Over more than 50 years, Michael Chow has built a legacy of bridging the once distant Western and Eastern cultures via his eponymous series of upscale restaurants. In Mr. Chow's designed theatrical dining experience, Chinese dishes became an art world favorite, as big-name talents like Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, David Hockney, and Jean-Michel Basquiat have frequented the destination over the years. To mark a half-century since the restaurant concept's 1968 debut in London, Mr. Chow: 50 Years came out last year, with the illustrations throughout exposing readers to the behind-the-scenes of "every aspect of the Chow family name," the history of the restaurant's popular Beijing duck and hand-pulled noodles, and the restaurateur's boundary-breaking nature. Now, Chow gives insight to even more aspects of his iconic business, from how he felt on opening night to the impact of bringing art and food together.
You once said of your running your restaurants, “It’s a place where all arts meet and every night is a performance like a long running musical.” What do you mean by this?
Where shall I start? You know, I started Mr Chow over 52 years ago. At the time, it was a completely brand new vision, a new concept for a restaurant. So, my thing is from theater, the restaurant is closer to a musical than to a bank. Most high-end restaurants run like a bank in the front. Why? You have a bank manager that you never see. You never see the manager. Like a bank, there is so much that happens behind the scenes that you never see. I made the restaurant into a musical. In the musical, you have the front and the back—and the front is a performance. And in the musical, you have the lead and you have a director—which I am. I wrote the script of this particular musical. Every restaurant, different script—every musical is different. My Fair Lady is different from The Lion King, right? In my version of this musical, I have a leading man who is going to carry the evening. A leading man who is going to carry the evening and also a conductor who will tell everybody what to do. The leading man is the host. The paying guests are the audience. So, when you come in, the host comes and says hello to you and takes you to a table. Every human being coming to our restaurant, our maître d’—our leading man—takes them to all the tables. While he’s taking them to the tables, he’s getting to know them and bond with them within a minute or two. So, the host takes you to every single seat, is it easy? No. But difficulty is good. So, every night I direct, we do rehearsals. The whole thing is based on theater.
Photo via Instagram / @mrchow
Speaking of theatrics, was there any significance to the day on which you decided to open your restaurant?
Oh, the first restaurant 51 years ago. All kinds of people came. It was a very special night. I had just finished acting in a movie called Joanna, and it was the birthday of the lead—Geneviève Waïte—and so everybody from the production came.
Last year you published a book to celebrate 50 years of Mr Chow. Why did that feel like the right time?
Why not? I didn’t want to do a normal cookbook. The portrait collection is an important part of it. We don’t treat everybody the same—we treat artists the best. If a banker and an artist come in at the same time, I’ll seat the artist first. You know what I’m saying? If a banker comes in, I’ll seat him fifth.
Art is such an incredible component of your restaurant and your life for that matter.
May I just say, Mr Chow is a work of art.
What do you feel art adds to the dining experience at your restaurants? How do you go about choosing specific pieces of art for specific restaurants?
It’s not actually curated. Everything is very personal—my art and some of my portraits, some of them I make, they’re more personal. The more personal, the more universal.
What draws you to certain pieces?
I like things that are true to their time.
What do you feel is rewarding about bringing art and food together?
It’s a musical. You have great art, it’s a musical. At a restaurant, you have all the different characters, their body language—they’re all dancers, their movements are beautiful. The way they pour the wine, the way they put the glass down, the way they clear the table. Whenever someone is doing their job beautifully, it’s fantastic. When they do something with love and are truthful, it’s beautiful.
What do you love most about what you do?
I’m always looking for moments, anywhere and everywhere. What I do, I love. I can get very excited about a toilet seat. Don’t forget, Mother Theresa said that if you clean the toilet seat with love, you will find God there. There’s a right way of doing things. I’m very conscious of that. If I’m going to learn how to make a cappuccino, I’m trying to find out the focus, for instance, what is the focus of a cappuccino? Every recipe has a focus. Why? Otherwise there’s no need for a new recipe. The most important thing about a cappuccino is the foam. Unlike any other coffee, the foam is the most difficult thing to make. The foam in the cappuccino—in America, anyway—has bubbles. What is the enemy of the cappuccino? The enemy of the cappuccino is bubble baths like Jayne Mansfield.