The dark, banquet-hall–inspired dining room of Mission Chinese Food was a nonstop party. Night after night, diners packed the restaurant’s two-story space on East Broadway. They shared fiery dishes like mapo tofu and Mission’s signature Kung Pao pastrami. They drank cocktails laced with aloe vera and activated charcoal. They feasted on Josefina’s House Special Chicken, an entire boned-out bird stuffed with spiced pork sausage and soft-boiled eggs.
Things were different in the kitchen.
One night in 2016, chef de cuisine Quynh Le instructed a sous-chef to heat up a spoon by dipping it in hot oil. Le then took the broiling silverware and approached a dishwasher, who was Black. Le had been picking on the dishwasher since he started at the restaurant, calling him “Pimp Hand” and referring to Black employees as “boy.” Now he took the red-hot spoon and placed it directly on the man’s arm, searing his skin and causing him to cry out in pain. As employees watched in horror, Le looked a line cook straight in the eyes and asked, “What are you going to do about it?”
Hector Campos, who worked as a food runner at the restaurant, decided to speak up. He told Le that he couldn’t do that. Le responded by telling Campos, who was born in Mexico, that he couldn’t wait for Donald Trump to get elected so that “you can’t come back to this country.”
According to numerous former employees who spoke to Grub Street, the abusive behavior went unchecked for months. Employees were subjected to a barrage of racist insults. One night, when Luis Cuero, who is Black, came back in from smoking a cigarette, Le accused him of selling drugs and said, “I want half.” A former line cook says that Le called her a “sad excuse for an Asian person” when she wasn’t able to cook rice properly in a broken cooker. Working in the kitchen at Mission, she says, felt like living in “a nightmare you couldn’t wake up from.”
Over the past two years, in an industry-wide reckoning, a host of prominent restaurants have been exposed for their toxic work environments. But Mission Chinese Food was supposed to be different. Almost from the moment its first New York City location opened in 2012, its chef and owner Danny Bowien had publicly disavowed the macho bro culture of professional kitchens. He even recalled his own experiences with kitchen hazing, telling GQ he was a target of extensive verbal abuse at his first New York restaurant. Angela Dimayuga, the executive chef at Mission and Bowien’s second-in-command, built her own formidable profile by advocating for reform in the industry and evangelizing the need for mental wellness among cooks. As their fame grew to stratospheric levels, the two chefs presented a vision of a restaurant utopia, one where tolerance and inclusivity were the norm. Behind the scenes, however, their workers were subjected to an environment of mistreatment and hostility that infected the entire restaurant.
It was the hypocrisy, as much as the conduct itself, that outraged employees. “What was fascinating about the restaurant was that it just existed as a means to throw parties,” says Sadie Mae Burns, who started working at Mission as a line cook when she was 19. “Right off the bat you could tell no thought was being provided in terms of how employees were being treated.”
Mission Chinese Food opened in New York City in May, 2012, in a basement space on Orchard Street. Bowien built his reputation at the first location, in San Francisco, and his arrival in Manhattan was met with almost unprecedented levels of enthusiasm, while also signaling a shift about which types of restaurants received such hype. “When it landed in New York, it really hit me, how personally connected I felt to the idea of the restaurant,” says Francis Lam. “I knew how much Chinese-American takeout food is a symbol of people who look like me, Chinese immigrants, and how we have tried to eke out a living for ourselves as a community.” Lam, who is the editor-in-chief at the book publisher Clarkson Potter and host of “The Splendid Table,” continues, “That food wasn’t anything people thought was worthy of esteem, so to have this super-buzzy restaurant be a loving homage to it, just as a Chinese American, it made me feel so seen.”
The early excitement, it appeared, was warranted: In December of that year, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells wrote, “No other restaurant I reviewed this year left me feeling as exhilarated each time I got up from the table.”
The restaurant looked and felt like it had been thrown together in about a week. A paper dragon flew above the ramshackle dining room. The bar appeared to have been built with plywood. A keg of beer regularly sat near the front door. One bathroom was dedicated, for no apparent reason, to the show Twin Peaks. And the food coming out of the kitchen, Wells also wrote, “might taste very different from one night to the next.” The entire restaurant felt like a complete and total rejection of the restaurant world’s unofficial rules, right down to the culture in the kitchen. In 2012, Bowien told Grub Street, “I’m kinda tired of the macho-guy-chef thing. I don’t want to play ball tap in the kitchen. I don’t want to get hit in the balls every five minutes.”
