Michael Chow

n 1968 Chow married Grace Coddington, then a successful model, and later, editor of British Vogue, Calvin Klein design director and fashion editor at American Vogue.

     "When I met him, he wanted and had nothing," Coddington told an interviewer in House and Garden. "When we lived together, he had four chopsticks, two plates, two chairs, a bed, a pot, and a frying pan — no pictures, nothing. Only when he started the restaurant did he become a collector."

     At about the time of the marriage Chow stopped painting altogether and opened the first Mr Chow in London in partnership with Robin Sutherland who put up the money. The fact that Chow was able to buy her out a year later attests to the success of the venture.

     The walls of the London Mr Chow were hung with David Hockney, Peter Blake, Richard Smith and Rauschenberg. For chefs Chow hired from Hong Kong top practitioners of Peking royal cuisine. The late 60s was a buyer's market because everyone was anxious to get out of Hong Kong due to the onset of the Cultural Revolution. Apparently Peking chefs came in teams of four and Chow was able to hire an entire team in one stroke. The head chef would later move to the New York branch to train all Mr Chow chefs. Chow took great pains in the preparation of his menu and hired only Italian waiters. To this day Chow hires mostly Caucasian waiters as his way of fighting stereotypes. He placed particular emphasis on lighting each table as though it were a stage. In her book Tsai Chin calls him a frustrated showman. Each night at Mr Chow was a theatrical production.

     Chow postulates five elements in food: time, via place, region, occasion and class. By this analysis Mr Chow is 1960s, via Hong Kong to London, Peking royal cuisine, for dinner. In an effort to be "as honest as possible", Chow could come up with only a small selection of Peking dishes, and was forced to augment the menu with a few admittedly Cantonese ones. Chow suffered many skeptics and racist critics who were put off by a Chinese restaurant with pretensions to class. "Ignorance is racism," came to be Chow's response to such criticism.

     In her autobiography Tsai Chin attributes Mr Chow's success to "not being afraid to be original". She also asserts that she brought "tout Londres" to the restaurant, including the likes of Sam Spiegel and Danny Kaye. During its first 30 days, she supposedly brought a different film industry date every night. The combination of the celebrity crowd and Chow's own artistic crowd made the restaurant an instant hit.

     "She thinks she contributed a lot and I don't agree and probably the truth lies somewhere in between," Chow says of his sister's claims. He himself believes the real secret to success is doing the research and creating a situation in which you have to be totally committed so there is no turning back. And one must isolate oneself because sometimes even subconsciously friends and the environment can hold one back.

     In 1971, after only three years of marriage and in the midst of Chow's success as a London restaurateur, Coddington asked for a divorce. Chow declines to elaborate on the relationship except to say that the cause of the divorce was "a cultural thing".

     While officially separated from Coddington, Chow went to Japan to cast a film on which he was collaborating with Juzo Itami, the acclaimed Japanese director of Tampopo and A Taxing Woman. The film project never materialized (though Chow remains good friends with Itami and insists they will do a film together). But while there Chow was introduced by Antonio Lopez, the late fashion illustrator, to beautiful Tina Lutz (who wasn't trying for a part in the proposed film). Tina and sister Bonnie (now a costume and production designer married to David Byrne of the Talking Heads) were already two of Japan's top models.

     "It was love at first sight," Chow says. And no, she wasn't a virgin. A year later, Tina followed Chow back to London. The two were married in 1974 (possibly after China's conception).

     According to Chow, Tina was an even better hostess for Mr Chow than he was a maitre d'. What they shared, Chow says in retrospect, was a commitment to fight prejudice because their diverse backgrounds prevented them from belonging to any group. Chow's best memories are of their travels together.

     Following the initial success of Mr Chow, Chow opened ten night clubs and restaurants, including Italian and Japanese ones. His interest in everything but the Mr Chow restaurants have been sold off. Chow's expansion to America was precipitated by a letter from Jerry Moss of A&M Records who wrote that he was a fan of the London Mr Chow and that he felt the restaurant would do well in Los Angeles. Chow went to work and the Beverly Hills branch opened in 1974, becoming another overnight success. It was frequented by the likes of Donald Sutherland, Vincent Price, John Lennon, Peter Sellers and Steve McQueen. Today, the branch still attracts Hollywood types, but more of the producers and directors than the "glitzy Vegas types". The restaurant is hung with Chow portraits by Warhol, Haring and Helmut Newton.

     The L.A. Mr Chow once had competition — the China Club downtown, ostensibly run by an Indonesian company with rumored Yakuza connections. One frequently saw men with missing fingers, and every Friday night the place was visited by big, nasty-looking Asian men. The China Club tried to get more of the Melrose crowd. At one time it went as far as to institute a no furs or jewelry policy. Chow thinks this may have contributed to the China Club's ultimate demise.

     It wasn't until 1979 that Chow moved from London to New York and opened a third Mr Chow on East 57th. Score another instant hit. The restaurant occupied the lower floor of a duplex in the middle of a residential area. The upstairs served as the art-filled home of Michael and Tina of which Paloma Picasso said in a 1988 HG interview, "The apartment is organized, very beautiful to the eyes, it is almost too perfect." The same article quoted Chow himself as saying, "Everything is so perfect. I wouldn't advise anyone to live in an environment like that." PAGE 3

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Another photo of Michael Chow from a profile in the January 1990 issue of Transpacific magazine.

“She thinks she contributed a lot and I don't agree and probably the truth lies somewhere in between.”

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