All the while, he's been churning out mind-blowing dishes (black bean, stir-fried pork jowl, anyone?) and texting his staff his latest obsessions — popcorn dashi, if you’re wondering. We caught up with the culinary provocateur at Omnivore, an international food festival honoring young chefs, and found an enlightened Bowien in search of deeper umami and going beyond the haters.
So, what did you do last night?
"I went to Nopa with Brandon [Jew, executive chef at Bar Agricole] and it was so busy, so we went to the place across the street, Acme Burger House. It’s our secret go-to when we want a Nopa burger badly."
You and Brandon have this not-so-secret bromance, right?
"Brandon is the reason I make Chinese food. Whenever we go out, we eat Chinese food — except for last night. For his 30th birthday, we ate Chinese food together in Paris. I’ve never been to Paris before, so he was like me, you, let’s go. Brandon Jew, he needs to open a Chinese restaurant and find a nice girl."
Who else is in your posse?
"Jesse Koide, Brooks Rogers, and David Cabello. I got a job working at Blowfish Sushi, and I met Jesse. He was the executive chef there, and he ended up working at Slow Club down the street. We all worked there and now we all work at Mission Chinese together. Between Brooks and Jesse, they taught me how to line cook. We’re like family, and what’s bad now is that I’m the dad now. But you know, the guys I’m working with make it all possible."
You opened Mission Chinese in New York about six months ago. Did you miss San Francisco?
"I’m actually here two weeks out of the month. When I come, I try not to go out. It’s just meeting the cooks and hashing out details. We’re working on a huge menu overhaul and we just put in a brand new walk-in refrigerator. San Francisco for me is really cool. It’s beautiful. It’s not jaded. I love New York. I love both of them. People have tried to say that I like New York better, but the thing is when you’re in San Francisco, you’re forced to decompress a little bit. The pace isn’t as rigid. I am getting ideas from people and beautiful produce."
How do you feel about being known as the hipster chef?
"I’ve come to terms with that. The hipster is more of a lifestyle and a look than anything. I don’t think I live that lifestyle, and I’m wearing tennis shoes right now."
What does success look like to you?
"The fact that we’re doing what we want to do on our terms and helping other people, that’s the biggest thing for me. Our goal is to be true to ourselves. We’re just trying to be just as good as the dishes we’ve had."
We love your blond streaks. Any hair color secrets?
"I do it in my bathroom, sitting on my toilet. You have to not be afraid to fuck up your hair, put bleach on it, let it sit for an hour, put on foil, and blow dry it."
And, the length? It’s shorter than we remember.
"I cut it three days ago. My hair was almost to my ass, so I had to cut it. I did it in the hotel room with a pair of scissors. The other day I was talking to someone at a really big magazine, and they asked me about the story behind my hair, and I was like, I don’t know. Nothing. It’s just long."
Today you demoed a duck porridge with rock shrimp and a huge helping of sea urchin. Do you ever eat vegetables?
"People are not going to believe this, but I eat a pretty vegetarian diet. I eat meat and fish too, but there’s this theory that chefs eat foie gras and short ribs and all this stuff for dinner — and some of them do. I can’t do it. At the restaurant, I like whenever we make eggplant. I love eggplant. And, in New York, we’re doing a walnut miso. We take three different types of miso and ferment roasted walnuts, and we make a broth and add it to a bunch of peas and bok choy."
Any plans for Thanksgiving?
"I don’t have any plans. I don’t even know where I’m going be. I talked about going to Miami, because I’ve never been. I would just eat shitty resort food. I would just like to decompress."
What’s next for Mission Chinese Food?
"We’re going to be opening in Brooklyn. And, we’re looking to open in Oklahoma, where I’m from. There’s not a lot of awesome food in Oklahoma; I mean there’s awesome food if you like deep fried things, but I grew up watching Emeril, and I wish he’d come here and just open a restaurant. So, I’m going to do it."
Photo: Courtesy of Cheryl Locke