Text by Caroline Ryder
Photography by Estevan Oriol
FOUNDER OF THE EPONYMOUS MR. CHOW RESTAURANT CHAIN LOOKS FOR MASTERPIECES IN ALL AREAS OF LIFE, BE THEY IN MODERN ART, DECO FURNITURE OR NOODLES.
Mr. Chow is an aesthete, PR showman, networker, collector and culture maven, his many success stories—from his collection of eponymous Mr. Chow restaurants, to his worldclass art collection, to his handpicked circle of jet-setter friends from Andy Warhol to Mick Jagger—all informed by a simple philosophy. It’s called Qiao Mer (pronounced “Chowmer”), and it means special technique, know-how or knack; the notion that every last detail is perfectly planned and executed so as to reflect the universal plan. “Mother Theresa says if you clean the toilet with love you will find God there,” he says by typically dry means of explanation. “What she said is true, though. Nothing is trivial. Every detail matters. And so, sometimes, nothing is so important as cleaning the toilet.”
Indeed, Mr. Chow’s restaurant business, founded 45 years ago, has sprouted according to that notion—that each detail should be a reflection of the grand plan. “My restaurants are always controlled environments,” says Chow. “Everything has a focus, every detail, even the way a waiter puts a glass on the table, is thought through.” So the body language of his wait staff, the lighting, the chair upholstery—all are somehow a reflection of Mr. Chow’s very soul? The hyperbole, of course, is by design, as much a part of the Mr. Chow experience as the delicious noodles on the plate. Think of the food as a Qiaodriven reflection of this larger-than-life persona, 74 years in the making.
Born Michael Chow in Shanghai, China, in 1939, he is the son of the Peking Opera Grand Master Zhou Xinfang, who was already a star by the age of 7. His sister is actress and former Bond girl Tsai Chin. His mother was a tea heiress. At the age of 13 he was sent to a British boarding school. He never saw his family again—Zhou Xinfang was imprisoned, and his mother killed, during Chairman Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.
He studied architecture at St. Martin’s in London and tried to launch himself as a painter, completing 300 to 400 works in a period of eight years and achieving some gallery acclaim. But he struggled to succeed as a painter. “I quit, basically. There was no support system for me because I am Chinese. That is a truth. Jean-Michel Basquiat, before him there were no black painters in the art world he inhabited. And there was no support system for me in London because I am Chinese. And no support system in China, where blood was running through the streets… it’s hard to have much culture in those conditions.”
Thanks to his architecture background, he also worked as a designer and in 1965 designed Smith and Hawes hair salon on London’s Sloane Avenue, which was sold to Leonard of London, the hairdresser who made a star out of Twiggy. He continued to design boutiques and restaurants in London. In his early 20s, while still trying to succeed as a painter, Chow came up with an idea to bridge East and West and demonstrate the greatness of China in a way that London would appreciate.
In 1968, the first Mr. Chow restaurant opened in Knightsbridge, offering Chinese food served by Italian waiters with an easyto- understand menu. “No one on this earth truly understands Chinese food because it is so complex, so sophisticated,” he says. “There are so many ways to make an egg, not just boiled, scrambled or fried. The culinary vocabulary is so complex. I wanted to make a statement about how great China is and how great Chinese food is.” A Beverly Hills location soon followed in 1974, and then Midtown New York at 57th Street in 1978.
“I really wanted to communicate my roots and culture when I launched Mr. Chow, which involves theater, food and art. But mainly it was to bridge the East and West.” Mr. Chow instinctively knew that a restaurant is only as successful as its clientele, and thus set about creating a Studio 54 of fine dining. His fabulous friends from the worlds of art and fashion became fixtures at his restaurants, and each bite of a meal at Mr. Chow seemed coated with that glamour. In fact, as he once told a British newspaper, he is less in the restaurant business than “the glamour business.”
Today, Larry Gagosian, Mick Jagger and L’Wren Scott, Ed and Danna Ruscha, Angelica Huston and Robert Graham, and Balenciaga designer Nicolas Ghesquière frequent Mr. Chow’s establishments. Back in the day, it was the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. John Lennon ate his last meal out at Mr. Chow New York. Andy Warhol would order food to be polite and just push it around, so in the end Mr. Chow would serve him an empty plate. Basquiat enjoyed the wine list while sketching figures at the restaurant. Groucho Marx once came and had a hamburger delivered—proof, if there ever was, that Mr. Chow’s was a place to see and be seen, even more so than a place to order food.
Peter Blake—the pop artist who designed the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album cover—was the first of many artists to draw or paint Mr. Chow, resulting in a now-famous collection of portraits of the proprietor. Keith Haring loved the green prawns, which he immortalized when he drew a portrait of Mr. Chow as his own green prawns. Warhol made a black-andwhite silkscreen of Chow in 1984. Julian Schnabel did a large oil portrait of Chow in 1985, on a canvas of broken, painted Yet there are a few portraits Mr. Chow prizes above all the rest. Minimalist artist Dan Flavin made an ink sketch of him at the erstwhile Los Angeles restaurant L’Orangerie, which he signed and gave to Chow. “It is one of my treasures,” he says.
A second treasure is a double happiness Buddha signed by Andy Warhol and given to him on his birthday. And perhaps his favorite piece of all—an ink painting by the great Chinese artist Qi Baishi commemorating his father and his 50 years on stage as an opera singer, called “50 Years of Stage Life Celebration.” “Why I treasure these three objects so much? Well, it is because all of them were free, of course.” He pauses for effect before erupting in laughter.
