Friday, January 15, 2016

Review: Mission Chinese Food Cookbook

One of the cookbooks on our Best of 2015 list is the Mission Chinese Food Cookbook.  Based on how it was promoted through the Lucky Peach email list, it sounded like it would be a bunch of dumbed down, pseudo-Chinese recipes for your average home kitchen (like how to make a quick imitation Hoisin sauce).  Reading through it however, it's clear that Danny Bowein has tried to faithfully write down his most popular recipes, no shortcuts included.  This includes dishes such as his Kung Pao Pastrami, Westlake Rice Porridge, and Ma Po Tofu.  There is no skimping on the Sichuan chilies.

Perhaps just as interesting as the recipes is the behind-the-scenes of a young chef's ascendancy to fame (he was the James Beard Rising Star Chef of 2013).  Modest in the utmost, his account (co-written with friend and Lucky Peach editor-in-chief Chris Ying) is honest and earnest.  He recounts periods of his life spent doing blow, the aftermath of his mouse shit restaurant shutdown, and so forth, these trials having only added to his legend and fame.

And the recipes are swinging for the fences.  Though I have not tasted the actual food, the spicing preferences show an aptitude for deconstruction and recreation.  As evinced in this video for Munchies, his friend Brandon Jew explains how Bowein will taste a dish, deconstruct it mentally (by ingredient, method, and technique), and then reconstruct it better than it ever was.  You can see this clearly in his Kung Pao Pastrami, a bastardization of Chinese cooking mixed with Oklahoma BBQ (his roots).  Like Keanu Reeves in the Matrix, he appears say, "I can do anything, I know Kung Fu." 

Where Bowein appears to fall off track is where this confidence or overconfidence allows him to experiment in cuisines where the research and testing has not dug quite as deep, for instance serving pizza at the new Mission Chinese New York (just because the restaurant already had a pizza oven), or playing around with Mexican flavors at Mission Cantina.

But these missteps are quickly forgiven by a bourgeois foodie audience looking for the next David Chang. Like Chang, Bowein doesn't belong to the cuisine he represents (Bowein is a Korean serving Chinese Food; Chang is a Korean serving Ramen (Japanese)), but these are the new rules around ethnic cooking.  The efforts these classically trained cooks make to re-translate authentic ethnic food make it palatable for bourgeois (read: white) audiences that otherwise would be scared to order in what might be an authentic Chinese food restaurant in Chinatown.  Translation is exactly what Andy Ricker has done for Thai food with his Pok Pok empire, and Sean Brock for Southern food with Husk.  Each of these chefs has elevated the cuisine and crafted a new authenticity that is informed by professional cooking and a highly trained, educated palate.  Like Danny Bowein, they are not afraid to break boundaries if only to reset them for the rest of us.

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