The Sayings of Chairman Chow

Photo: Roger Deckker

On the first warm day of spring, Michael Chow, the restaurateur, was walking up Madison Avenue when he was stopped by the son of a friend, who said to him, “Mr. Chow, the last time we met, you told me something. I still repeat it all the time. You told me that whatever is difficult, heavy, and expensive must be good. And you told me that whatever comes to the senses quickly goes quickly.”

Mr. Chow is retelling the story a day later over many courses at Nobu, where he is settled into a booth wearing a pin-striped, bespoke Hermès suit. He looks far younger than his 67 years, particularly when he smiles and crinkles his nose, which lifts his round glasses past the tops of his neatly trimmed eyebrows.

The lessons Mr. Chow shared with the young man are two favorites in a vocabulary heavy on koans. (The first is his own, the second he regularly borrows from Rothko.)

“I say, ‘Very good,’ ” he continues. “ ‘Now I have another. It’s quite deep, but someday you will get it. Whatever is true, opposite truer.’ ”

And then Chow left the boy and walked on toward the Whitney, where the Biennial would strike him as very “whatever.” Later, he went to an auction of contemporary Chinese art.

“China,” he says with a smile, pointing a chopstick for emphasis, “no longer in decline.”

Michael Chow is an artist, this is for certain, but exactly what kind is harder to ascertain. He was trained as both an architect and a painter, yet he has not, for most of his adult life, painted. “It is too painful,” he explains. “Too much emotion. There is a hierarchy in art. Poetry, music, and painting are high art. Below this is architecture and everything else where you are governed by function.”

Instead of painting, he has created a world around him, full of ideas, people, spaces, all safely reined in by function, and also by his elaborate philosophies on life. For Chow, restaurants are complex and long-running installations set in theaters of his own careful design. The movements of his waiters—filling glasses, changing tablecloths, delicately deboning rare, fresh pieces of fish—are parts in an elaborate symphony of which he is, ultimately, the conductor.

Chow is in New York to expand. On May 4, he opens a new restaurant in Tribeca with a party for 400 of his closest friends. It’s Chow’s first major opening in almost 30 years, and he is calm about the whole thing. “There is always one way, only way.”

To eat at a Mr. Chow restaurant is to participate in a roving party, one that has migrated through four decades, three continents, and an awful lot of soup dumplings. It is to acknowledge that the rich and famous will get better tables than the rest of us, and everyone will have a better time for it. In his L.A. restaurant, Mae West got a standing ovation just for finishing her dinner. And it was at Mr. Chow on 57th Street that John Lennon took his last meal before walking home across the park. It was the center of London’s swinging sixties, L.A.’s silky seventies, and the glamorous debauch of the Manhattan art world, circa 1984. Mr. Chow on 57th Street is still a party—now starring Lenny Kravitz or Jay-Z—seven nights a week.

“It was like a car crash, our growing up there,” says Julian Schnabel, who set a crucial scene from his film Basquiat on the restaurant’s balcony. “I remember feeling sometimes like we’d been at someone’s parents’ house and we’d wrecked the place.”

For multiple generations, a visit to Mr. Chow was a kind of celebrity bar mitzvah. “The first time I went, I’m sitting there and right next to me you’ve got David Bowie,” says the director and producer Brett Ratner. “Sitting across from me is Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring. Madonna, too, and Francesco Clemente. It instantly became my favorite restaurant in the whole entire world.”

Mr. Chow is like a surfer, catching whatever cultural wave happens to be breaking. “Every city has a time,” Chow explains one morning in a high-floor suite at the Four Seasons. “The twenties was Berlin, the thirties was Paris and Shanghai. And then in the fifties, everything is Rome. And then in the sixties, it’s London. Then seventies in L.A., with Bob Evans, and then eighties art-world New York. We are always in the happening city.”

But there is not one happening city right now; rather, there are many—it’s a mobile culture where glamour shuttles constantly about—and so Chow will be on hand wherever the party lands (after opening in Tribeca, Chow will turn his attention to Miami and Las Vegas), serving up terribly expensive noodles on beautiful china with heavy silver and soft linen napkins like little blankets for your lap.

Photo: Roger Deckker

“Whatever is true to one’s time and one’s self and one’s dream lasts. Always, there is one way, only way. Whatever is personal is universal. Whatever creative process I do, it’s not me. The universe tells me what to do, and I listen. If you have a very good ear, you are very confident.”

Mr. Chow was born in Shanghai in 1939. His mother was a quarter Scottish, from a wealthy family whose fortune had been made in tea—though opium may have also been involved. Either way, the family was aristocratic and proper but also modern—Chow’s mother had a Western education and further proved her modernity when she shocked her family by running off with Chow’s father, Zhou Xinfang. Zhou was China’s most famous actor, the leading figure at the Peking Opera in Shanghai; he was married at the time and had three daughters. “My mother was from very high family,” Chow says, “and they looked down on my father. But my father was very great man.” The relationship caused massive ripples in Chinese society—a sensational combination of money and fame—but to Chow, it just meant a splendid childhood. “It was cars and servants,” Chow says. “And everyone wanted to know about our family.”

In 1952, with Mao consolidating his power, Chow, 13 and fluent only in Mandarin, was sent away to Wenlock Edge, a British boarding school (one of his sisters, Tsai Chin, an actress who has appeared in The Joy Luck Club and Memoirs of a Geisha, was sent abroad as well). “It was like Harry Potter, but without the magic,” Chow says. “Lonesome is not even the word.”

Chow never saw his father again—his mother only once more when she came to visit him in England. With the arrival of the Cultural Revolution, Chow’s family lost their belongings and their status. What he didn’t know at the time was the extent of the violence. The family’s books, art, and music were all burned. His glamorous mother was made to sweep the streets. His father spent a year in prison, during which time Chow’s mother, exhausted and sick, died. Chow’s brother, who had become an actor, spent five years in prison, where he was tortured regularly.

