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Mission Chinese Food's Danny Bowien & Anthony Myint on Expansion, NYC, and MAD

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Just over an hour ago, Ferran Adrià delivered the closing presentation of the second annual MAD, the symposium from Noma chef René Redzepi. Much like last year, it was held in a circus tent along the water in Copenhagen, where a relatively intimate group of academics, journalists, purveyors, and some of the world's greatest chefs gathered for two days of extended presentations from their peers. Unlike last year, the guys from Mission ChineseDanny Bowien and Anthony Myint — were in attendance and on the bill. They spoke at the event earlier this morning. Shortly thereafter, on the grass and during lunch, they sat down to talk about their speech, their wildly popular New York restaurant, and their plans for expansion.

Can you give a brief overview of what you presented earlier today?
Anthony Myint: We tried to focus on two kinds of appetite, since that was the theme of the festival: the appetite for good food and the appetite for stories, and meaningful social experiences.

And there was that whole bit explaining how damn spicy your food is.
AM: Capsaicin is the active ingredient in spicy Szechuan peppercorns, and it registers on the tongue like pain. People can build up a tolerance to it, but it has been demonstrated to have physiological effects. These range from increasing appetite by way of having the body releases endorphins to changing how your palate and mouth interpret things like cold or texture.

You guys mentioned that Anthony was originally going to be an economist, so it kind of makes sense that he would propose the idea of the "ideal restaurant" — the possibility of having a place funded by the government, or a food bank that has a restaurant. You are, of course, already known for donating some of your proceeds to charity.
Danny Bowien: It's pretty insane, if you think about it. I thought it was crazy when he first told me, because it wasn't an in-depth explanation. There was way more to it, as there always is with him. The notion of having a restaurant funded by the government or having a food bank that has a restaurant or a place where you go to dinner and it's basically a fundraiser — that's wonderful. You don't have to deal with things — food costs, for instance — that you'd have to deal with at a restaurant restaurant. The idea has a lot of potential.

Danny, you mentioned that you aren't concerned with serving authentic food as much as you are with creating an authentic experience. What do you mean by that?
DB: At the end of the day, authenticity isn't always the best answer to things. We're always improving, in general. Take a chef like Ignacio [Mattos]: he's not Italian, but that doesn't mean he can't make killer Italian food, like he did at Il Buco. Some people will think he is inauthentic because he isn't from that culture or from that area, but thinking that way is a little overrated for me. It all really comes to down to what you like and don't like, what's good and what's not good.

But what about the question of the authentic experience?
DB: Authenticity of experience is a slightly different thing. I think you can definitely judge a restaurant by how you feel there, how you are treated, and what you get out of it besides just being full. Can you actually help someone in the process of eating at a place, like you can by donating to charity? The idea of maybe pushing it forward beyond it being just a meal is a more compelling thing to consider. It's more important, I think, than thinking about exactly how they do it in the Szechuan province or in Rome or anywhere else.

AM: You can go to an awesome diner in West Texas, and it can have so much character. It's hard to capture something like that. We're lucky in San Francisco, because the restaurant is sort of this weird time capsule where it actually still is an old crappy Chinese restaurant. I mean, in New York there have been renovations and the former staff no longer works there, but it does I think have the feel of an old divey Thai take out place. It sends that crucial unconscious message that you have to leave your pretensions at the door.

This is your first year at MAD. I'm not sure what your take is, but they don't hammer you over the head with who's sponsoring it and the speakers can be long-winded and heady... I don't think there's much like it in the States, right?
DB: No. I think this is honestly the best festival we have ever been to. The ones that I have been to are usually heavily sponsored, and the people who go to them don't really want to listen to this type of stuff. It's cool that this is a conference focused on chefs and thinkers and isn't really for people who want to just get a chance to see Mario Batali. Here we're joining together as a community and learning from each other. We're trying to push it forward.

As I've said before, nothing bothers me more in the States than cooks talking shit about other restaurants. Just be straightforward and stop wasting your time talking shit. Look at how this is functioning: everyone is going to go back and be better for it. We're not standing in a kitchen talking about the restaurants that we hate.

From what I've gathered being here a few days is that you also sort of leave your pretensions at the door. There isn't a particularly competitive nature to it. Everyone is doing something different.

Why do you think something like this isn't popular in the States?
DB: Money is a huge issue. I mean, René can do this because he is René.
AM: I think it's also subsidized by the government.

I'm more interested in whether you think people would embrace the idea.
DB: I think they would, but it's also just different. If you open it up to the general public, it just changes the vibe. I think chefs are really introverts, and this is really comfortable. There isn't much press, and it kind of reminds me of camp in a lot of ways.

How has New York been going? Critic watch driving you nuts?
DB: New York's been going really well. We're blessed. Of course you get worried about the critics. All of them have been in by now. I've trained my staff and I'm here right now because of that. If Pete Wells happens to come in tonight, they can deal with that. It is stressful and overwhelming, so I'm glad to be here for a bit. I honestly don't think it could be going any better.

And what's your involvement, Anthony?
AM: My wife recently had a baby, so going into it, I knew I wasn't going to be as involved. I helped get it off the ground and did some fundraising, but it is mostly Danny's.

I've read about you wanting to open in Oklahoma and Brooklyn. Do you see yourself rolling out a lot of these?
AM: You know, I think that's something for Danny to think about it. It's important in all of those cases to have a core team that you trust. Danny is the team builder.
DB: I think you just have to tweak it to each place. We had to fine tune some things for New York, and Oklahoma and Brooklyn will be the same thing. You have to incentivize people in different ways. You can't serve beef heart in Oklahoma, because people won't want that. We'll figure out other things.

I want to do other things, like open a sushi bar, but I don't want to leave Mission. We're looking to expand pretty quickly. I still love Chinese food. You know, I can cook Italian food, but at some point I burn out. I still manage to crave Chinese food. I wish I could eat some in Copenhagen.

Finally, what do you think of criticisms of events like this and the chefs that take part in them — people that say that chefs should keep their heads down and not try to change the world.
DB: People are saying that?

Well, yeah. Dan Barber alluded to it yesterday when he mentioned the current debate over the role of the chef in society.
DB: I think cooks should maybe keep their heads down, but once you're a chef, I think it's your responsibility to further yourself and help the people around you. What's the point, otherwise? If you have some leverage, use it. There definitely is a cut-off, but if you have the opportunity, try to make a difference.

· All Mission Chinese Food Coverage on Eater [-E-]
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[Photo: Gabe Ulla / Eater]