(CNN)Chef Danny Bowien isn't trying to traumatize diners.
His tongue-numbing, eye-watering Sichuan cuisine is not "challenging for the sake of being challenging," Bowien said. There's no wall of fame for daring to dine.
But dishes such as the chile-heaped Chongqing Chicken Wings have a grip on consumers, inspiring hours-long waits at Bowien's Mission Chinese Food in New York.
"When I brought my good friend Eric Ripert here, he took one bite of these chicken wings and ran for the bathroom in a state of real alarm," Bowien fan Anthony Bourdain said as a warning to Anderson Cooper.
"But he did call me the next day, first thing in the morning, and say, 'You know those chicken wings? I've been thinking about them. We have to go back.' "
Not everyone is such a fan of the eclectic eatery Bourdain calls "the most fun restaurant in New York."
"We're a very controversial restaurant," Bowien said. "Some people love us. A lot of people hate us."
Bowien doesn't take it personally anymore.
He's not aiming for mass appeal, but he likes offering different experiences for different palates, all under one roof.
"It's like the best record store. It's not just indie stuff. It's not just Top 40," he said.
In addition to off-the-charts spicy dishes, he also revels in unexpected offerings such as prime rib topped with drawn butter and king crab legs, served from a vintage 1960s cart.
A chef is born
Korean-American Bowien's upbringing informs his evolving tastes.
Bowien, who is adopted, is the only Asian member of his Oklahoma City family.
Meals growing up centered around Hamburger Helper, stuffed cabbage, meatballs and tacos. He was 19 when he had his first authentic Korean food.
In his mid-20s, post culinary-school, he discovered Sichuan Chinese cuisine when he was working at fine-dining restaurants in San Francisco.
He and his friends gravitated toward food on the other end of the spectrum from what they made at work, and Sichuan food presented a fresh challenge for Bowien.
As a chef, he could frequently decode how things were made.
"But when I would go eat Sichuan food, it was the first time in a long time that I'd gone somewhere and been like, 'I have no idea what I'm tasting, how I'm tasting it, what these flavors are and how to actually do some of these things,' " he said.
So he learned.
He started cooking Sichuan cuisine at a San Francisco pop-up eatery inside a Chinese restaurant, and Mission Chinese Food was born.
In 2013, he won a James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year.
Now, at 33, Bowien has three restaurants: Mission Chinese Food restaurants in New York and San Francisco and New York's Mission Cantina, which serves both Mexican and Chinese food.
Bowien seems to be loving it and gaining confidence as he goes.
He's bounced back from a humbling closure of Mission Chinese in New York for health violations shortly after it opened.
He plays in a band, as the drummer for Narx. And he's a husband and father who finds time to SoulCycle.
Bowien appears surprised by his trajectory.
Before he headed to culinary school, largely for the opportunity to live in San Francisco, he worked in an optometrist's office and played music.
But Bowien used to tell his mom, who died when he was a teenager, that he'd open a restaurant.
"You're like, 'Oh, one day I'll do this or one day I'll do that. I'm going to be an astronaut,' " he said.
"I'm sure there's a few astronauts out there that said that when they were younger and they're there now like, 'Yeah, I didn't really think this was going to happen, but it did.' "