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The Sayings of Chairman Chow

From left, portraits of Michael Chow by David Hockney and Jean-Michel Basquiat.  

And so food was the language Chow used to communicate with his past. “I needed to get acceptance. It sounds corny, but that’s the total desire, even today.” In those pre-fusion days, Chinese food was all schlocky chinoiserie, and it was cheap. “I wanted Chinese culture to have respectability and acceptance,” Chow says. “It is all, basically, to get respect.”

The concept was to serve sophisticated Chinese food in a European setting, with white tablecloths, good silver, Italian waiters, and high prices. (“One way to get respect!” Chow says with a giggle.) “People say it is not politically correct, why no Chinese waiters, why only forks?” Chow says. “But I wanted it all user-friendly. I wanted the best pieces of everything.”

And, of course, his glamorous friends came, ate, and hung around. Chow would trade food for art—the restaurant was as dense with works by Dine and Smith as London’s best galleries.

“My whole relationship to China is mixed. When you are uprooted as a child, there is a great shock, and one protects oneself. But remember! There are no bad times.”

“There was a scene,” says Anjelica Huston, “and he was the scene-maker.”

In 1971, Chow was introduced to Bettina Lutz, a model who was famous as one of the first Eurasian faces to make it in fashion. (Her father was an American soldier who met her Japanese mother during the occupation.) The designer Zandra Rhodes made the match happen. Lutz was sheltered, shy, and twelve years younger than Chow. In 1973, they were married. At their reception (at, naturally, Mr. Chow), Bianca Jagger and Tatum O’Neal showed up together, both carrying canes. In 1974, Chow and Lutz had a daughter, whom they named China.

Chow opened his restaurant in Beverly Hills in 1974. Billy Wilder became a regular, and so did Huston, who would eat with her new boyfriend, Jack Nicholson. In 1978, the Chow family grew again, with a son they named Maximillian.

The Chows moved to New York in 1978 to open another restaurant. At this point, Tina Chow was an icon, muse to photographers like Helmut Newton and Steven Meisel. Her personal style was legendary enough to earn an exhibit at FIT and to inspire Giorgio Armani and Karl Lagerfeld to borrow her ideas.

As a couple, they were formidable: charming, gorgeous, the center of every party. They bought an apartment above the 57th Street restaurant and decorated it with an exquisite collection of Art Deco furniture, specifically pieces by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann. As hosts, they attracted the most glittering crowd. Andy Warhol held court at a long table several times a week. “Andy never ate,” Chow says, “but he would push his food around.”

In 1985, smack in the middle of all this excess, Chow visited China for the first time in his adult life. He found that the sophisticated and artistic China had evaporated. “I always remembered Shanghai as full of light,” Chow says, “and now it was like the whole city had only one lightbulb.” From the remaining members of his family, he heard stories of the torture and abuse that had killed his parents. “I can’t remember how I heard, who told me,” Chow says, “but I knew.”

Back in New York, he fell into a depression. Instead of playing host, he installed a closed-circuit television in the restaurant that he would watch from upstairs. Tina played hostess to her own menagerie of her own friends, many of whom were famous, gay, and fashionable. Eventually, the marriage fell apart.

Tina Chow became involved with Richard Gere, who introduced her to Buddhism and the Dalai Lama, and later with a bisexual French aristocrat named Kim d’Estainville. From d’Estainville, she contracted HIV—the first prominent heterosexual woman to have the disease.

“I will talk about anything,” Chow says now, “but not about that.”

By the time of Tina Chow’s death, Michael Chow had met and married Eva Chun, a Korean fashion designer with both elegance and moxie to rival Michael Chow’s: As a senior at Parsons School of Design, Chun hired a limo, filled it with her collection, and delivered it all to Linda Dresner (who had never even heard of Chun), who bought it on the spot. In Chun, Chow found acceptance and a comfortable, nurturing family.

“I’m so lucky that I have a partner that is very much like peaches and cream, two sides of the same coin. She is extraordinarily talented. Maybe more talented than me.” Chow pauses. “But just a little bit. Let’s not get ridiculous.”

Together, they built a house, designed by Michael, in the Holmby Hills, where they have assembled a new, equally exquisite collection of Ruhlmanns and become legendary hosts. Chow dazzles with his favorite parlor game: Name a movie, and he’ll describe, in vivid detail, its opening shot.

“From Eva, I’m learning about the finer things,” says Ratner, a regular guest. “I just watch them. You go to school for that—what is it called? Etiquette.”