Danny Bowien
Danny Bowien. Photo by Nathan Harsh for Resy

InterviewsNew York

Why Danny Bowien Brought Mission Chinese Food Back to New York

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In April, chef Danny Bowien quietly reopened Mission Chinese Food, his groundbreaking restaurant, as a pop-up at Cha Kee on New York’s Mott Street, in the heart of Manhattan Chinatown.

Why? Because, after some time away from restaurant kitchens, he’s missed cooking this specific food: Cuisine best described as a Chinese American, ingredient-focused mash-up that’s both pioneering and deliciously inauthentic.

In some ways, it’s been a full-circle kind of moment for Bowien. He opened the very first iteration of Mission Chinese Food as a pop-up in the back of Chinese restaurant Lung Shan in San Francisco in 2010. “The original Mission started as a pop-up that never ended,” says Bowien. For now, the pop-up at Cha Kee runs until July 31, but it’s possible it could be extended.

We sat down with Bowien to talk about how it came to be, the current pop-up scene, and what’s next for him and for Mission Chinese Food.

Resy: Why did you decide to bring Mission Chinese Food back as a pop-up in New York? 

Danny Bowien: I knew that I didn’t want to open my own restaurant again. I didn’t want those challenges and limitations, but I missed cooking, and I missed being around this food in particular. I wanted to try it again. It was exciting to think about doing something in Chinatown and to see if it would work again. I’ve always asked myself over the years, what if the original Mission Chinese Food had been in Chinatown and not on Mission Street?

One of the challenges we faced was that many of the restaurants were already busy at night. The reason why it worked at Cha Kee is that it’s a cha chaan teng, a Hong Kong-style diner. In the daytime, they’re busy, but not at dinner.

As for the length, I knew I wanted it to be for summer. I know how much work it is to get started and I thought three months would be enough time where word would spread, and people could come, but we wouldn’t overstay our welcome.

Danny Bowien
Cha Kee currently operates as a cha chaan teng in the daytime but switches promptly at 4 p.m. into Mission Chinese Food for dinner service, opening the doors at 5 p.m. Photo by Nathan Harsh for Resy
Danny Bowien
Cha Kee currently operates as a cha chaan teng in the daytime but switches promptly at 4 p.m. into Mission Chinese Food for dinner service, opening the doors at 5 p.m. Photo by Nathan Harsh for Resy

What have you been up to since Mission Chinese Food closed in Bushwick in 2022?

Many things, but being a dad is what I’ve enjoyed the most. Just to be able to spend time with my son. I hadn’t had time to do that in the past.

On the professional side of things, I did a few consulting projects, one that brought me to China that I enjoyed. I also did some private cheffing and cooked different styles of food. Since Mission Chinese Food had [first] opened, I had mostly cooked that food, but with time off I was cooking Korean food, Italian food, and different things, and just learning new things. I also did a cookbook tour with my book, “Mission Vegan.” The time off was nice, but I missed cooking in a restaurant kitchen.

Don’t Sleep on These …
A Few Suggested Must-Order Dishes

  • Beijing Vinegar Peanuts
    Fried peanuts soaked in spiced Chinkiang vinegar and topped with colorful sugar sprinkles
  • Addictive Cabbage Salad
    Cabbage dressed in a “secret dressing” of sesame and seaweed
  • Jacky’s Spicy Sprite Noodles
    This cold noodle dish was inspired by a visit to Haidilao, a hot pot restaurant in Flushing
  • Kung Pao Pastrami
    A classic Mission Chinese Food dish, made with Hometown pastrami, home fries, peanuts, peppers, and onions.
  • Eggplant Partanna
    Wok-fried eggplant laced with basil, sweet soy, and Calabrian chile oil
  • Sichuan Filet Mignon
    Beef tenderloin gets gently cooked in pickled chile and green Sichuan peppercorn butter
  • Pea Leaves
    Pea leaves get steamed in a pumpkin broth with yuba and a charcoal chile sauce
  • Broccoli Beef Cheek
    Bowien’s version includes stir-fried gai lan and smoked oyster sauce
Eggplant Partanna from Mission Chinese Food New York
Eggplant Partanna. Photo by Nathan Harsh for Resy.
Addictive cabbage salad
Addictive cabbage salad. Photo by Nathan Harsh for Resy
Broccoli beef cheek
Broccoli beef cheek gets topped with smoked oyster sauce. Photo by Nathan Harsh for Resy
Beijing vinegar peanuts
Beijing vinegar peanuts get topped with sprinkles. Photo by Nathan Harsh for Resy.

How did you approach this pop-up at Cha Kee? 

I knew I wanted to, but I had shied away from it. After consulting people close to me who were all encouraging, I decided it was time to give it a try again.

