Danny Bowien, the founder of the Mission Chinese Food restaurants, didn't grow up cooking Chinese cuisine. Born in South Korea, then adopted by a family in Oklahoma, Bowien was already an adult living in San Francisco when he decided to learn how to cook Sichuanese fare, known for its bold, pungent, spicy flavors.
Burned out from working in fine dining establishments, Bowien considered applying to work in a Sichuanese restaurant as a line cook. But since he couldn't speak Chinese, he realized he would have a hard time. Plus, many of the restaurant owners he approached viewed him with suspicion. "They thought I was crazy," Bowien tells Fresh Air's Sam Briger. "They thought I was trying to steal recipes."
Ultimately, Bowien wound up teaching himself how to cook Chinese food. Later, he opened the first Mission Chinese Food — a pop-up restaurant with a punk-rock, DIY attitude. Located inside an existing Chinese restaurant in San Francisco's Mission District, it was a hole-in-the-wall takeout joint that drew long lines and rave reviews: Both Bon Appetit and GQ magazines named it one of the best new restaurants of 2001.