SFoodie: Talk about finding your way into the kitchen. When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
Bowien: After a few years in S.F., I decided that in order to get ahead I needed to move to New York ― I was just partying too much here. I bought a one-way ticket and pretty much immersed myself in cooking. I worked at Tribeca Grill for a few years and then went on to [now-closed] Sumile under Josh DeChellis and Pete Serpico. That was probably my epiphany, working at Sumile. Those were two completely different restaurants. I remember on Mother's Day at Tribeca Grill we did like 1,500 covers. That day at Sumile, we did 50, but to me, it felt like 1,500 because I sucked and it was such a different way of cooking. We didn't use tongs, just spoons. I worked entremetier, so I was basically just sandwiched between two badasses all night, getting yelled at. I had no idea what I was doing. I feel like I learned more in that kitchen than anywhere else. Minimum wage was six bucks at the time, and everyone came in early or stayed late and worked off the clock. There, I was really cooking for the love of it, you know?
What about your first Bay Area food epiphany?
When I moved back to the Bay Area, I took a job at Blowfish Sushi. That's where I learned that in order to be a useful cook you really need to be multifaceted. Anyone can cook a steak or a chicken, but sushi?? I guess learning how to make sushi and eating all of my mistakes was my first real epiphany. Wait, never mind. Winterland was my first food epiphany.
I never worked at Winterland, but became friends with a few of the cooks there and cooked briefly with Ted [Fleury], a former cook there who is now chef at the Alembic, and Daniel [Hyatt], who manages Alembic and was also manager of Winterland. I don't know, it was just something very special at a time when most other things weren't. Talk to most people who ate there, and they will probably say the same. I still think that if that crew were to open a restaurant today they would totally give everyone a run for their money.
Where do you go for inspiration for new menu items, specials, etc.?
It comes from all over. For all intents and purposes, I work at a burger stand. That's what it is and there's not really any dressing it up. But behind the burgers and fish sandwiches lies an eagerness to improve on a model. A burger is a burger, but we are trying to create something special. We saw Heston Blumenthal's In Search of Perfection, and were like, "Let's do that, nobody else is. Not even Heston." So a lot of the reason we made the burger to begin with was because we wanted to eat it. Like most other cooks, other great chefs are my inspiration: Rene Redzepi, Inaki Aiziparte, Michel Bras, Arzak... They blow me away.
How exactly did that burger come about?
A while ago I was doing this Thursday night thing at Bruno's with my friend Chris [Kronner]. I'd done Mission Street Food, I was going to Paris with Brandon Jew, and Anthony said he wanted to do this burger thing, so he said, "When you get back, we'll start." We'd been talking about it, we decided we wanted to make a hamburger, but we wanted to do something different. I mean, originally I wanted to do a regular burger, a flat patty, but we talked about and we kind of came to a middle ground. Anthony wanted to do something value-added. We didn't just want to buy some Prather Ranch, which everybody does ― and it's delicious, don't get me wrong ― but we wanted to make something where we could show that you could take something ordinary and turn it into something special. So it took a lot of trial and error.
What flavors, ingredients, or techniques are you especially passionate about?
I would have to say I have strong ties to classic French and Japanese technique and flavor profiles because they are completely strict and straightforward. They both have different nuances that cannot directly be tied to one another, yet are so similar in many ways. In Japan, people devote their whole life to perfecting one dish, or dedicate their entire life to sharpening knives.
Tomorrow: Part 2 of our Q&A with Danny Bowien.