Danny Bowien Reopens Mission Chinese Food

Danny Bowien can’t recall the name of the hotel in San Francisco. All he remembers is being holed up in a dark room, lying in bed, staring at the ceiling.

For a chef with busy restaurants on both coasts, motionless moments are rare. But this was October 2013, and Mr. Bowien had just received word that Mission Chinese Food, the Lower East Side palace of psychedelic-Sichuan cuisine that had hurled him into the international spotlight, had been shut down by New York City’s health department for an array of sanitary violations, including the presence of mice.

The news, he said, left him in a state of paralysis. He felt overwhelmed, embarrassed and worried for his staff. He knew he had to fly to New York to face the crisis, but he had committed to a Bay Area cooking event. He wasn’t sure where to turn.

Then his phone rang. On the other end he heard a voice with a familiar Danish accent. It was René Redzepi, the chef behind Noma in Copenhagen, arguably the world’s most acclaimed restaurant. “And he was like, ‘Chef, are you ready?’ ” Mr. Bowien said. “ ‘They’re coming for you. They smell blood. You’re hurt, you’re wounded and they’re going to come for you.’ ”

That may sound like a terrifying (albeit prophetic) form of consolation, but Mr. Bowien can smile about it now that a new version of Mission Chinese Food opened last month in a spruced-up and spacious spot on the edge of Chinatown. If the Danny Bowien comeback is officially underway, no one seems more relieved about it than Mr. Bowien himself.

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As the 32-year-old chef will be the first to tell, the curveballs of the last two years forced him to grow up fast. He parted ways with alcohol, which had become his stress-relieving sidekick. “I drank like crazy,” he said. “Not to have fun. I was destroying myself.” He became a father: His wife, Youngmi Mayer, gave birth to their son, Mino, about 10 months ago.

And after a stretch of being so well liked and in demand that he seemed like the culinary world’s version of Jimmy Fallon, he quietly stepped out of the celebrity whirlwind and got back to where he feels he belongs: in the kitchen.

“I got swept up in the whole thing,” he said. “Doing events everywhere, getting flown all over the world, not being in the restaurants enough. At the end of the day, my time is best spent in the restaurants. This is what got me here.”

He said the jarring call from his mentor and friend in Denmark — as well as several doses of stern instruction from another older-brother figure, the chef David Chang — inspired and fueled him through a series of months in which it felt as if the bullet train of his career had hit a patch of debris on the tracks. “René kind of coached me through it,” he said. “He said: ‘I want you to know that everything’s going to be O.K., but you’re going to need to handle this. You’re going to be fine, but you just need to focus.’ ”

Focus is what Mr. Bowien would spend a year or so hustling to regain. After a stellar debut in New York — a James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef, near-universal plaudits from his fellow chefs and the news media, including The New York Times (whose Pete Wells selected Mission Chinese Food as the best new restaurant of 2012) — it began to appear as if his reputation as a wunderkind could unravel.

“One day he just looked at me and said, ‘I think I’ve been traumatized,’ ” his wife said. “It took a few months for him to say that to me.”

For a while Mr. Bowien probably wished he had kept hiding in that hotel room. He was in the midst of opening a Lower East Side taqueria, Mission Cantina, but he now admits that dealing with the health department issues distracted him and scotched a crucial research trip to Mexico, which meant that he unveiled Cantina before it was ready.

Looking back, he thinks he played it too safe with the food, choosing an attempt at authenticity instead of firing up the cross-cultural flavor detonations that had made him famous. “I wasn’t doing what we do best, and also I had lost all my confidence,” he said. After eating at Cantina, Mr. Redzepi sent Mr. Bowien an email bluntly stating that his tortillas needed an upgrade. Reviews were middling.

“People were slamming Cantina,” Mr. Bowien said. “I took it personally. I didn’t know how to handle that.”

Mission Chinese Food had reopened days after the health department shut it. But weeks later, the department closed it again, and it stayed closed. Mr. Bowien and his team determined that there were insurmountable problems with the building on Orchard Street. “I just chose not to reopen the restaurant,” he said. “We had passed all the inspections. Technically that restaurant could still be open.”

He began to feel the best strategy was to pay attention to the message he was getting, and to move on. “We wanted a new start,” he said. “We just wanted to do something better.” His team later filed a lawsuit against the landlord, Abraham Noy, arguing that he had failed to bring the building up to proper standards; Mr. Noy followed with a countersuit denying that allegation and saying that the Mission Chinese team owed thousands of dollars in unpaid rent. 

Regardless of who was right, allies believed that Mr. Bowien could not rise above the problem by taking a principled stand. “What I told him was, ‘There’s no excuse,’ ” Mr. Chang said. “If you have a problem and it’s not an act of God, no one cares in New York City. I don’t think people have time for sympathy.”

The original restaurant sported a beer keg on the floor, an endless line out the door and the cramped, booming, improvised feeling of a Flaming Lips album-release party (a gathering that Mr. Bowien’s band actually performed at in a previous life in Oklahoma). The décor seemed to throw takeout-counter kitsch and indie-rock cool together in a wok with a few extra fistfuls of Sichuan peppercorns. “You feel like you’re in a bad Chinese restaurant but you’re in a really good Chinese restaurant,” the chef Wylie Dufresne said.