‘Mission Chinese Food Cookbook’: Tell Them the Truth

‘Mission Chinese Food Cookbook’: Tell Them the Truth

‘Mission Chinese Food Cookbook’: Tell Them the Truth

Not all cookbooks would benefit from the Mission treatment, but, perhaps, quite a few memoirs would.


Antoine’s, the oldest restaurant in New Orleans, published a book of its original recipes for the first time in 1979. The text was written, in grand and sentimental language, by Roy F. Guste, Jr., the great-great grandson of the restaurant’s founder.

“This book is a statement of my own feelings, gained from my own experience and that of the greatest chefs and restaurateurs with whom I have had the good fortune to spend time,” Guste wrote in the introduction. “This statement is that there is no value to ‘secrets’ in cuisine.”

And so, from the table of contents sprawls a list of what appears to be every original recipe Antoine’s has produced, French in the left column, translated into English on the right. It’s a pleasure to scan the list, beginning with variations on the oyster, each named colorfully: Huitres a la Ellis, Huitres a la Foch, Huitres Thermidor, Huitres Bienville. Flip to the recipe for Oysters Rockefeller (so delicious upon its invention that the baked mollusk was named after the richest man in America at the time, and no doubt the reason why many bought this volume in the first place) and you’ll find three paragraphs dedicated to the history of the hors d’oeuvre, concluded by the sentence, “The original recipe is still a secret that I will not divulge.” Guste goes on to say that no restaurant outside of Antoine’s has come close to replicating the appetizer before providing a non-hint: “If you care to concoct your version, I would tell you only that the sauce is basically a puree of a number of green vegetables other than spinach. Bonne Chance!”

You can almost hear Guste cackling in the background. The omission is disappointing, for sure, but keeping this one recipe a secret helps build the mythos of the restaurant, one that’s as mysterious as New Orleans itself. In one deft move, tucked in what is meant to be a straightforward restaurant cookbook, Guste suggests the central dilemma of personal writing: How does a writer appear authentic on the page—a requirement for gaining a reader’s trust—while at the same time, carefully crafting each sentence they write?

* * *

I was reminded of the Oysters Rockefeller omission when I arrived at the most affecting moment of The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook, a hybrid cookbook and memoir by Danny Bowien, chef and owner of Mission Chinese, which was published in November last year. Most of the book is composed of interviews with Bowien, and in one section early on, Chris Ying, a longtime friend to Bowien and the editor-in-chief of Lucky Peach, presses Bowien to reveal just how dire his financial situation was as he started the restaurant.

Bowien: “I didn’t pay back my student loan for almost ten years.”

Ying: “Tell them the truth.”

Bowien: “The awkward truth is that I wasn’t able to pay it off in full until we sold this cookbook.”

The transcript format goes a long way in making this section feel emotionally immediate, but Ying’s “Tell them the truth” and Bowien’s subsequent admission give the section more feeling. It’s a neat sleight of hand to include Ying’s clarification of Bowien’s statement. (You can easily imagine an edit of the interview in which we just get the second answer). Instead, the reader, witnessing first-hand Bowien’s omission of certain details, feels Bowien’s shame and anxiety over his debt rather than having to be told about it. As a result, the Bowien’s admittance feels immediate and refreshingly honest — no small feat for three lines of dialogue. Bearing witness to Bowien’s admission also makes very real, for readers, a feeling of urgency throughout the book itself: Ying pulls Bowien out of his embarrassment; we learn how desperately he needed the money from the book; what you’re holding is an artifact of Danny Bowien’s journey.

“This book is part of the fabric of the restaurant, perhaps more than any other cookbook has ever been,” Bowien writes in the introduction, and as the book unwinds, we understand more and more how inextricable its writing was with the evolution of the restaurant. Typically, chefs wait to become well established before penning a book, but Ying convinced Bowien to begin writing his when Mission Chinese was merely a pop-up restaurant. Over the three years it took to finish the book, they recorded Bowien’s journey from San Francisco to New York, with a revelatory stopover in China. During that time the advance for the book went, in part, of course, toward paying off Bowien’s debt, but also to funding the opening of Mission Chinese Food’s first New York restaurant. The cookbook even saved the actual menu of the restaurant at one point, when Bowien’s own database of recipes crashed. (Ying had a backup saved up for the manuscript.) The tendency of Bowien and his colleagues to consider what the book means as you are reading feels transparent–it makes you feel that you are watching the book be created in real time. It would feel meta, and possibly hokey, if any of it felt pre-determined.

Bowien refers to his book as a diary of the restaurant’s conception, but what emerges is less one person’s account of a life and a restaurant than a whirlwind of interviews from a variety of stakeholders along with detailed recipes, beautiful images, tips on decorating a restaurant, cooking philosophy—all held together by just enough expository notation to situate the reader in the narrative. The book, as a whole, is a frenetic, wildly textured volume—an indication of the instability it was created in. Turning the opening page, you have the feeling what you’re look at is a hardbound zine, a study in unpretentious cool. What runs the risk of being something akin to a box of treasures for super fans, however, emerges as an exceedingly clever and coherent narrative. We should think of it less as unconventional restaurant cookbook than a memoir for the times.