In May 2013, Bowien — a culinary-school dropout who said he’d never even cooked Chinese food before opening Mission — won the James Beard Foundation’s prestigious “Rising Star Chef” award. But as it turned out, the dining room’s charmingly sloppy vibe was no act. New York City’s health department closed the restaurant in October 2013, citing a host of violations. A month later, the restaurant was closed again, never to reopen. At one point, Bowien hired an exterminator who reportedly found a “cesspool” of dead rodents in a storage closet that had been locked by the landlord. (A lawsuit against the landlord, eventually settled out of court, followed.)
Andy Keith, a cook at the Orchard Street restaurant, says the kitchen was “a shitshow.” It was not uncommon for employees to work double shifts for 18 hours straight. When Dimayuga interviewed Keith about working at Mission’s follow-up location, which would open in a larger space on the edge of Chinatown in 2014, she told him she planned to overhaul the operation. “We want a completely new kitchen culture,” he recalls her saying, “and we want to be sure this is a professional thing now.”
Her plan, she told Keith, was to instill a classic “French brigade system” with a “rigid structure in terms of how everything is done.” The culture, Dimayuga said, would be “no bullshit,” with zero tolerance for derogatory language and harassment, and Dimayuga would run the kitchen with no outside interference. In a 2017 interview, she recalled telling Bowien at the time of the restaurant’s reopening, “Danny, you’re going to act as founder and owner. You don’t need to know about any of my line cooks. This is my team. This is how I want it to start.” Bowien agreed: “She wanted free rein and I gave it to her. I trusted her to run the restaurant.”
Critics agreed that the new restaurant felt like a more professional operation. In his follow-up review, written in 2015, Wells opined that Mission Chinese Food had become, “against the odds and to almost everybody’s benefit, a nearly normal restaurant.” In New York, Adam Platt wrote that Bowien’s “real genius is for creating a grand sense of occasion, and at this larger, more sophisticated Mission outlet, you get the impression that he finally has a proper New York stage to call his own.”
At first, new employees were thrilled by the promise of professionalism and inclusivity. “Have you ever seen the Studio 54 documentary — just how badly people wanted to be there?” says Eti Emokpae, who worked as a captain at Mission in 2015 and 2016. “Everyone wanted to be there. People felt cool being there.” But, she adds, it didn’t take long for the appeal to wear off. “In the beginning, it was a little bit of a high, so you can excuse a lot of bad shit that’s going on. But that’s a bubble — and that bubble burst for me very quickly.”
After the second Times review, former employees say, Dimayuga and Bowien showed up at the restaurant far less often — sometimes disappearing for weeks at a time. “It was always a thing where it was like, ‘Oh, where’s Angela? Where’s Angela?’” Emokpae says. “It was like a running joke that she was not around, unless it was something that served her.” The situation also created, according to Emokpae and other former employees, a leadership vacuum.
Dimayuga doesn’t dispute that she was often absent. During that time, she says, her job was to focus on off-site events, and she increasingly took on more of an “ambassador” role for the restaurant. Keith says that Bowien’s hands-off management allowed Dimayuga to take the same approach. “The two of them being gone,” he says, “left this nightmare behind, and that was Quynh Le.”
Keith remembers the way Dimayuga introduced Le to the staff. “This is my guy,” she told them, “my hand-chosen dream collaborator.” The two had worked together at the Brooklyn restaurant Vinegar Hill House, and the rumor was that they’d grown up together in San Jose. Dimayuga says they didn’t know each other as children, but she presented Le as a model of professionalism. “My chef de cuisine, Quynh, is expediting most nights, and he’s really doing a good job,” she told Grub Street in January 2016. “Everything starts at the top, so management is understanding that, for the rest of the business to function well, you need to set an example for your team.”
In reality, former employees say, Le embodied the toxic traits that Bowien and Dimayuga disavowed in public. “You couldn’t be in that kitchen without seeing that Quynh Le was a monster,” Keith continues. He says this started from “day one,” and remembers one instance when Le threatened to strike him because he had “reached in front of him to grab a sizzle tray or something stupid.”
