Michael Chow – known as M – reflects on five decades of turning dining into an art, and working with Basquiat, Warhol, and Allen Jones
Restauranteur. Designer. Architect. Art Collector. World Traveler. Icon of style and substance Michael Chow – or M, as he is known – has transformed fine dining into an art at Mr Chow, providing a magical bridge between the east and the west for the past 50 years.
M was born Zhou Yinghua in 1939 in Shanghai to Zhou Xingfang (1895-9175), a leading figure in the Peking Opera who wrote and acted in more than 650 titles during his illustrious career, and Lilian Qui (1905-1968), who hailed from a wealthy family whose fortune was made in tea.
At the age of 13, everything changed when M was sent to boarding school in London. What he didn’t know at the time was that he would never see or communicate with his father again. “Suddenly there was a void within me,” M reveals.
Into that chasm, M plunged – first in despair, then finding himself in art. He studied at St. Martins and went on to paint for a decade before the market forces made it apparent that it was not receptive to a Chinese artist. Once again, M turned to art to guide the way, launching the very first Mr Chow in Knightsbridge in February 1968.
From the very outset, Mr Chow was not just a restaurant – it was theatre: a stage for pleasure, passion, and intrigue, where Italian waiters served fine Chinese cuisine to sophisticated clientele and artworks by Allen Jones, Peter Blake, Patrick Caulfield, David Hockney, and Jim Dine became an integral part of the experience. He established three restaurants in London before setting a course to conquer America.
Over the past half-century, M has opened restaurants in Beverly Hills, New York, Miami, and Las Vegas, always bringing glamour and theatre to the dining experience. Now, on the occasion of Mr Chow’s golden anniversary, M has released, Mr Chow: 50 Years (Prestel/Delmonico), a beautifully illustrated volume that explores a singular life in art, architecture, design, and cuisine, combining the very best of the east and the west.
Featuring works by Helmut Newton, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Kenny Scharf, Francesco Clemente, and Ed Ruscha, just to name a few, the book reveals the significant role Mr Chow has played in the art world over five decades. Here, M speaks with us about a life in art: the past, present, and future vision of a man whose magic has touched countless hearts.
“From the beginning of Mr Chow’s conception, it was more like theatre – and in theatre, you transcend into art” – M
ALWAYS PUT ART FIRST
“Dennis Hopper did a photograph of me in London, and in the background, there is a sign that says ‘Art First’ (Laughs). Art is first for everything: for life, for our civilisation, for our future. Art is – especially in the 21st century – the medium of spirituality. True artists are priests who only have pure intention.
“Art is also based on imagination and contribution. We painted from cave days until now. This is a relay system that’s been going on forever. The artist’s job is to take that on, to make it current and true to its time, spin it, contribute, and move forward so that an artist in the future can take it on.
“The artists which are practising art but don’t make any contribution to it usually aren’t the best ones. People who are most influential like Picasso and Basquiat, they contribute the most and are relaying from the past to the present to the future.”
DRAW STRENGTH FROM LOSS
“After the war in London, all the young people from different classes went to art school, for good reason: St. Martins, The Royal Academy, the list goes on. This was the most liberated revolution, unlike the Chinese one, which was brutal and horrific.
“This was in the 50s, and in the 60s, it started to bear fruit. In 1959, Mario Cassandro and Franco Lagattolla, who had been the headwaiters at the Savoy Hotel, started a restaurant in Soho called Trattoria Terrazza. It was a tiny little thing with a basement and everyone went there. That was the beginning of the British cultural revolution in the restaurant world.
“Alvaro (Maccioni) started there as the busboy and later became the manager. He became very successful and was very charming – then he opened his own restaurant (Alvaro’s) on the King’s Road. At that time it was the hottest restaurant on the King’s Road, while Mario and Franco were expanding to Mayfair.
“This was the beginning: I started Mr Chow because I had suffered. I was 13 years old and I was sent away from China for political reasons. My mother sent me away alone. Before I left China, my father’s word to me was, ‘Wherever you go, always remember you are Chinese.’
“I ended up in foggy London on that particular week in 1952 – if you see Crown, there is an episode where twelve to eighteen thousand people died in the week of the fog. I was there. Boom! I was devastated. I had lost everything. I got complete culture shock – beyond – into a panic attack and trauma. Crawling out of the hole of the depths of despair, I painted for ten years and was met with racism. My painting career was going nowhere. No black people, no Chinese people can ever… so I quit painting. But I was always motivated by my father’s plays, which dealt with injustice.”
USE CREATIVITY AS A SOURCE OF REBIRTH
“Mr Chow came at the tail end of Swinging London in 1968. It was based on a vision of communicating with the east and the west, to show a vision of China.
“At that time, there were all these cultural people putting it together and one of the leaders was Robert Fraser, who unfortunately died of Aids. We had become very good friends; I worked for him – actually the only job I had. Robert Fraser was like my mentor. He had the greatest deals, the greatest taste, the greatest eye. He was just great, what can I say? (Laughs).