I came into it with openness. I really didn’t know how it would work, if anyone would come, but people did, and it’s been better than I could’ve ever imagined.

Cha Kee owner Jimmy Fong and Danny Bowien
Bowien (right) with Cha Kee owner Jimmy Fong. Photo by Nathan Harsh for Resy
Chef Patty Lee
Chef Patty Lee has been instrumental in helping Bowien bring back Mission Chinese Food to New York. Photo by Nathan Harsh for Resy

How did it all come together?

I knew I wanted to do it in Chinatown. I love the energy. From a business perspective, it’s also busy. We found Cha Kee through canvassing [the area] and a preexisting relationship that my producing partner, Hilary Lui, had with the owner, Jimmy [Fong]. It worked because it was quiet at night, whereas most of the other restaurants in the neighborhood were already packed.

We quickly opened without much prep or notice. We’re using all their staff, cooks, and front of house. My co-chef, Patty Lee, and I had been quietly working, coming in and out for a few weeks without anyone noticing much. I’m used to having time to train a staff, but in this case, Jimmy assured me everyone would pick it up easily. He wasn’t wrong. We pretty much had a day to show everyone how we wanted it to work, but I’ve learned so much. One of the first questions Jimmy asked me was if I was open to feedback from the wok chefs. I told him that once I showed them the way I wanted to run things, I would be open to any advice they had. A lot of the things they have suggested have made me a much better cook. I’ve loved being a student and a house guest.

I was never trained in a Chinese kitchen. It’s an honor to be able to work and learn from them. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and it’s been fun to be able to keep learning.

What did you decide to tweak?

Most of the dishes on the menu are from the original Mission in San Francisco; there’s nothing from the New York era. Anything new on the menu has been developed specifically for this restaurant. That was the constraint.  We have people come in asking for certain dishes like the beggar’s duck, a clay-baked duck we used to make at other locations, but it doesn’t make sense here. It’s too time consuming, and not what this version is about. I wanted something simpler, more back to basics.

At Mission Chinese Food on East Broadway, we had this attitude of, “If we can do it, let’s do it.” We had a prime rib cart and a wood-burning oven; you won’t be finding that here. It’s a less is more philosophy we’re employing here.

There were a few dishes that I was really excited about that didn’t end up making the cut, like a sesame beef tartare. We did a tasting with the chefs and their feedback was that they don’t eat raw beef. It’s not something you see a lot of in Chinese cuisine or in Chinatown. They weren’t into it. I liked it, but it wasn’t for this restaurant, so we took it off the menu.

I want to cook my food, but very much with the neighborhood in mind. I want anyone to be able to walk off the street and not know they are in a restaurant different from any other on the block. In a lot of ways, I’m trying to blend in. We’ve also tweaked other dishes and improved them.

Jacky's spicy Sprite noodles
Before topping the noodles with bean sprouts, Bowien pours some Sprite into the dish, hence the name: Jacky’s spicy Sprite noodles. Photo by Nathan Harsh for Resy
Jacky's spicy Sprite noodles
Before topping the noodles with bean sprouts, Bowien pours some Sprite into the dish, hence the name: Jacky’s spicy Sprite noodles. Photo by Nathan Harsh for Resy

What are some of the new dishes?

There are a few. We have Jacky’s spicy Sprite noodles, which were inspired by a hot pot restaurant in Flushing, Haidilao. A friend of mine, Jacky, took me to have them for the first time, hence the name.

For the first time, I have a full-time dumpling chef, Helen, who has been working in New York kitchens for 30 years. We’ve now been able to offer dumplings consistently, whereas before, we had a hard time keeping up with the demand, since everyone, for some reason, orders dumplings, and at one point, I was making them all myself.

Another new dish is the crispy beef “Louis,” inspired by my love for crispy beef. It’s cooked twice, once for four hours to yield a super tender and melting texture, then flash fried to a super crispy, crunchy texture. We glaze it in a soy caramel and drizzle Sicilian orange olive oil. There’s also Chef Chen’s water spinach, which one of the wok chefs, Chen, showed us all how to make. It’s just coming into season and it’s one of my favorite things to eat.

Jacky's spicy Sprite noodles
Sprite noodles, ready for pickup at the pass. Photo by Nathan Harsh for Resy
Jacky's spicy Sprite noodles
Sprite noodles, ready for pickup at the pass. Photo by Nathan Harsh for Resy

How are you feeling about being back in the kitchen in New York?

Good. It was a little stressful at first, but it’s like riding a bike. The team here is great, and I’ve been really open to learning from them. I’ve also loved going to a job every day that I understand. It feels good to have a purpose and apply a skill set. Being a freelance consulting chef was challenging.

I hadn’t cooked a lot of these dishes in almost two years, so I forgot how to make a lot of things at first. Over the years, most dishes have been made a number of different ways. It was difficult to remember which version had made the final cut and became the way to make the dish.