This smart, self-conscious wit is as much a part of Mr. Chow’s carefully crafted persona as are the noodles, the artsy friends and those round, owlish glasses of his. About those glasses, made for him by Cutler & Gross in London: He adopted them in homage to the architect and artist Le Corbusier and renowned French Art Deco designer Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann. (He owns one of the largest collections of Ruhlmann’s furniture in the world.) The glasses do more than pay homage, though; they help Mr. Chow become visually memorable or iconic. “For me this is ‘trade dressing,’ just like Andy Warhol with his wig and Don King with the hair and the cigar,” he says. “Also, and this is serious and a little sad to say—but it detracts a little from my Chineseness, which has been necessary at times.” When he explained his trade dressing as a means of overcoming cultural and racial stereotyping to a reporter at London’s Telegraph, he was mocked for it, the reporter going so far as to call him pathetic. But Mr.
Chow was perhaps more realistic about the true (and ongoing) history of racism than the reporter—let’s not forget that fear of miscegenation remains alive and well, and that until very recently, in the 1950s, it was illegal for a Chinese man to legally marry a white woman in California. Such realities, ugly as they may be, are as thought provoking to Mr. Chow as a Ruhlmann artwork. “I collect racism every day. Every day. Because I am a collector.
Also, I have learned how to use that prejudice and weakness.” He has a complicated relationship with Chinoiserie, for example—the decorative style created in the West and inspired by Chinese artistic tradition. It is art in which “all the women are dragon ladies and prostitutes, and all the men have Fu Manchu mustaches,” says Chow. It’s the kind of art you can find in many of his restaurants, though; he set aside his personal feelings for the aesthetic. “Chinoiserie was a very racist kind of thing,” he says. “But it has its own evil grooviness.” In the 1980s, fashion designer Giorgio Armani went to Mr. Chow in New York and was so impressed with the owner’s flair for architectural design that he gifted tuxedos to all the wait staff and invited Mr. Chow to design Armani’s Rodeo Drive boutique in 1987 and later, in 1999, the Giorgio Armani boutique at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.
Mr. Chow’s personal life has been as glamorous as his public endeavors. He was married to Vogue’s Grace Coddington, then to supermodel Tina Chow (who died of AIDS in 1992, two years after their split) and is now married to Korean-American fashion designer Eva Chun, who wore a Vivienne Westwood gown when they married and is as intriguing and glamorous as her husband.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Chun was invited at age 11 to study with two great masters of Korean traditional watercolor, Byun Kwan Sik and Kim Eun Ho. Her art training ended when her family moved to the U.S. in 1994. She enrolled at the Otis Parsons School of Design in Los Angeles, where she created a small collection of simple evening dresses and tailored suits and showed it to a buyer for Neiman Marcus, who placed an order and launched Chun’s career as a fashion designer. Chun opened her flagship showroom in 550 Seventh Avenue in New York, joined CFDA in 1991 and was touted as “one of the top five young designers in America” by Bernadine Morris, fashion writer for The New York Times .
The following year Chun and Mr. Chow married and shortly afterward Chun left Seventh Avenue behind to have their daughter, Asia Chow, who was born in 1994. Mr. Chow also has a daughter, China, and son, Maximillian, from his previous marriage. For the last decade or so he’s lived with Eva and Asia in the impeccable L.A. mansion he designed, filled with one of the world’s most impressive private collections of contemporary art.
“I have no idea how to develop a good eye, but I can say the following—there are four things to being a great collector. One, courage. Two, money. Three, knowledge. And four, the eye. These are the four things one should possess, although you can get away with three.” (It is also worth mentioning that Mr. Chow collects shoes, and has kept every pair of shoes he has ever owned. He owns several of the Duke of Windsor’s slippers and shoes, which he bought at auction.)
While the art collection may be impressive—think Keith Tyson, Peter Blake, Nam June Paik, a two-story Keith Haring mural and a 1973 portrait of Mr. Chow by Ed Ruscha made entirely from food—the house itself could be considered something of a masterpiece. Modeled on the Museo de Arte Reina Sofia, it features a study that is paneled floor-to-ceiling in macassar ebony, a 16th-century Belgian tapestry and a collection of Émile- Jacques Ruhlmann deco furniture that is among the world’s most comprehensive. There is a leather-lined elevator that is identical to the one in Hermès in Beverly Hills, which he designed. He says the guest bathroom is among his favorite rooms in the house.
“It’s a necessity, and that’s why I love it very much,” he quips. His wife Eva has ascribed the beauty of the home to its perfect proportion. “Eva is quoting Mondrian,” says Chow. “Mondrian said if the world had perfect proportion there would be no war. Proportion is everything. When you have perfect proportion you can’t help but strive for harmony. You must have alignment. Even colors have to be aligned. You have to have a lot of discipline structurally to design, and you cannot deviate. If you do, you will be all over the place, in a disorientated house, and you won’t be able to put your finger on why. But if you are true to the work, so to speak, then God will reward you, with the chance of masterpiece.”
And this, perhaps, is what Chow has been striving for all his life. The chance of masterpiece. But living life so acutely aware of just how perfect it could be can’t be the most relaxing way to live. Perhaps that is why after more than 40 years, Mr. Chow is painting again, revisiting the work that he gave up so many years ago when he became a businessman, host, art-world figure,designer and man about town. “Yes it’s true that I stress all day long,” he says. “But things are never out of place.”