Chow’s memories of these times are spotty, perhaps by choice. “There has never been a proper mourning period,” Chow says. “So there has never been closure. It’s all piecemeal, ongoing. In 1995, they reinstated my father’s burial site and he was honored in Shanghai, and of course this was very helpful for me, but my whole relationship to China is mixed. When you are uprooted as a child, there is a great shock, and one protects oneself.”

But he snaps back to attention and grins. “But remember! There are no bad times. Whatever is difficult … ”

Much of what Chow does now is done in homage to his father. “I think it was very formative for him to have to walk away from the status that his father enjoyed and reinvent himself,” says Philippe Garner, head of 20th Century Design and Photography at Christie’s and a friend of Chow’s since the seventies. “He has never, ever, wanted to deny his Chinese history, but he has needed to find a way to marry his background with his new life.”

When Chow arrived on the scene in sixties London, fresh out of Central Saint Martins art school, he found work at the Fraser Gallery, which was the center of that city’s exploding art world. “He was instantly plugged into a world he found very exciting,” says Garner. “And it was exciting. Michael got to know everyone: Jim Dine, Peter Blake, Richard Smith.”

“It was a very interesting time in London,” Chow says. “Class and race did not matter so much. If you are eccentric and artistic and princely, they accept you then. They judged on that level. This was the real cultural revolution. I was part of that.”

He married a few times—once just for a few days, and once to Grace Coddington, who is now creative director of Vogue but was then a gorgeous young model. At one point, he opened a trendy hair salon that he eventually sold to Twiggy; he tried nightclubs too, but mostly he became famous for being himself: He had shoulder-length hair, wore silk Nehru suits by Yves Saint Laurent, and drove a Bentley convertible. “For me, this was the most fun time,” he says, perhaps a bit guiltily, recognizing the simultaneity of China’s most savage years. “The Beatles, the Stones, Mary Quant fashion—they were my friends and everything was happening.”

But China was always very much on his mind, particularly the elegant, cultured China of his childhood, which was rapidly disappearing. In 1968, he opened Mr. Chow, a Chinese restaurant. Food had played a large part in his detachment: At boarding school, he was starved. “The food was very rough,” he says.

From left, portraits of Michael Chow by David Hockney and Jean-Michel Basquiat.Photo: From left, David Hockney/Courtesy of Michael Chow; Jean Michel Basquiat/Courtesy of Michael Chow

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.”

Together, Chow and Chun have an 11-year-old daughter, Asia, whom Chow adores. “My children are great. Asia has something very special. When you meet her, please whisper something to me,” he says. “Please whisper You do not think this only because you are her father.’”

On a Thursday night in March, Chow cannot get comfortable at his own restaurant: He has noticed that a family, the Upper East Side type—father, mother, and son all wear $200 jeans, expensive watches, and exquisitely tended hair—is waiting by the bar for their table, a rustle of shopping bags at their feet. “This no good,” says Mr. Chow. “Coats and carrier bag never allowed.” He summons Michelle Chun, his sister-in-law. She has a neat bob and is well dressed in that duty-free-luxury way: a plain navy suit, Hermès scarf and belt. “They have carrier bags,” says Chow. His expression is one of utter disdain. Chun smilingly relieves them of their bags, and Chow exhales. “Okay,” he says. “Now we can eat!”

Chow’s life is a series of meticulously managed details. He wears only Hermès suits, custom-made in Paris, each more elegant and well fit than the last. On this particular Thursday, the suit is cornflower blue, fine-gauge corduroy. His silk tie matches precisely. Chow’s incredible suits are, for him, metaphors for his restaurants. “Everything is based on a universe of subliminal details,” he says. “When you pull it together, there is content and quality. It’s like couture. There is the focus; the cutting is most important. But every stitch is a universe. Every stitch has its own high standard. I call the standard ‘humanly possible.’ It’s a way of life.”

A perfect example of Mr. Chow’s attention to detail is in the way the waiters place down the plates. “The three fingers must come up to balance,” Chow says. “I didn’t read it in a book, nobody told me this, but it’s one way, only way. And then if you place it slightly crooked, you have the opportunity to adjust it, and that touch! You can charge $2 extra for that touch.”

The restaurant is full, as it is most nights, and it is loud, but not uncomfortably so—it feels more like a party. There are tables full of bankers on expense accounts. “They don’t care,” says Chun, smiling. “Not their money.” There are Upper East Side families, like the one at the bar, a few basketball players, stooping dramatically to get through the Lalique-style doors, and the rapper LL Cool J, who has brought a date. On the balcony, where Chow sits, a chef makes noodles elaborately, the loud thwack of the dough occasionally silencing the dining room, which, each time, erupts into applause. It’s a well-lit space, with everything, and everyone, clearly on display. No one is shy about looking.

What will be unique about the new space? “To change, you have to have no change,” Chow says, balancing a small dumpling on a pair of chopsticks. He repeats, “For change, no change.”

Chow finishes dinner in his restaurant with a cup of hot water and lemon—not lemon wedges but an elaborately cut lemon, an origami lemon, a series of symmetrical swerves floating in the porcelain cup. The water is steaming but not so much that it’s too hot to sip. “Do you think maybe I am crazy?” he asks.

“To be funny, also very important. I can make a joke from any word in the whole language. Give me a word.”


Chow holds his chopsticks in a fine point and thinks for a moment.

“It’s a beautiful vase,” he says. “It’s worth—crash!—nothing.”

Mr. Chow laughs like mad.

The Sayings of Chairman Chow