“If you do that again,” Le told him, “I’m going to fucking hit you.”
“Sorry, reaching, my bad,” Keith apologized.
“Don’t talk back,” Le snapped.
Keith says Le wouldn’t let it go. “It happened again about a minute later, and he squared up and had his fist drawn and was like, ‘I’m going to punch you in the fucking face.’ I was like, ‘You’re my boss, you can’t do that.’”
Worst of all, Keith adds, Bowien and Dimayuga personally witnessed the moment, and failed to intervene. “Danny and Angela were there,” he recalls, “and they said nothing.”
In response to a question about this incident, Bowien wrote, “I do not recall the specific incident with Andy but I do not deny that things like that happened in my presence, and I was not fully absorbing the situations as they happened.” Dimayuga says that she doesn’t remember the exact details of the night.
In addition to hurling racist insults at the staff, Le subjected employees to grueling schedules. According to Cuero, who started as a porter, the restaurant’s dishwashers were “worked like dogs.” It was not uncommon for Cuero and other porters to work until 4 a.m. before coming back to open at 8 a.m. — a turnaround that’s known in the industry as a “clopen.”
What’s more, two women who worked as line cooks say they were subjected to comments about their breasts. One male cook who worked at the restaurant early on confirmed there was a lot of inappropriately sexual humor, and Keith alleges that Le frequently told him to “wash his dick,” a reference that Keith understood to mean his girlfriend was somehow dirty.
Dimayuga, for her part, says she never heard about the spoon burning incident. “I hadn’t heard of behavior this bad before, period,” she says. But word did reach her that Le was behaving inappropriately. “I got reports from other upper management of his bad behavior,” she says. “I admittedly — what I have a lot of remorse for — I struggled objectively navigating this, because I wrongly hoped he would reform.”
In the end, Bowien and the restaurant’s co-owners pressured Dimayuga to fire Le. “I engaged with that, I actively took part, sitting down with Danny,” she says. Le was dismissed in February 2017. (A month before Dimayuga would gain national acclaim for publicly refusing to take part in an interview on IvankaTrump.com.) “I never spoke to Quynh again,” she says.
Le didn’t respond to Grub Street’s requests for comment, but in a statement posted to his Instagram, he addressed his time at the restaurant. “I take full responsibility for my hurtful behavior and contribution to the toxic culture,” he wrote. “While this is not an excuse, pressures running a very busy, high profile restaurant coupled with my lack of management experience caused me to act out of character.”
When Le was fired, Dimayuga says she took charge. “After he left, I started to run the kitchen again to rehabilitate it,” she says. “For me personally,” Dimayuga adds, “I really wanted this formal structure in place so that this would never happen again.”
Employees, however, say that Le’s dismissal did not change things all that much in the kitchen, and that Dimayuga wasn’t around for very long. Instead, a sous-chef named Angelo Kinget was put in charge of the back of house, and the atmosphere remained. “When Quynh left, I thought, Oh, they’re gonna change,” says Campos, the former food runner. “But chef Angelo took his position, and it didn’t. I was like, No, I’m not staying here.”
Kate Telfeyan — who worked in the kitchen of the Manhattan location at the time, and eventually became head chef at a new Brooklyn location — recalls one night of unusually bad behavior, a night that became “legend” among staff. Kinget was expediting, a crucial job in the kitchen that involves organizing the timing of orders and relaying that information to the cooks. “He was on expo, showed up drunk, just out of his mind, and was being a total tyrant,” says Telfeyan. It was an especially busy night, and Kinget grew increasingly frustrated with tickets piling up, losing his place. Telfeyan recalls Kinget “aggressively” tossing plates back at her while she tried to work, and banging the pass so hard that dishes would fall off.
“I was just so taken aback in the moment,” Telfeyan says. “Nobody was safe from him. I had one of the worst nights I’ve ever worked in a kitchen.”
A former sous-chef remembers it similarly, saying the plates were jumping off the surface as Kinget banged away. “It was probably the single most insane thing I’ve ever experienced in my career,” the sous-chef says. Eventually, a manager contacted Dimayuga, but she was so afraid she didn’t even want to hand the phone to Kinget. Dimayuga told Kinget to go home, but he was not fired that night.
