Danny Bowien is running around his kitchen, supporting his laptop with one hand, while reaching high for a bottle of chili oil on the top shelves with the other. He grins and apologizes, “Sorry if it looks a little weird, there’s a firework on top of it. It’s just oil, though.”
Bowien’s new cookbook, Mission Vegan: Wildly Delicious Food for Everyone, is dynamically designed with food photos in wild, saturated colors shown through intense, stylized lighting; its culture-crossing recipes include pineapple kimchi and cold buckwheat noodles with dragon fruit ice. The project was a exploration of Bowien’s Korean heritage, as well as an homage to his American upbringing. “I was adopted when I was three months old. I grew up in Oklahoma, and my parents were white. I found myself stopping and thinking, ‘what if I grew up eating this food in an alternate universe?’ Tackling and understanding Korean food and trying to learn more about food from my heritage, it was all about understanding the principles first—and then going back and being playful.” Bowien’s genre-bending approach to food is nothing new. At Mission Chinese Food, one of his most celebrated dishes was that restaurant’s lush and tingly Kung Pao Pastrami.
Mission Vegan may have been a personal journey, but Bowien wants the book to offer accessible recipes. “One of the biggest goals was to make this a book that people cook from— specifically, myself, that I would want to cook from—at home. The last cookbook I did, Mission Chinese Food, I’m really proud of, but it’s a restaurant cookbook. A lot of those recipes are ones I would never tackle at home.” Although not vegan himself, Bowien wanted to highlight how easy-to-cook and exciting plant-based food can be.
Bowien’s advice to people stocking their home pantry is to avoid shopping in bulk. “I try to keep a pretty minimal kitchen at home. People are often surprised when they come over because they think I’m going to have a ton of stuff, but I really don’t.” Instead, he buys smaller quantities of staples to avoid clutter and to be able to sample a wider variety of brands. His guidance when collecting new pantry items is to consider the way it affects your overall cooking and to display restraint. He elaborates, “how I found my way, and continue to find my way, in cooking is finding something I haven’t used and trying it. That’s a slippery slope. Back in the day, I would go to a market and see 17 types of fermented chili, and think I needed to try all of them. It would take up so much space, and so much time to get through.” Now, Bowien buys from the brands he trusts, and smaller quantities of items he hasn’t yet used.
We asked Bowien to name the five products in his pantry that he reaches for the most. He laughs, “I could just chef it up, but if I’m being honest, these are things I use daily.”
Danny Bowien’s 5 Favorite Pantry Staples
I use an enormous amount of olive oil. I like the flavor that it yields. I have a specific favorite brand that I use, Partanna, and I’ve done a lot of work with them. They produce Calabrian chili oil for me. In the cookbook, it calls for certain other neutral oils— specially, in the dessert section of the book—but for the most part, I cook predominantly with olive oil. Some of my fondest memories were working in Italian restaurants with Italian chefs, and we would use it for everything.
This is gonna sound really cheffy, but I always have this humongous thing of Maldon salt in my kitchen. I get this at SOS Chefs in the East Village. I think this is the best gift you can get anyone, ever. It’s the number one thing people ask about when they come over and I’m cooking for them, they go, “Oh my gosh, where did you get that thing of salt?” I know you can cook without Maldon salt specifically, but salt is very important, and that type of salt is one I really enjoy using. I know I said I keep a minimal kitchen, and then I said I keep this giant thing of salt, but I use it a lot. When we were testing all the recipes out for the cookbook, it was far too expensive to use Maldon salt for making kimchi or something like that, so we used Diamond Kosher Salt, which is the only other salt I really have in my house.
I always like to have some sort of preserved chili. Something spicy that kind of amps things up. It’s not necessarily a chili oil or chili crisp—I noticed a lot of people are really into chili crisp these days. I like them. I’ve used them a lot. I made my own over the years, but I find there’s a really clean flavor in making your own chili paste, which is very simple. In my book, there’s two recipes, one for a charred red chili paste and another for green chili paste. Both are really simple condiments, and so easy to make. I always have homemade chili paste, but I also always have store-bought Tutto Calabrian chili.
I grew up in Oklahoma. Growing up, we ate at home maybe seven out of seven nights a week. I grew up on a lot of Hamburger Helper, everything was some kind of ground beef dinner. My mom would always use bouillon cubes or seasoning packs in all of our food to make it taste good, enhance it, and help cut down some of the cooking time in our meals.
Many years ago, Mission Chinese Food started as a pop-up in another Chinese restaurant. I was tasked with coming up with a menu that the restaurant workers could execute, and I was kind of in a weird predicament because I was teaching these Chinese cooks how to make Chinese food my way, and I noticed they would always reach for chicken bouillon seasoning.
Pretty early on, we wanted to streamline the operation so that if there was a dietary restriction, if someone didn’t eat meat or were vegetarian, there would be a substitute that wasn’t soy sauce. I asked Amanda who owned Duc Loi, and she recommended mushroom powder (for Bowien’s recipe, scroll down article in link). It’s a really great vegan flavor enhancer, basically a soup stock. It’s something I use to give food a little pop, something I use a lot when I cook at home. I don’t want the food I cook at home to be really salty. I think restaurant food can tend to be really salty, and that’s why it tastes so good. But there’s another fourth wall that I’ve tried to break through over the years where it’s like, how do I achieve that? What is the thing about certain foods, specifically Asian food that I eat, that is so delicious? It’s not just salt—it’s umami, right? So, mushroom powder is a really great way to amplify food without having to use extra salt or fat.
I always have some sort of dried or canned bean around. I really like Rancho Gordo beans, and I’m pretty partial to beans from this farm in California, Iacopi Farms, which you can actually order through Natoora. I always like to try new varieties, I always like trying something new. As far as canned beans go, there’s a company that makes my favorite San Marzano style tomato, called La Carmela. Their cranberry beans are so good. I get them from Formaggio at Essex Market. I also like this brand called Bio Italia a lot, which is an organic brand that doesn’t add salt to their beans.