“I was at Alvaro’s one evening and saw Robert. I told him about my idea to borrow art and hang it in Mr Chow, and Robert said to me, ‘Why do that? Why don’t you ask some artists to do some work for you?’
“I asked, ‘Like who?’
“He said, ‘Like Jim Dine,’ who was sitting in front of him.
“Jim Dine made a plate for me immediately and said, ‘Absolutely. You can give me some food and I will give you some art.’ He made a work called ‘Battersea Hearts’ and one of them is literally a cushion of a heart. These five hearts are sitting in the restaurant in London right now, and also in the book.
“That was the first artist to commit himself to the collection. Then I went to Peter Blake and asked him to do the antithesis of racism and he made a portrait. Therefore the portrait collection started to be born. Over the next six months, I got David Hockney, Richard Smith, Howard Hodgkin – all these people very graciously contributed and Mr Chow opened with all these works.”
BE IN THE RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME
“When Mr Chow hit New York, it started with this party that was the end of Studio 54 in 1979. A few days before opening the restaurant, Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell threw me a party with 1,000 people – while they were in jail (on tax evasion). At that time they didn’t have a liquor license but there were elaborate street themes with fortunetellers, jugglers, all sorts of things at Studio 54. When we opened the restaurant, the phone never stopped ringing – it had to be taken off the hook.
“Jean-Michel Basquiat came by and gave me a painting. Then Julian Schnabel came to the restaurant and wanted to meet me. From that moment on, Mr Chow became this chic cafeteria for all artists. Keith Haring did incredible birthday parties with 120 bottles of Cristal, all the decadence, and then, of course, tragically the Aids epidemic, which broke up the whole thing. They are photographed in the book at Mr Chow on 57th Street. I was lucky enough to be in the right place, right time with all these artists.”
KEEP A RECORD OF YOUR COMPANY
“The artist’s book that I kept is not just a little sketchbook. It is a huge book with very good paper. It is very amazing: from Francis Bacon to Deiter Roth to Isamu Noguchi, with all kinds of people – Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Jeff Koons – everyone!
“I started off very lucky and I was very aggressive. I moved from London to LA to New York and I provided them with all the watercolours and everything. Of course, once they see who was in it, they are competing with everyone. Andy Warhol, being very naughty, made a waterfall out of chilli sauce, which bleached other people’s work. It was kind of terrorism (Laughs).
“Damien Hirst was so into it, he took the book and put a one-inch thick butterfly, which destroyed the spine and the binding so I had to take it out. So this book is amazing – it is a documentary of the second part of the 20th century. People like David Salle drawing the hand of William Rubin, who was the head of the Museum of Modern Art, holding a cigar.
“All of that energy – and why?
“Because of my father. Two years ago, I made a speech when China celebrated my father’s 120th birthday. In China, my father is like Shakespeare, but the west doesn’t know anything about it, so there is always a disconnect.”
NEVER BORE THE AUDIENCE
“Mr Chow’s restaurant is not like a bank or, in my opinion, a restaurant. From the beginning of Mr Chow’s conception, it was more like theatre – and in theatre, you transcend into art. In theatre, one of the golden rules is to not bore the audience. And in order to not bore the audience, let me entertain you.
“At the same time, this entertainment is about looking for the magic moment, communicating with the audience, and making it fresh even though the show has been running, in this case, for 50 years. It’s been running in multiple cities, at different times.
“One is always looking for the magic. If one does not want to look for the magic anymore, the show will die and the restaurant should be closed. One is always looking for the moment. In order to achieve the moment, one does not know exactly how. Usually, it’s based on the foundation of everything. My technique is to make every detail into a universe. Every detail is as important as anything else. It must be truthful and functional.
“If you make every detail be true when you have accumulated all the thousands of details collected throughout the 50 years, you will be rewarded with this very powerful foundation and you will be given these magic moments – more often than not.”
HAVE A VISION OF THE FUTURE
“We are about to throw a party on February 16 at my studio. I started painting again, six years ago, encouraged by Jeffrey Deitch and Julian Schnabel after I took a radical sabbatical that was almost 50 years. Luckily enough I went into it and did this incredible painting – just like that. Ever since then, I’ve been painting like crazy and have had two museum shows in China and one at the Andy Warhol Museum called Voice of My Father, in 2016.
“I am showing my paintings, like half a dozen of them, and each painting is like 30 something feet wide and they look like postage stamps. It’s another chapter, like at the end of my book. I never wrote a poem in my life. I don’t know where it came from. The poem is inspired by love – I am in love again: a new chapter.
“I am modelling myself on (American artist) Clyfford Still. His standard was so high, and he didn’t want to sell his works to anyone. He didn’t even have a dealer. He painted over 2,000 works and his wife supported him and opened a museum of his work. Based on that model, now I am thinking to have a single museum of my father’s work and my work. To be connected to my father is my dream come true because I left him so young.”