As I had mentioned before, most of the chefs had seen us for a few weeks in the background, but we hadn’t had a moment to taste them on any of the food, train them on how things would be made, or how we wanted service to run. Thankfully, Patty speaks Mandarin and Cantonese, and has been very crucial to the organization and translation of our program to their chefs. I was never trained in a Chinese kitchen. It’s an honor to be able to work and learn from them. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and it’s been fun to be able to keep learning. It’s kinda like being a musician, playing music with different people; you can discover new things about yourself from a different group.

Going out to eat is a privilege, on both sides of it, as a diner and as the person working in the restaurants. It’s difficult, at times, but we’re so lucky. I don’t take it for granted.

How do you feel about the current New York dining scene? Especially post pandemic. 

It’s great. I feel very privileged to live and eat in New York. I love many types of food and you can get everything here. My favorite way to spend a day off is by going to a movie, the first one of the day, and then going for lunch afterwards to a restaurant I’ve never been to. There is always so much happening in the dining scene here, and so many new places to try: a new pop-up, a new concept from established chefs like the chefs from King with Jupiter, or a great all-day restaurant like Raf’s. Or even something like ThisBowl. I love to try it all.

When I first moved here from San Francisco, everyone used to ask which [city] I liked better and that’s impossible to answer. I love both. There’s lots of innovation in both, but great classics to revisit, too.

Filet mignon
“When was the last time you had a filet mignon like this?” Bowien asks. This one is topped with fermented, pickled chiles and green Sichuan peppercorn butter that gives it a subtle, tingly heat. Photo by Nathan Harsh for Resy
Filet mignon
“When was the last time you had a filet mignon like this?” Bowien asks. This one is topped with fermented, pickled chiles and green Sichuan peppercorn butter that gives it a subtle, tingly heat. Photo by Nathan Harsh for Resy

For many years, I would think of a restaurant experience solely based on the execution and taste of the food. What I’ve learned over the years is that a dining experience is not just about how good the food is, or how expertly or authentically it’s prepared. Some of the best restaurants in New York, you don’t go to for the food. You go there for the history, because they might have the best staff, or the best maître d’. Restaurants are living, breathing organisms.

I think post-pandemic New York is great. It’s New York: always changing, always evolving. Things close, but new things open at the same rate, maybe even faster now. There is room for everything, for a place like Pepe Rosso to exist right around the corner from Carbone.

Going out to eat is a privilege, on both sides of it, as a diner and as the person working in the restaurants. It’s difficult, at times, but we’re so lucky. I don’t take it for granted.

Smashed cucumbers
Bowien prepares an order of smashed cucumbers. Photo by Nathan Harsh for Resy
Smashed cucumbers
The cucumbers get topped with whipped sesame, salted chile, and Sichuan pepper oil. Photo by Nathan Harsh for Resy
Salt cod fried rice
Bowien makes an order of the salt cod fried rice at the wok station. Photo by Nathan Harsh for Resy
Salt cod fried rice
The salt cod fried rice has Chinese sausage, lettuce, and egg. Photo by Nathan Harsh for Resy

What do you think about the current pop-up culture or scene? Especially since Mission Chinese Food was an early pop-up pioneer.

It’s awesome. Opening a restaurant is a lot of work, even a temporary one, but it’s cool to see people come out. They want to be part of something temporary and nomadic, similar to a concert. It’s in town for a night or two, and you go see it. The quality of the food is at the point we’re at right now looking to people like Sadie Mae Burns and Anthony Ha of Ha’s Đặc Biệt, which is really good; we’ve come a long way. It’s serious food, often better than restaurant food.

Thinking back to the original Mission Chinese Food, it was the first restaurant that occupied another restaurant. It feels so long ago. So much has changed, food has come so far and not just by young people. The quality, the variety, the interest.

I always say this, but it’s the one thing you can’t download: You can’t download food. You have to experience it. It keeps it interesting and keeps it evolving. To me, it’s in one of the best places it’s been, with people’s interest in it, and the accessibility to it.

What’s next for you?

Good question … I think, hopefully, something to do with Mission Chinese Food and hopefully other things, too. It’s been rewarding doing this. It was a big leap of faith, and I’m just really thankful to be back in it and taking it one day at a time. I don’t know what’s next, but I know I’ll be here, in the kitchen, cooking at Cha Kee until July 31st.

 

Mission Chinese Food is open Wednesdays through Sundays for dinner starting at 5 p.m. at Cha Kee on Mott Street.


Kyle Beechey is a New York-based freelance writer and dinner party enthusiast who lives on the Lower East Side. Follow her on Instagram

 

Nathan Harsh is a New York-based photographer and former chef. Follow him on Instagram. Follow Resy, too.