Of the evening, Kinget says that “the cooks were moving really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really slow” and that, after a manager came down, he “kind of lost it.” Kinget denies throwing plates back at cooks or coming into work drunk, but says he understands why he shouldn’t have acted the way that he did. “I came up in kitchens where I was just used to stuff being thrown at me,” he says. “Like I said, maybe they were just too sensitive about it.”
Keith says the behavior he saw in the kitchen at Mission has permanently informed the choices he has made since leaving: “Everything I’ve done in my career, as far as how I conduct myself as a chef, is: What would we not have done at Mission Chinese Food?”
Cooks who spoke with Grub Street acknowledge that both Le and Kinget were given responsibilities — as chef de cuisine and sous-chef, respectively — beyond their prior experience, and that they were handling some responsibilities that would traditionally fall to an executive chef. But that, the employees emphasize, did not excuse the behavior, and management did nothing concrete to address the situation, even when specific concerns were raised. Bowien and Dimayuga seemingly didn’t “want to be themselves responsible for the things they’re trying to hire out or promote someone else to do,” Telfeyan says. “So they just put someone else in a position because it’s convenient, without any regard as to what that means for the rest of the organization.”
Despite Bowien’s absence — and his expectation that people at the restaurant would handle problems themselves — many still don’t see how he could possibly have remained ignorant of what was going on at Mission. “I just don’t understand,” Emokpae says. “If you’re putting someone in charge, how you can kind of be blissfully unaware of these huge things that are happening?”
Despite all the behind-the-scenes ugliness, Mission Chinese Food continued to project a seductively progressive image to the world. Several queer and BIPOC employees say they were excited to work at a restaurant where the kitchen was headed by a queer woman of color. “If anybody made me feel seen working for the restaurant and made me feel proud to work there, it was Angela and the association that came with working for her,” says one former front-of-the-house employee who asked not to be named. “If there’s anything she did provide there, it was visibility to anyone who worked there who was queer and a person of color and the opportunity to be approachable.”
Other queer staff members say that the feeling of inclusion promoted by Dimayuga was not universal. “The narrative of it being this super-queer, super-comfortable space was something she really pushed,” a former server named Bayley Blaisdell says. “It did not feel like that space actually really honored queer identity — it honored queer fashionable identity.”
Erin Lang, a former server, also disputes the restaurant’s queer identity, and says Dimayuga could be a cold presence in the restaurant. “She wasn’t very friendly to me or a lot of other people there,” Lang says. “I don’t know if it was because I was a Black server and I wasn’t as important to her, or I didn’t fit into the narrative of what they wanted as a server at Mission Chinese.”
Lang and others say that the turmoil in the kitchen extended to the dining-room staff, where employees felt mistreated by Adrianna Varedi, who worked as a server and was eventually promoted to general manager, and her assistant GM, Jane Hem. “Adrianna enjoyed bullying us and humiliating us,” alleges one former employee who worked as a food runner and server. Another front-of-house worker describes Varedi as “kind of the person who drives this trauma.” Asked about employees’ claims of bullying, Varedi says, “When new standards are being upheld, it’s going to cause a little bit of backlash … I definitely never had any intent to bully anyone or make them feel bad.”
“I used to see people crying, people literally sobbing,” Lang says. On one occasion — according to a former employee, and as detailed in a 2018 class-action lawsuit filed against the restaurant — Hem allegedly compared Lang’s hair to “grinch’s fingers.” Employees say that allegations of discrimination in the dining room — specifically anti-Black racism — were brought up a number of times to management, including in an HR meeting with Hem and Varedi. (Reached by Grub Street, Hem declined to comment.)
Lang and Blaisdell also say that Mission’s lineups — the daily preservice meetings that are common in all restaurants — were uniquely “intense” when Varedi ran them. “A lot of the bussers have language barriers,” Lang explains, “and she would make fun of them for that.” Blaisdell calls Varedi’s lineups “drill sergeant–style.” She “would cold-call people and then mock them when they didn’t know the answers to questions they were asked.”
If anything, the disconnect between Mission’s idealized image and its day-to-day reality was even more stark in the front of house. Employees expressed concerns about who was hired for higher-earning positions, saying brown employees were often passed over for promotions. “It was ironic,” Lang says, “because we were supposed to be this super-inclusive, multiracial, fun workplace, and it was everything but that.”
