What is your ideal office?
My ideal office is somewhere where I can think and be creative. A place that is really minimal and clean and zen. Like a studio, something with a lot of space, a room that is multi-functional, so I can use it as a practice space.
You are into fashion and your restaurants are all very playfully designed. How involved are you in the visual expression of your restaurants?
I’m 120 percent involved. We don’t have a designer. My design aesthetic for the restaurants is spontaneous, not super serious, and not too thought out. The first restaurant in San Fransisco was a pop-up, so we wanted to change things but we only changed it organically. I don’t want people to come in to a space that feels very stylized and artificial. So when we go into a place, we work on one room at a time and it will evolve from there. It says a lot about my personality and the food we make. There is a lot of evolution.
You grew up in Oklahoma City. How has the food of your home city affected your cooking?
I grew up in Oklahoma and there is something very comforting about the food there, it is American food. Barbeque is a really big deal in Oklahoma, lots of slow-cooked smoked meat, and in our restaurants we are smoking pork jells for six hours, we smoke prime ribs and then grill them in a wood oven. But more than anything, it is the comfort factor of eating food in Oklahoma that informs me today. Not being too serious, but trying to make everyone happy. In a way, my whole life has just been about making people happy. There is a lot of care, a lot of attention to detail that goes into our food, and even if our food can be challenging, hopefully it is comforting to eat and you feel nourished. I guess that’s how Oklahoma has an effect on me. You come in hungry and by the time you leave you are full and happy, and you had a good time.
You have a wide-ranging taste, cooking everything from sushi to Mexican to Americanized Chinese. What is the next cuisine on your plate?
It has been such a scramble opening three restaurants in three years. Coming to New York and opening a restaurant is not like opening a restaurant anywhere else, it is really a hustle and a challenge, so I think what is next is just maintaining the restaurants and making sure they perform exceptionally. We want to have some sort of legacy in New York and we’ve been lucky enough that people know about Mission restaurants. I’m not going to go off on another tangent and open up a Punjabi restaurant or something like that, even though that is a dream of mine, to open a vegetarian Indian restaurant. For now we are going to build on Mission Chinese and Mission Cantina. I want to do something no one has done and offer something that isn’t really offered in New York, like dollar tacos at Mission Cantina, making a really amazing product and not charging anything for it.
What is the good life?
I thought I was living the good life when I just moved to New York. I don’t even know how to explain what was happening, it was crazy. But people don’t understand that once you make it in New York you have to sustain it. I think the good life is being able to work and be happy at the same time. Work is what makes you happy, but you shouldn’t let it control you.
Where do you go to eat in New York?
When I first moved here, I ate three or four times a day out of sheer pleasure. I was like a kid in a candy store. I went to wd~50, all of Dave Chang’s restaurants, the list goes on. Momofuku Ko was crazy, it is really insane, the dining experience, the whole package. But after a while all the eating became kind of work for me and I had to take a step back and now I mostly go to more casual places. There is a small sushi bar I go to a lot, there is Saltie in Williamsburg for sandwiches, Roberta’s for pizza, and Superiority Burger is really doing some amazing things. But the place I go to the most is probably the little Punjabi deli on Houston Street. It is all vegetarian, really high quality. For me that place is what New York is all about.