* * *

There’s a collage-like quality to the traditional cookbook format, which lends a certain amount of playfulness and experimentation—think Guste teasing his readers by omitting his Oysters Rockefeller recipe. As a result, text in restaurant cookbooks is mostly filler, just enough information to put the recipes in context, as though the authors and publishers are aware of the fact that readers are likely just flipping through for the photos and recipes.

Where Mission succeeds, is by using the form of the cookbook to its advantage. Rather than attempting to fit essays and narrative around a collection of recipes—a tactic that has made other cookbooks more or less readable, but too frankenstein-ish to consider as a whole—each element that Bowien adds to the story is skillfully presented so as to be in conversation with what’s come before. Again and again, seemingly discrete parts combine like so many translucent layers coming together to form a multifaceted whole. Even the recipes pull weight as narrative devices.

In the final chapters of the book, for example, we’re introduced to the recipe for one of Bowien’s appetizers (shaved pork belly and octopus terrine with married-couples’ vinaigrette). “The inspiration for our octopus terrine came from Paolo, the Genovese chef I worked with at Farina,” he wrote. The original dish was an octopus mortadella, set with gelee, which Bowien learned at one of his first cooking gigs (he describes the job earlier in in the book). Before Bowien reveals the recipe, he tells anecdotes from his tenure in the Mission District in San Francisco, where he cooked during off-hours at a no-frills Chinese-American restaurant, and also to the Szechuan province of China, on a research vacation. It’s there that he discovers the 1930s Sichuan street vendor food Married-Couples Beef that inspired him to add in pork belly and Sichuan spices to the original mortadella. The recipe, tucked skillfully after these anecdotes, acts as a way of synthesizing all that’s come before.

Interviews are similarly layered to build perspective. Like first-person present-tense narrative, the interview format that Mission relies on is irresistibly lively and intense, but what it gains in immediacy, it often loses in context—we can’t exist in the present and reflect on it at the same time. Mission skirts this by returning to the same subjects over and over again (Chris Ying and Anthony Myint, Bowiens partner in the restaurant, at different points, attempt to draw Bowien into a conversation about ethnicity and whether Bowien’s Korean background influenced his interest in Asian foodthe answer is always no) and by speaking to multiple sources about the same time period or subject (we hear what it was like to operate Mission Chinese Food in a Chinese restaurant, first, from Bowien and his partners, and then later, from the proprietors of the Chinese restaurant themselves).

One particular example of this layering approach gives us insight into Bowien’s approach toward friendship and conflict. Early on in the book, Bowien describes how he blew up at a cook and colleague of his, Jesse, for drinking on the job while they worked together at Farina, an Italian restaurant in San Francisco. “He had this guilty look on his face, like a little kid; I couldn’t handle it. I threw the bottle against the walk-in door behind him, told him never to drink there again, and walked out.” He goes on to describe that moment as a turning point in his relationship with Jesse, and later we find out that the two friends didn’t speak again for nearly two years. Bowien left the Farina to work elsewhere, and Jesse stayed. You can imagine, that in a different format, Bowien might do some heavy-handed and not-particularly-authentic-sounding reflection on the moment, tell us it helped him become a better chef, or whatever. Instead, the book resolves the moment by asking Jesse himself about the confrontation, in a separate interview, nearly a hundred pages later. Ying asks Jesse about that period in his friendship with Bowien, and although Jesse doesn’t mention the bottle incident, he speaks broadly about how difficult working at Farina was and how he finally quit, under the same pressures that Bowien faced. It seems, in the end, all of the feelings he recalls from the fall-out are empathetic ones. He describes quitting Farina , finally, and going almost immediately to see Bowien. Upon meeting him, Jesse felt as though time had done the healing words otherwise might have. “Just showing up and saying hi to him was going to tell him enough,” he said.

The casual and emotionally contained telling of that moment does more to demonstrate the disposition of these two men, and the nature of their relationship, than any lines of exposition might.

This kind of delicately handled emotional resolution makes what’s written on the pages feel alive and authentic. So what, then, to make of the fact that, as we find out in the introduction, the book has actually been overhauled twice (and probably more than that)? There’s always a conversation about where the threshold for nonfiction is before it crosses into the territory of fiction. The discussion seems to persist, in part, because the truth is slippery, especially when self-perception is involved. How capable are we, in the end, of telling the truth about ourselves, and how do we convince readers of our trustworthiness?

What Mission shows is that in personal writing, what we are seeking isn’t truth, as in mere fact, but a truth that resonates in one’s inner life. We don’t need to know, for example the exact terms of Jesse and Bowien’s falling out for it to feel authentic, for it to make us feel something. And here, at last, is why Guste’s deception feels so true to his restaurant and why Mission, which makes an entire book out of the kind of literary antic Guste employed for a single recipe, is so delightful. They sidestep the problem of telling the truth head-on by, instead, embodying it. The ‘truth’ of Mission appears between the lines, which are carefully built and arranged to make the entire volume feel so immediate you may as well be in the room for every interaction. It may seem antithetical, but the memoirist who denies that their work is crafted has either written an exceedingly boring book, or is lying. Craft, in the end, is what reveals truth, and The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook is a masterwork of that. Not all cookbooks would benefit from the Mission treatment, but, perhaps, quite a few memoirs would.

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