The experience was a slap in the face. "I was waiting in the hall with the other people who were auditioning, and everybody had a gimmick," he remembers. "Like 'I'm a good ol' country boy' or whatever." When he was asked what would "sell him as a person," Bowien answered that his experience working his way up from dishwasher to chef would make him more accessible to viewers, and that he wanted to demystify cooking and show people it "wasn't rocket science." Although he was called back a couple of times, Bowien says the casting agents ultimately rejected him, telling him they needed him to "be more exciting."
And with that, Bowien gave up on the standard dream.
"It's like an indie band signing to a major label, then having to play the music people want them to play," says Bowien. "I decided I didn't want to do things by conventional means anymore."
Around this time, several other young chefs in San Francisco had left traditional employment situations to start pop-up restaurants. These consisted of taking over other people's restaurants for a night or two each week, affording all the creative control and none of the risk. Myint, with whom Bowien had worked at another restaurant, was running a successful pop-up called Mission Street Food out of Lung Shan two nights a week, giving away part of his proceeds to charity. Bowien quit the two restaurants he was working for and signed on to help cook.OLD CONCEPT, NEW CONCEPT
Bowien is an affable charmer who used to front a rock band that once opened for the Flaming Lips. Myint is cerebral and at times awkwardly quiet. But the two men share a love for ridiculously grand projects with limited resources. At Mission Street Food, Bowien dreamed up a series of homage dinners. He, Myint, and another chef, Ian Muntzert, would re-create the food of famous chefs like Parisian star Iñaki Aizpitarte and Spanish molecular gastronomist Quique Dacosta, none of which they'd ever actually eaten. To figure out how to make it, they read chefs' blogs and watched YouTube videos, at times making wild guesses as to what they were seeing. For an homage to Danish Noma chef René Redzepi, for instance, they reproduced a delicate cracker they thought was a tuile made of isomalt. They learned later that it was actually the coagulated skin from the surface of a fortified stock, removed and dehydrated. "We were like, 'Oh, that's what that chip was? That's crazy!'" says Myint.
This past summer, they decided Mission Street Food had run its course, and besides, Bowien was going to Korea to get married. So they closed. But one month later, they were at it again. Mission Chinese Food was born in the same spot, as a seven-day-a-week, lunch-and-dinner, will-deliver-anywhere-in-the-city Chinese restaurant.
"We wanted to make really good Chinese food, and deliver it all over the city, because nothing like that existed," says Bowien. In their off hours, they were regulars at several Chinese restaurants around town, enjoying foods like salt and pepper crab, fresh tofu, and scallion pancakes with chopped-up chicken, egg, and chile, so spicy you nearly passed out. Bowien admired these dishes to a point. "It's sad, because you'll go somewhere and it's awesome," he says. "But they hose it in MSG to the point where you feel you got kicked in the face." Despite the fact that he'd never really cooked Chinese food, Bowien was confident he could do better.
It was a ballsy assumption verging on disrespectful. Chinese cooking, comprising many distinct and refined regional cuisines (Cantonese, Sichuan, Hunan, and Xinjiang, just to name a handful), is a massively complex topic. You could spend your whole life trying to master just one style and never achieve greatness. "The Chinese kitchen tends not to favor the dilettante," says food critic Jonathan Gold of the LA Weekly, who has written extensively about Chinese food.
But Bowien's experience with Chinese food was not the great Hong Kong live-seafood palaces, nor the Beijing restaurants that have been perfecting the art of Peking duck for 600 years. It was mostly the homogeneous, gringo-friendly American Chinese places serving food that can be traced to the Chinese who originally came over to work on the transcontinental railroads. In an effort to appeal to American tastes, these immigrants hit upon a winning combination of deep-fried meats, salty noodles, and sweet, starchy sauces, sometimes of dubious authenticity. (Chop suey, for instance, a mainstream hit at the turn of the 20th century, is widely suspected of being invented in America.) It's a style that has persisted.
"Chinese American food is locked where Italian food was, with the red and white checkered tablecloth and the Chianti bottle," says Olivia Wu, a Chinese chef at Google's Mountain View, California, location and a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle.
But whereas Italian American restaurant cooking evolved and diversified, Chinese American, with a few exceptions, largely has not. There are many theories for why this is: Shortly after Americans discovered they loved chop suey, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, banning Chinese immigration to this country for nearly 50 years, and the lack of new voices coming in allowed the whitewashed version to remain mostly unchallenged. Or an interesting observation explored in Jennifer 8. Lee's book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Many of the very characteristics that the Chinese enjoy most in their food, Americans find totally revolting. For instance, the Chinese like gelatinous textures, meats and fish with lots of bones you have to pick out, and black-colored ingredients such as black fungus. Americans, not so much.
In any case, in many Chinese restaurants in America, there are actually two separate menus: the one given to white people, and the one offered to Chinese. When Bowien and Myint went out to eat, they would watch what the Chinese people around them were ordering and ask for those things. Many of those dishes served as the basis for the menu at Mission Chinese Food.