Dimayuga left the restaurant in October 2017 — the same year Danny Bowien was featured on the TV series Mind of a Chef — after what she describes as a “confrontation” that took place when Bowien told her that he was opening a new Mission Chinese Food in Brooklyn. Bowien asked Dimayuga to be involved, but she says she turned the offer down immediately because Bowien had previously shelved their plans to open another restaurant where Dimaguya would be given a bigger role. “Frankly,” she says, “I felt really betrayed.”
After learning of Dimayuga’s impending resignation, the restaurant’s beverage director, Sam Anderson, wrote her an email. “The staff and kitchen you were entrusted with,” he told her, “have been in a state of ever-deepening chaos as a result of leadership not showing up.”
Kinget was fired from the restaurant when Dimayuga left, but the situation among workers did not improve, especially in the front of house.
In November 2017, Mission Chinese Food hired a new, non-Black employee for the job of captain, which Lang had occupied until March, when she says she was told the position was being eliminated. “That’s when things started to get ugly,” Lang recalls. Eventually she and other employees decided to speak up. They were met with firings and fewer hours. “It was supposed to be this cool scene, hip place, where it was open-minded and cool to work,” Lang says. “And that all got put to the back burner because upper management was, I guess, too busy dealing with their celebrity status or whatever drama they had.”
By 2018, Lang and other workers felt so frustrated that they filed a lawsuit. “What else are we gonna do?” she says. “We’re gonna sue. Nobody’s listening to us.” The class-action suit, which included Blaisdell, Ilana Engelberg, and Zayn Shaikh, describes the restaurant as “a hotbed of racial discrimination,” including slurs and racist comments used against Black and Latino employees, where workers often faced “harsh retaliation” from their bosses. Dimayuga was not named in the suit, since she had left the restaurant, and the lawsuit was eventually settled. Mission Chinese Food’s Manhattan location closed for good in September, but the Brooklyn location, recently rebranded simply as “Mission,” remains open, as does the location in San Francisco.
When reached by Grub Street, Bowien initially referred to a July episode of the podcast Feeling Asian, co-hosted by his ex-wife Youngmi Mayer, where he addressed the allegations in the lawsuit, confirming “many of them are true.” Bowien and Mayer, who was involved in opening the restaurant’s Manhattan location, also discuss specific instances of his behavior, with the chef recounting the time he “threw, like, a butane burner at a line cook” and saying, “There’s no excuse.”
On the podcast, Bowien also addressed the idea that he presented one face to the public while running a very different operation in private, acknowledging that staff members “signed up for something that we were selling, but behind closed doors wasn’t actually happening.”
But that didn’t put an end to the saga. Last month, details of the internal conflict became very public when Mayer alleged in an Instagram post that Dimayuga was aware of and hid abusive behavior by Le. Mayer also shared a series of anonymous statements from employees about Dimayuga, as well as the 2017 email sent by Anderson.
To some who lived through the ordeal, the social-media conflict between Bowien and Dimayuga seemed like an attempt to distance themselves from the restaurant culture they created. “They have just a really complicated, sort of toxic relationship,” Mayer says.
“It feels really distinctly like a race to cover one’s ass in terms of their involvement in this,” Blaisdell says of the public rehashing. “I think all of the people who are talking about it were directly complicit in the structure that allowed this to happen.”
All of the people who spoke with Grub Street say the abuse cannot be pinned to any single individual. Instead, they say, it’s an example of the kind of toxic behavior that is common throughout the industry. “A lot of this would be better if there were actual mechanisms for restaurant workers to collectively address their workplace concerns,” says one of the plaintiffs behind the 2018 lawsuit. “The only reason we had to file a lawsuit was because there was no other mechanism for us to voice our concerns, and we didn’t have any collective power. I think some of the people who are involved in this aren’t really seeing it as a bigger picture in terms of workers in general.” What happened at Mission Chinese Food should, some say, serve as a warning as the industry looks to rebuild in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Even though the restaurant is now closed, the lingering effects of the emotional damage remain. It was, in the end, a complete failure of leadership, with employees left to suffer the abuse as management were off promoting themselves in the public eye. “Completely shirking their duties,” Emokpae says. “The job didn’t stop for the rest of us — we didn’t have the option to just disappear.”