When I met Danny Bowien and was considering opening Mission Chinese Food with him, I'd never thought about cooking Asian food professionally before. I think the reason it made sense to me when I was interviewing for the job, is I knew that he had never thought about cooking Asian food either. Through Mission Street Food—the nights he would make Szechuan food for the pop-up—it became extremely popular. In retrospect, knowing him now, he made it because he was curious. But people really wanted to have his version of Szechuan food, which is why Mission Chinese Food became a permanent pop-up.
I loved the idea that the product that you make is your creative interest, but it's also something that becomes bigger than you. You keep playing off your own ideas, and it evolves into something where you can really surprise yourself. It seemed experimental when I met Danny 5 years ago, and it seemed like a huge opportunity for me to explore how to be creative with flavors.
The time that I met Danny, we had both never opened a restaurant before, and that's what he was potentially asking me to do. When Danny relocated to New York, I was assigned to be the executive chef. I became acquainted with the flavors through his lens. It was never intended to be authentic, but authentic to what he wanted to do.
People wanted to see Chinese food in a different way, and from our point of view, the people who really understood us knew that we weren't trying to do anything authentic, and wanted to see us utilize the pantry in a way that was not irreverent, but an exploration of these ingredients that we found ways to access. Getting Szechuan peppercorns shipped in was something I was assigned to do. That was a part of the job that was very crucial to the level of heat we could bring. We had to teach the servers about the food, and we had to teach the diners.
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There's now more and more new-age Chinese restaurants, and I think something that allows us to keep our restaurant busy every night is that it's from our wacky point of view. Every iteration of putting out a new menu is outside inspiration where you can play outside this realm of Chinese food. It's inspiration from ingredients used in Japan, or Filipino ingredients, or getting really into tinned seafood from Spain and finding a space for that, and knowing the ethos of Chinese restaurants can exist within our realm, where, for example, we have a huge book of a menu that's 40-plus items, which is something we find fun at a Chinese restaurant.
Even though the dishes themselves are not authentic, there are certain elements of the experience of dining out at a Chinese restaurant that we think are really important. When we moved into the new space two years ago, I took a lead on the design, and thought about how I could make the space feel like an institution that's existed for a really long time: What elements from Chinese restaurants can I bring here without seeming like we're appropriating from the culture?
That meant certain elements of design that made it feel like a Chinese banquet hall. When we moved into the space, the banquets were already there, and my challenge was to transform the room to make it feel like it's always been a Chinese restaurant. There are small changes I made to make it feel that way, like changing the paneling on the walls to be red, which is a lucky color. I found wall pieces of a phoenix and a dragon, which is typically found in a dim sum banquet hall. I acquired this beautiful gold handmade dragon and phoenix, and it looked like it had been there forever.
The presentation of the food and what the food is is what makes Mission Chinese Food different. What we're doing, at the end of the day, is just American food, but it's a hodgepodge of what we like about Chinese dishes and the experience of Chinese restaurants.
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Really thinking about how people experience the dining style and the flavors—that combination is where you can really play. I think everything we put out, food-wise and dining style-wise, and the type of staff we have, they have to "get" us in order to sell the food, so they have to be curious about what we're curious about. They have to be interested in natural wine, which is something that I wanted to explore. And I hired Sam Anderson because of his extensive knowledge and skill in creating cocktails, so natural wine was something we explored for the restaurant. We're constantly learning about what we want to eat and drink, and how we want to explore that within the confines of our restaurant.
I really think that what we're doing at Mission Chinese Food is a reflection of New American food. I've described Mission Chinese Food in different ways throughout the years. When I first joined in 2012, they had a tagline on their menu: Americanized Oriental food. They wanted to reuse the word "Oriental" and recontextualize it. That was a loud political statement about the word. When Danny and I met, I felt like Mission Chinese Food on Orchard Street was a weird art project. We didn't know what we were doing or how people would react. When we talked to our staff, I felt comfortable calling it "weird chinese food" with its Italian and southern influence at that time.
Then it evolved in 2014. When we opened on East Broadway, I decided that I felt comfortable calling the food "fusion" and reclaiming that word as well. That was a dirty word in the '90s—it would be two distinct cultures fused together, usually European and Asian, and that gave it a bad rap. People care more now about food and ingredients, and the information on food is out there. If there's an ingredient you don't know, you can look it up on your phone, and you can see how it is being used. Now that we're in that time, it was OK to take back that word, for me. This is how I felt comfortable describing the food when I'm small-talking to a cab driver, for example.
Two and a half years later, I feel like when I'm describing Mission Chinese Food to friends, I call it New American Food. It's the best way to describe it to me now.
Let's take the some of our menu items, for example: ribs, wings, fried chicken, brisket, bacon, roast chicken, ice cream—is this not American cuisine? More specifically, the roast chicken is Filipino manok relleno; the ice cream is inspired by a combination of Filipino Halo Halo and Hawaiian shaved ice, and covered in Pop Rocks; the bacon is Tennessee's Benton's bacon stir fried with Korean rice cakes freshly made in Queens; the beef brisket is served as "beef and broccoli" with homemade oyster sauce; the wings are Chongqing style and covered with Tianjin chilies and numbing Sichuan peppercorn; the ribs have a Chengdu-style cumin lamb flavor, but are covered in Indian fennel candy; the fried chicken is marinated in koji (Japanese rice mold) and served with a yuzu kosho inspired sauce, but made with fermented Hatch green chilies and—one of my favorite easy-to-make North African/Moroccan pantry items—preserved lemon. I'll ask the again, but a little differently now: is this not New American cuisine?
As told to Helen Hollyman. This interview was edited for length and clarity.