The Chef Behind Mission Chinese Food Loves Britney Spears and Rage Against the Machine
Danny Bowien tells us about his childhood in Oklahoma, the relationship between making food and making music, and which Ariana Grande song he has on repeat.
If the recent music-themed episode of Mind of a Chef teaches us anything, it’s that Danny Bowien is a music nerd. This month's holiday special, dreamed up by the home audio company Sonos to accompany their new collaborative mixtape platform Playlist Potluck—in which we see Bowien and pals singing, reminiscing and putting together some pretty rad playlists—features the Mission Chinese Food chef waxing poetic about his dual loves of food and music. Here, we dig deeper into how music ties into his cooking and identity—and the best-ever potluck with Iñaki Aizpitarte, April Bloomfield and Sean Brock.
Food & Wine: Tell us about the Mind of a Chef episode—looks like you had an amazing dinner party!
Danny Bowien: It was great. We’re about to do the next season of Mind of a Chef, which is awesome, and in the process an opportunity came up to work with Sonos. I feel like a broken record sometimes, but I’m always talking about food and music and how important they are to me. Being able to work with Sonos on the Mind of a Chef music special, and put together music with the other chefs, was amazing.
F&W: How did you choose the people you invited?
DB: We all knew each other—it was literally just us hanging out and having a party, catching up. I had never been able to cook with other chefs on a friendly level like that. And I’m so lucky, since Iñaki has always been my favorite chef.
This episode was cool because each portion felt different: you were with me, and then you were skateboarding with Iñaki, and then you were with Sean, who tells you stories and you just want to cuddle up next to him. And then of course April, demonstrating how to cook food on the most amazing level—you watch it, and April makes us all look really bad.
F&W: How did you choose the music for your potluck playlist? Not everyone pairs Backstreet Boys with Rage Against the Machine...
DB: What really informed that playlist was the music that I listened to during the more formative years of my life. That music—Candlebox, Britney Spears—was coming out when I was cooking a lot at my house for my junior high friends. I didn’t play sports. I was into music, and in Oklahoma, you just have people over and grill kebabs and play music all the time. We’d play whatever was on Top 40 radio. The Rage Against the Machine was definitely the same time period as “Stay” by Lisa Loeb...was that on there? [Ed note: It didn’t make the cut, unfortunately.]
F&W: What are you listening to right now?
DB: I guess I have to say something 'good,' because I was going to say the new Ariana Grande/Future song. People never tell the truth: when you’re listening to your headphones, you’re listening to some good stuff and some trash.
I’m really into a specific time period right now. My band has been been playing a lot of stuff that’s kind of old Beastie Boys—super garage rock-y. And there’s a band called Superdrag, with this song called “Sucked Out,” that was big in like 1996. Also this band called Hum. And Oasis! The Oasis documentary just came out, and it made me appreciate them all over again.
F&W: In the episode you talk a lot about the impact music has had on your life.
DB: Music is something I’ve always had, even if it wasn’t really optimized. I was listening to very safe, non-secular music when I was growing up. It was like the food I was eating—there was something missing, but I didn’t know I wanted it, because I wasn’t allowed to listen to anything else. I ate ground beef, in the buckle of the Bible belt, listening to Christian music. And then when I got to hear real music for the first time, I was just like, “Oh! There’s something else.”
Growing up in the suburbs in Oklahoma, what do you do? Things you shouldn’t do, or play music. So I always turned to music. A lot of what I do in my life is hinged on music.
F&W: Could you talk a little more about the relationship between music and cooking for you?
DB: Being in a band is kind of like being a chef—it’s hard, but it’s a creative outlet. At the end of the day being able to do something that you really love is really important, and music and food are those two things for me.
I used to work in a lot of restaurants that would not allow you to listen to music, and it was very sterile—under fluorescent lighting for eleven, twelve, thirteen hours, with your head down. Have you ever just sat and worked and not listened to music? Can you imagine spin class without music? When you’re working long hours in restaurants, music is kind of a driving force that pushes you through. But I don’t pick the music anymore, because if I did, it would just be a lot of emo.
F&W: Is there something about cooking with someone, or sharing music with someone, that elevates the experience?
DB: Yeah, I talk a lot about this in the episode. You want to engage on a deep sensory level with both music and food. When you take yourself to a nice meal, or go see a show, you’re kind of like, “I just want to unplug and be a part of this for a while.” And when you’re hosting a party like our Playlist Potluck, that’s what you want. You want people to go home and feel like that experience couldn’t happen anywhere else.
F&W: Sometimes people have these sense memories with food or music—for example, they’ll eat something and immediately think of something else. Are there dishes you associate with a particular song, or vice versa?
DB: Well, it’s not like, “When I taste Jean-Georges' sea bass, I’m transported,” or anything. For the record, Jean-Georges is the man. But that playlist does remind me of food from a specific time: when I was a kid, and going out to eat somewhere nice would mean Olive Garden or Red Lobster. Music from 2001 or 2002, when I moved to San Francisco, reminds me a lot of pho or Korean food—the first time I ate Korean food was in San Francisco, when I was 19 or 20. If I eat an egg and cheese in a bodega, it reminds me of when The Strokes were really popular in New York, when I moved here.
You’re usually eating something or listening to music when something big happens.