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Mr Chow: How a Chinese restaurant became an art world mecca

Updated 5th April 2018
Michael Chow, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Basquiat's mother and friends (1984) by Andy Warhol
Credit: Courtesy The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York
Mr Chow: How a Chinese restaurant became an art world mecca
Written by Ananda Pellerin, CNN
Ananda Pellerin is editor of The Gourmand, an award-winning, biannual food and culture journal. This story is part of "Masters of Experience," a series exploring the world's most original experiences, as told by the visionaries who crafted them.
Warhol, Basquiat and Hockney walk into a restaurant... It sounds like the beginning of a terrible joke, but in their day, these art titans were all regulars at branches of a show-stopping Chinese restaurant called Mr Chow, and friends with its impresario, Michael Chow (aka M), who, in his own right, has had an inestimable influence on the art, culture and culinary scenes.
"Well, I got very lucky," Chow, now 79, said on the phone from his car, which he's pulled over to the side of the road in Los Angeles. "Every artist I approached ... 90% became established and famous."
"Portrait of Michael Chow" (1984) by Andy Warhol
"Portrait of Michael Chow" (1984) by Andy Warhol Credit: Courtesy The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York
The first branch of Mr Chow opened its doors in London's well-heeled Knightsbridge neighborhood on Valentine's Day, 1968. Within 10 years, the chain's reach extended to Beverley Hills and New York and, later, as far as Mexico City, Seoul, and Kyoto.
Now, 50 years, nine locations (of which seven remain) and countless covers later, Chow is celebrating his legacy with a new book. Covered with the gorgeously garish "Mr Chow as Green Prawn in a Bowl of Noodles" (1986) by Keith Haring, "Mr Chow: 50 Years" is brimming with memories, artists' reproductions and photos from Chow's personal collection, including portraits of him and his family by the likes of Julian Schnabel and Helmut Newton. The book also features an homage to his father by Ed Ruscha, and a symbolic painting about racism by Peter Blake.
Together, they offer a peek into a dining room where, as curator Jeffrey Deitch writes in the volume's pages, you could find "the most exciting artistic exchange in the world."
"Untitled (Portrait of Michael Chow)" (1984) by Julian Schnabel
"Untitled (Portrait of Michael Chow)" (1984) by Julian Schnabel Credit: Julian Shnabel/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Michael Chow was born Zhou Yinghua to a wealthy family in Shanghai. His father, Zhou Xinfang, was a prolific Peking opera performer before he was arrested and jailed during the Cultural Revolution. In 1952, the 13-year-old Chow was sent to London to escape the political turmoil.
"I landed in London in the darkness of the infamous London fog of 1952," Chow writes. "I was devastated, uprooted from everything familiar to me.
"From that day on, due to political reasons, I never communicated with nor saw my father again. His parting words to me before I left Shanghai were, 'Wherever you go, always remember you are Chinese.'"
Chow went on to study architecture, and later tried to make it as a painter. Eventually he decided to put painting aside and opened his first restaurant, famous for its impeccable European decor, Italian waiters and Chinese cuisine -- a cross-cultural expression unheard of at the time.
"Because I lost everything -- my parents, my culture, my people -- I had an internal desire to appoint myself as a cultural ambassador to promote China. It sounds very corny and cliche, but I did just that."
Michael Chow opened his first restaurant in London on Valentine's Day, 1968.
Michael Chow opened his first restaurant in London on Valentine's Day, 1968. Credit: Courtesy Prestel
Very much his father's son, Chow doesn't view fine dining as a formal experience or expression of rarefied technique: it's theater.
"The biggest misunderstanding is thinking a restaurant is like a bank. It's not like a bank, it's like a musical. The curtain goes up and you start singing," he said. "Rule number one of the theater is never bore the audience."
This means getting the details right: "I find the perfect thing, and I'll never let it go -- like that song in 'The Sound of Music.' I find the perfect ice bucket, and I never let it go. And the perfect hinge, perfect chair, perfect table."
"Mr. Chow L.A." (1973) by Ed Ruscha
"Mr. Chow L.A." (1973) by Ed Ruscha Credit: Ed Ruscha
True to his word, if you visit the Mr Chow in Knightsbridge, you can still sit in the original chairs at the table Paul McCartney and John Lennon's used to share, and watch on as the staff take center stage to transform huge amounts of dough into soft lamian noodles, while your waiter lights a candle to observe the sediment before he decants the wine.
It's impossible to imagine the amount of mingling and thought-swapping that has happened over family-style platters of hand-pulled noodles and Mr Chow's signature Peking duck, but a fold-out in the center of the book listing famous patrons who have signed Chow's guest books -- everyone from Muhammad Ali to Francis Ford Coppola to Winona Ryder to ZZ Top -- gives a pretty good indication.
Unsurprisingly, Chow is also a man of anecdotes, such as the one where a then-unknown Jean-Michel Basquiat sent him a painting as a calling card: "He gave it to me because he wanted to meet me. I just threw it aside, whatever," Chow recalled. (The two would later become good friends.)
"Portrait of Michael Chow" (1985) by Jean-Michel Basquiat
"Portrait of Michael Chow" (1985) by Jean-Michel Basquiat Credit: Courtesy the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ADAGP, Paris/ARS, New York
Then there's the story behind the spoon and unopened set of chopsticks signed by Andy Warhol.
"He didn't eat any of the food," Chow said. "He always ate before he went to any restaurant. He taught me the trick. He pushed the food around all night so people would think he was eating."
About his good friend Julian Schnabel, he said, "He has supported me all this time, he's such a passionate man. We did everything except sex."
In recent years, a new generation of cultural stars have discovered Mr Chow. Lady Gaga is a fan, as is artist Alex Israel. Chow once appeared in latter's cult video series "As It Lays."
"I'm proud to say I bought his first painting," Chow said. "He's very good friends with my daughter, China. They're inseparable. So I said, 'Marry him,' but that didn't happen, so I don't know what we're going to do. Those two are like Fred and Ginger."
A Mr Chow matchbox from 1984, featuring "Mr Chow Portrait" (1967) by David Hockney, and "Mr. Chow L.A." (1973) by Ed Ruscha
A Mr Chow matchbox from 1984, featuring "Mr Chow Portrait" (1967) by David Hockney, and "Mr. Chow L.A." (1973) by Ed Ruscha Credit: © David Hockney / © Ed Ruscha
After a "radical sabbatical," Chow has returned to painting.
"I picked it up again six years ago and I'm painting with a vengeance. I feel privileged and lucky to be in my third act of my lifetime. To be a painter is really very gratifying, and very lucky and very humbling."
Harking back to Deitch's essay, "The Restaurant as a Total Work of Art," in which he describes Mr Chow as "an immersive aesthetic experience, fusing art, architecture, performance, and culinary innovation," Chow said: "Everybody thinks I'm not an artist. Some of them think of me as a chop suey man or whatever, but at the end of the day, I'm an artist."
"Mr Chow: 50 Years," published by Prestel, features Keith Haring's "Mr Chow as Green Prawn in a Bowl of Noodles" (1986) on its cover.
"Mr Chow: 50 Years," published by Prestel, features Keith Haring's "Mr Chow as Green Prawn in a Bowl of Noodles" (1986) on its cover. Credit: Courtesy Prestel
Asked what he'd like people to take away from the book, which is, by his own estimation "90% visual," he refers to a photo taken of him in 1995 by Dennis Hopper.
"I'm standing in front of a sign in London that says, 'Art First.' If everything is art, there would be no war. What I hope for with this book is to make people realize: Art First."
"Mr Chow: 50 Years," published by Prestel, is out now.