal any solid plans for new locations?
DB: Let's just say this: a lot of things that have helped shape Mission Chinese into what it is come from learning from others and listening. Before I left for Paris, Dave Chang called me and gave me some incredible advice: wait. Grow at your own pace. Mission Chinese NYC isn't even a year old yet. It's very difficult being in two places at once. We have an incredible infrastructure in place -- amazing chefs, cooks and management. But it's still really important that I'm in both restaurants as much as humanly possible. Obviously we want to open a Mission Chinese in Paris, Brooklyn, and OKC (really badly!), but the reality is that Paris will always be there. I think expansion within the states is closer -- plus I need to learn French!
JBF: Hypothetically, to what extent would you adapt your menu to a French audience?
DB: Obviously we need to be sensitive to our demographic, but I think the thing about MCF that really comes through in the food is the fact that it's food we enjoy cooking and eating. That really resonates. It's a trickle down, you know? We always are aiming to connect with our customers on a personal level, so I don't think we would change anything. We would make the food that we are excited to eat and cook. The products there are amazing.
JBF: Do you ever think about opening a restaurant that focuses on something other than Chinese food?
DB: Who knows? Over the past 10 years, I've cooked many different styles of food. After making sushi for four years, I didn't want to eat sushi on my day off. It took me moving on to something else, like Ligurian food, to come back around to craving sushi. For some reason though, I still eat tons of Chinese. I don't think our restaurants are traditionally Chinese. (Country fried hamachi collar?) We are always up to something.
JBF: You moved to New York shortly before Mission Chinese opened on the LES. Now that you've been here for a year, which restaurants have become go-tos for you?
DB: That would be the longest list ever! New York has some of the best restaurants, chefs and cooks in the world. It's so concentrated -- on every level! You want insane sushi omakase? Egyptian? Wylie Dufresne? It's all here. Here are a few of my favorites:
Sushi Yasuda for lunch (it's so fast!)
Frankies / Prime Meats
Russ and Daughter's /Katz's / Bereket
wd-50 / Alder
All the Momofuku restaurants
Milk Bar commissary (because Tosi's there!)
South Brooklyn Pizza
Breslin / John Dory
Chadni (across from the Breslin -- their vegetables are amazing)
There's still a ton of places I want to check out, but right now I'm on a diet.
JBF: Random final question: the theme of this year's JBF Awards was Food in Film, so we want to know what your favorite movie is and why.
DB: If I had to narrow it down, I would say it would probably have to be a movie that's as good as the Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream album, something powerful. Forrest Gump is a powerful movie.
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