Danny Bowien’s hits can’t be played or performed. But they can be eaten. The 30-year-old Oklahoma City native is known around the world for the creations spilling out of his restaurants, Chinese Mission Food, with locations in San Francisco and New York City. What began with a childhood love of cooking is now an obsession that embraces just about every genre known to diners. And he does all of them well.
At his restaurants, Bowien works with tastes from around the world. But he didn’t go far to find one of his biggest influences. Riffs on the Oklahoma food he grew up with constantly show up on his menus.
“A lot of our cooking techniques come from Oklahoma, especially barbecue. We work that into a lot of stuff. I’m a huge fan of southern food. Another influence for me was the Vietnamese food that’s big in Oklahoma City. It’s really great and doesn’t get the credit it deserves. It was the first ethnic food I ate. It’s great stuff,” Bowien says.
While taking it slowly, Bowien’s on a mission to expand his small restaurant empire. He opened the first Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco in 2010. It took awhile, but once the restaurant got some traction, it became the hottest show in town. Building on that success, he launched a second, wildly successful restaurant in New York City in 2012. His secret for success is simple.
“I want to make people happy. I want to cook for people in an environment that doesn’t specifically cater to one demographic. I worked in fine restaurants for a long time before opening up my own restaurant,” he says. “A lot of my friends wouldn’t come to those restaurants. They couldn’t afford it, and they didn’t like the stuffy environment. I make something for everyone and don’t limit my restaurants with one specific type of dining experience.”
Bowien is the first to admit that as a chef, he’s only as good as the last meal he serves. But this Oklahoma boy is world-famous and has traveled the globe accumulating accolades. He was nominated for the James Beard Rising Chef award in 2012. GQ magazine named him Chef of the Year in December 2012. In 2008 he completely reworked a classic pasta sauce and became the World Champion of Pesto. His brash spontaneity has not gone unnoticed.
“Being a chef is a lot like being in a band. Cooking and music are artistic outlets,” he says. “But there’s a lot of work that goes along with both. People don’t see the other side of an artist making an album or a chef preparing for dinner service. A lot of rehearsal goes in to what we do.
“There are a lot of parallels between food and music. In music, you have your whole life to make your first album. If it’s a hit, there’s going to be a lot of hype attached to your next one. And people expect something from you. It’s the same with restaurants. If you succeed, people push you to do something new. But music and cooking are both forms of expression. To be honest, though, I think it’s harder to play music than it is to cook.”