Mission Chinese Chef Danny Bowien Shares His Dumpling Inspiration

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When the W Hotels wanted to celebrate their new W Shanghai – The Bund property, there was only one chef to call to help plan the menu: Danny Bowien.

The Korean-born, Ohio-raised opened Mission Chinese in San Francisco to great success and in 2012, brought the brand to NYC. He has  been dominating the Asian food scene ever since with his brand of unorthodox Chinese food. Think crispy beef tripe with explosive chiles and Koji fried chicken – Haianese style fried bird with bitter lemon hot sauce. It’s the kind of food that earned him a  James Beard “Rising Star Chef” award in 2013.

Photos by Sean T. Smith, courtesy of W Hotels Worldwide
Photos by Sean T. Smith, courtesy of W Hotels Worldwide

For the fete celebrating  W Shanghai – THE BUND, the new 374-room hotel and first W property in Shanghai offering epic skyline views in the energetic city’s riverfront district, Bowien created a new version of a classic xiao long bao.  “The inspiration for this dish was xiao long bao, which many people know as Shanghai’s soup dumplings. I felt  it was the perfect dish to celebrate the fact that W just opened its newest hotel in Shanghai,” says Bowien. “Of course, I associate soup dumplings with Shanghai so it just seemed like a natural fit. It was great to partner with W – I got to be creative and interpret the dish however I wanted. What we came up with is a bold non-traditional dish, but I think it definitely highlights the flavors of xiao long bao.”

The party took place at a surprise pop up location and during the event, a few lucky winners were gifted the chance to  experience W destinations first-hand with exclusive prizes including two-night stays at various W hotel properties. There were loads more surprises. “Acrobats, dancers, live DJs – W knows how to throw a party.” Also gifted were signed cookbooks from Chef Danny Bowien and a three-night  stay at the new W Shanghai – The Bund.  

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The new W hotel celebrates Shanghai as much as Bowien did in the dish he created for the party. We got the chance to talk to him about creating that dumpling, his toughest critic, the culinary ways he nods to his Shanghai inspiration and where he goes to stay close to it.

When you create a recipe, how do you keep the tradition of Shanghai cuisine intact but still update it?

It depends on what I’m making. In this case we used the Shanghai soup dumpling as inspiration because we’re celebrating the opening of W Shanghai – The Bund. But we were looking to serve it cold, which was a challenge because the first thing you think of when you think of a Shanghai soup dumpling is the temperature, for me at least. I basically took the flavor profile of pork soup dumplings (which usually has pork, or a pork base and often seafood or crab fat or crab roe too) and I inverted it.

To make the soup inside of the soup dumpling there are always bits of gelatinized stock that melt when the dumplings steam. That’s what creates the soup inside when you bite into it. I wanted to capture that flavor profile, but I didn’t want to serve a cold pork dumpling. That wasn’t really appealing to me. So, I was like, well, what if we just do it all inverse? We made the seafood (Dungeness crab in this case) the main component and developed a gelatinized pork stock alongside other ingredients like barbeque roe and pickled sesame leaves.

So, the pork is there and the seafood is there, but it’s presented in a way that’s totally different. We worked with the flavors of xiao long bao to create something that’s not traditional at all, but it’s delicious.

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Who is your toughest critic when it comes to twisting up the classics?

I feel like at this point I’m my toughest critic just because the creative process is really long and you don’t always nail it the first time. You rarely ever nail what you want and get that something out of a dish the first time you make it – you think about it a lot. I don’t really let critics bother me anymore because what’s the point? A long time ago when I was younger and starting my career I worried a lot about critics, but you can’t let that control you. I’m hard enough on myself.

Why did you choose the soup dumpling to recreate? How is it different from the ‘original’ it is based on?

Soup dumplings of course remind me of Shanghai, so it was a great fit for this event with W. My interpretation of this dish is completely different than the original, but we worked with the flavors to create something amazing to celebrate W Shanghai. Really, it’s more like a lettuce cup with flavors of xiao long bao, but we took all the elements of Shanghai soup dumplings and put them into this new dish.

Of course, traditionally soup dumplings are hot and this dish is served cold which was initially a challenge, but I loved creating it – I love a challenge. We used Dungeness crab as the main component rather than pork because a cold pork dumpling didn’t sound appealing to me. This way, it’s basically like we are recalling the flavors of xiao long bao but in a totally different way.

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What are your favorite spots for authentic Chinese food in New York City?

Specifically, in Chinatown there’s a restaurant that’s two doors up from us, it’s called Wu’s Wonton King and it’s amazing. Their Hong Kong-style barbeque is incredible, plus the staff and the owner are so cool – everyone’s just so nice and it’s delicious. My son loves it there. He always gets the three-flavor dumpling soup in bone broth with fresh rice noodles, that’s his thing.

I always get the steamed chicken, Hainanese-style ginger-scallion chicken, it’s incredible. They also have lobster and salt pepper crab – it’s all so good. It’s one of my favorites. There’s another place called Spicy Village on Forsyth street, it’s amazing – another one of my favorites. I also love Funny BBQ on Bowery – it’s open until 2am. It’s a hot pot place and it’s very good. Very good.

Where do you go first when you’re in Shanghai?

I’m hoping to get to the new W hotel, but aside from that I generally eat pretty much as soon as I can when I’m in the city. The first thing I eat are dumplings. They have Sheng Jian Bao in Shanghai, which is basically a pan-fried soup dumpling – that’s my favorite. The ones I’ve had there are thin and crispy on the bottom – they’re really good. Otherwise I like eating seafood while I’m in Shanghai.

There’s also this lamb restaurant, it’s incredible. They have these hand-rolled oat noodles steamed in almost a honeycomb sort of shape, served in a steamer basket – that’s the first place I go, and that’s the best. I took one of their menus when I was there last time – I mean I asked and they gave it to me – their menu looks like a textbook. It’s incredible.

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