Restaurateurs Danny Bowien and Mr. Chow compare notes on Chinese food and the truth of a dish
With its countless regional variations and international remixes, Chinese food means different things to different people. For Danny Bowien, co-founder of the Mission Burger in San Francisco and Mission Chinese Food in New York (with a Brooklyn outpost set to open soon), and Michael “M” Chow, co-founder and owner of the Mr. Chow restaurant chain, the cuisine is a portal into a world of luxury where anything goes and only the chef is boss. Although they have their differences—Chow, 79, has a second-course ban on chili sauce while Bowien, 36, employs spice to the point of giving his food a narcotic effect—each is a master of ambiance, and each has changed what Chinese food can mean to their respective generations.
DANNY BOWIEN: M, I’ve always wondered how you start your day.
Michael “M” CHOW: I’m a very early riser, and I’m often up in the middle of the night for a couple hours. Last night, I wrote poetry* for my lover. Lilly, maybe you can read it.
BOWIEN: You really wrote that this morning?
BOWIEN: Mr. Chow has had an insane influence on me since I moved to New York—the ambiance, the service, the room. My first experience there completely changed the way I’ve come to think about my own restaurant. Had you always envisioned Mr. Chow as a kind of transcendent space? I feel like that’s what restaurants can often be: an escape from reality. They’re about food, but it’s really about an experience.
CHOW: I was cut off from my roots at the age of 12 when I landed in London. I grew up there by myself. I survived racism. They even said that the Chinese could not own restaurants. I thought it was a joke—my father is an icon in China—and it felt like an injustice in the biggest way. So I wanted a restaurant that shouted from the mountaintops: “All things that are Chinese are great!” That power, that passion—it creates a lot of energy. I think about restaurants the way I think about musicals. A musical production has a front and back, like a restaurant. The back is the kitchen. The front is the waitstaff. The audience is the clientele. The lead is the maître d’—he’s your Tom Cruise. That leading man is the one who imports you into this new world. That’s why, in Mr. Chow, every client who comes in is greeted by a maître d’. He’s the one who tells you, “I love you, but don’t fuck with me. I’m Mr. Perfect.”
CHOW: I always say that there is no luxury without fantasy. Owning a restaurant is like being an artist or a priest or a healer. Danny, you and I are 21st-century healers. I think that a restaurant is a work of art. Maybe it’s not the highest level of art—like painting, poetry, calligraphy, or music—but it can certainly be equal to architecture.
BOWIEN: Beyond fantasy, it’s also a matter of authenticity and finding oneself. I’m a Korean-born adoptee. I grew up in Oklahoma eating fast food. I had asparagus for the first time when I was 19 years old. Because of being adopted and not having a true sense of heritage, the odds were really against me having a profound sense of identity. After working in San Francisco and chasing this idea of what fine dining should be, I felt like I wanted to stop cooking. The thing that actually drew me back to food was when I ate mapo tofu at this Taiwanese restaurant called Spices II. It took me out of my comfort zone. The idea of food being too chewy or too spicy was something that wasn’t acceptable in the places where I worked. It made me want to make something that some people love and some people hate. But executing that idea was also really hard in the beginning. I’d waver and ask myself, “Is it too spicy?” This is also an industry that can attract people with addictions and obsessions, and I definitely had coping mechanisms that weren’t healthy. I’ve been sober for five years now, and I can say as we’re opening a new one in Bushwick that this is the first restaurant I’ve opened that doesn’t terrify me. How have you maintained such confidence for so many years?
CHOW: You always have to go back to the truth of a dish. If someone says to you, “I want mapo tofu, but don’t make it spicy,” then you just have to say, “Fuck you, I can’t do that.” In China, spicy foods used to suggest poor people. Why? Because if you’re so fucking poor that you only have unprocessed rice, you can dip your chopstick into something spicy and that will take you through the day. At Mr. Chow, I refuse to have chili sauce at the second course. Why ruin the food with something like that? Every morning when I shave, I say, “Wow, what a beautiful, perfect face! I don’t need any makeup. I don’t need a heavy eyebrow ruining my beauty.” It’s the same with food. During the first course at Mr. Chow, you can have chili sauce. But at the second course, I tell the staff to make it very difficult to request chili sauce. A lot of people want to kill me, and sometimes the waiters will even disobey me. I’ll have a fistfight with the waiters. I’m so strong on this, because they are fucking with my culture. When I started, Chinese restaurants were the lowest of the low. All-you-can-eat for $1.99. Horrible!
BOWIEN: For me, democratization is part of what I do. That kind of Chinese restaurant with the pink table cloth is what I knew growing up working class in Oklahoma. I grew up eating at Red Lobster and McDonald’s. To me, Italian food was Olive Garden. I remember going to Emeril’s at Universal Studios in Florida, and they came to the table and sauced the meat. That was the craziest thing I had ever seen in my life!
CHOW: High-low culture is very important. What I like to do is mix, like Andy Warhol did. For instance, with a table for six, I always like to put nine people on it. So what? That mixture is sexy. It’s magic. Mr. Chow is about looking for that moment, and it’s from every detail. A knife. A fork. A chair. All these pieces come together and become something very powerful.
BOWIEN: I’m taking notes.
CHOW: I hope you’ll come visit me in L.A. How old are you?
CHOW: Perfect. I’m 79, but I only hang out with people under 40.
*A POEM BY MR. CHOW FOR HIS LOVER (READ BY HIS ASSISTANT, LILLY):
Flying. Lifting up and up.
Heaven above, hell below. Choice is yours to make.
Rainbows and angels are the accessories we cannot live without.
Glamour and fantasy, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.
Cleopatra and decadence are specials of the day. A menu like that is hard to find.
Magic and transcendence. Floating on the opium bed without an extra charge.
Eating an ice cream cone in mid-sentence. It’s a mistake everyone makes.
Melting is the thing, as the season changes. Melting as we descend to a better place.
Making a call on the desert sand without a booster tower,
you get disconnected each and every time. Thoughts wander, memories linger,
words appear and disappear at will.
Let me fly away with you for the last time. Let me float and linger a little longer.
Let me ride on the colorless rainbow as I look into your eyes.
Let me take a steam bath with you in the middle of the summer night.
Let me hold my breath while we fly.
Let me dream away to the north, east, west, south, at the same time.
Let me be. Let me fly. Let me be free. Let me love.
Let me love you in particular. On this special night,
each and every thought would be from my heart to your heart, without missing a beat.
Let me kiss you goodnight for the first time and the last time.
Let me carve a singular letter, V, in this night sky.
Photography Assistant: Noah Bloug