Brooklyn. Chef and Restaurateur, Danny Bowien, on How Healthy Culinary Choices Have Influenced His Career. 

In the past, you’ve mentioned what seems like a cross between a mantra and therapeutic physical training that has helped you through tough moments in your career. You’ve said, “Failure is an opportunity to grow” and through this, “we develop the muscle and get stronger.” At what point did you make these connections to physical health, and how have they been helpful?

 I’m 36. I woke up one day and realized that in the last 18 years, I’ve been using really unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with my stress. It just didn’t work for me anymore. I quit doing drugs and drinking a long time ago. Now, I know a fair amount of chefs that run. I made a connection to health and well-being because of my job, where I’ve been working in kitchens for a long time and I felt it was time to build myself up instead of tying myself down. I’ve spent plenty of time overeating, over drinking, and not taking care of myself. It’s not sustainable for chefs who are always looking for the most sustainable path [in their work]. It just goes hand and hand in what we do. [As chefs] we’re trying to make things more efficient and easier to execute to train our staff. When you’re teaching your cook a dish, you’re always trying to teach them shortcuts or the best way to do it. What’s interesting in my industry is we often think of ourselves as last. My job is really to provide service to people. I’m in the business to please. Anthony Bourdain said it so well, that restaurateurs and chefs are “in the pleasure business.” And a lot of times, the way we provide that for ourselves is in a harmful way. It’s not through health or exercise. It’s this realization and alignment I made for myself a few years ago.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of cutting out alcohol and taking care of yourself?

 Being able to wake up in the morning not feeling hungover. I feel it’s about recovery. I’m recovering much faster. My old routine would have been waking up and recovering the rest of the day. Now, that’s not my starting point. The benefits of alcohol no longer became benefits. By working through it, surrounding myself with positive people, and going to therapy, I realized that I’m at a point in my life where if something doesn’t work for me, I need to identify it. And sometimes you need to slow down to speed up. I tell people that all the time. I tell myself this all the time.

Do you feel your creative energy is synonymous with physical energy? Can one work without the other?

 I’ve muscled through many rolling dinner services and restaurant openings with zero gas in the tank. I use this analogy a lot with my son, who is almost five. Sometimes when he refuses to eat, I say you have put gasoline in your car or fuel in your tank, otherwise your car starts to break down. If you have been driving your car for a long time and haven’t changed the oil, your car breaks down. I’ve gotten through it before. I just opened a restaurant in Bushwick about two months ago and with my team there, it’s really difficult for them because it’s their baby and you want to be there. Your chefs and managers, too, want to come in on their day off. But I really do stress [to my team] to give more value to energizing ourselves, which means getting out of the restaurant. I think the most important thing is to look outside of your industry. It provides a lot of insight and context. You realize that just powering through is not sustainable [for any discipline]. I’ve done it for a long time and you can teach yourself how far you can push, but not to the point of breaking. 

Do you feel more creative after a workout?

 Yeah, I definitely do. Being able to check out and put your energy toward something that is healthy for yourself is important. I feel revived and creative. I feel happier. 

Do you focus on any intentions during your workout session? Or do you let your mind wander?
 There are days where you can’t shut off or detach from your stress. I wish I had the ability to go into something completely unplugged. I acknowledge when my mind wants to drift to something that’s bothering me, but I do push myself harder to put my energy toward working that out. 

How has the shift in focus in your personal well-being affected the way you think about your food?
 I think about food in a more healthy way. The food that I make reflects what I’m into. A lot of the dishes are more vegetable-based plus heavy on the proteins. I’ve been eating more of a vegetable-based diet.

No more fried chicken?
 Everything in moderation.

Stress levels can get high in a restaurant kitchen. What helps keep your balance to stay present? How do you encourage that among your team?

 I think do everything in moderation and also with patience. These are two of the most difficult things to exhibit, especially in my industry and while everything is so driven by technology and social media. There’s a struggle to stay present and understand that time actually passes slower when you think it’s passing fast, which has helped me to be patient. In the past when we were trying to get new dishes out overnight, you realize you’re not really exercising through your idea before putting it on the menu. Sometimes you put it on and it’s golden, but behind that was impatience, youth, and ego. That all feeds into stress levels and the balance of being moderate, conserving your energy on both a creative and physical level, and also being patient with yourself and your process. The biggest thing I’ve learned in my industry is that failure is definitely a part of growth and a part of your narrative. Like exercising, it’s painful. There’s a point where you can push yourself during exercise where it could lead to actual injury and there’s a recovery time where you can’t work out or do things you love to do.


Editor: Chloë Richards Rubenstein
Photography: Mustafah Abdulaziz

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