The Wonderful World of Chow

With the mere mention of the name Mr. Chow, one immediately thinks of the famed restaurants that are revered not for just the food but for the experience, the scene, and the trendy, celebrity-infused crowd that dines there. Michael Chow’s restaurants are more than high-end eateries; they are institutions that become ingrained in the culture of the city they inhabit.

This can be attributed to the fact that Mr. Chows have always been in the right place at the right time. The London location opened its doors in 1968 and is still going strong. The Beverly Hills hotspot launched in 1974 and continues to serve an eclectic mix of A-list celebrities, art-world stars, and international jetsetters. Mr. Chow in Midtown in New York opened in 1979, and famously served the faction who put Studio 54 in the history books. Tribeca’s outpost opened in 2005 and quickly became the restaurant of choice for New York’s stock market mavens, and a Las Vegas eatery is in the works, scheduled to open in 2010. Copycats consistently pop up hoping to take over Mr. Chow’s reign, but none can boast such a legacy or innate understanding of what captivates the cultured diner. In decades to come, what will be remembered of Mr. Chow restaurants is that they prospered in the toughest, fastest, and trendiest cities in the world. With no signs of slowing down, Mr. Chow is about to unveil a new location in our own backyard at the W South Beach, which has foodies salivating in anticipation of the pending August opening.

Restaurateur Michael Chow successfully created a culinary dynasty that sprouted in China and planted its roots in the new world. A master of design and architecture and a predictor of trends, he single-handedly revolutionized the way the West sees and eats Chinese cuisine.

The birth of Mr. Chow restaurants came from Michael’s desire to reconnect with his heritage. He was sent away from his home in China to an English boarding school at the age of 12, never to see his parents again due to the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. “I had a desire to link the past, which is my culture, and establish a structure base because I lost everything and wanted to regain it,” he explains. “I experienced racism in the West, so the only way to reduce that is by cultural defending. Mr. Chow restaurants are a bridge between East and West. They gained a reputation of respect and refinement. [The restaurants] show how sophisticated Chinese food is, and thereby [the sophistication of] the culture as well.”

Michael gained the respect he deserves by serving authentic, high-quality Chinese food with silver cutlery and a price tag to match. He opted out of using chopsticks “because people would come to the restaurant and play with them. The food is too good to be played with.” The American public’s reference to Chinese cuisine is through low-end, inexpensive dishes that are high in salt and sugar. If one is adventurous enough, they might take a trip to their local Chinatown where the food is typically Cantonese- and Sichuan-based—heavy in sauces and quite greasy. On the flip side, Mr. Chow serves Beijing cuisine, considered more sophisticated with roots in aristocracy. (Beijing is where the emperor lived, and typical dishes avoid heavy seasoning.) Beijing cuisine isn’t commonplace in America simply because it’s hard to come by authentic Beijing chefs. Training begins at an early age and is approached as an art. Skilled teachers not only pass down techniques, but a 1,000-year-old culture. Form and foundation are very important, as are the schools where chefs train. Because of this instruction and dedication to ancient culinary customs, Mr. Chow’s new Miami location will easily be one of the best new Chinese restaurants in America. Nick Du, a leading master in Beijing cuisine, along with 10 additional chefs from China versed in other regional cuisines, have been flown into the city to create a menu using both tradition and progression. A must-have will be the rice cake with clam and spinach sauce, a mixture of Shanghai and Beijing cuisine.

The design of the establishment is something to be celebrated as much as the food. A student of architecture, Michael has designed every one of his restaurants. His signature good taste is now legendary and dates back to the year 1965 when he designed his first project, a hair salon in London that Twiggy later took over. Upon seeing the design, hairstylist guru Vidal Sassoon praised Michael for having vision ahead of his time. The illustrious French designer Hubert de Givenchy said the Mr. Chow restaurant on 57th Street in Manhattan is designed as beautifully as a jewel box, and Giorgio Armani called Michael Chow a “genius” and hired him to design his boutiques in Beverly Hills and Las Vegas. Michael designed Armani’s Rodeo Drive store back in 1987, and to this day it still feels fresh and modern, an extraordinary feat for a design born in a decade of neon colors and bubblegum pop rock. Celebrated artists like Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, David Hockney, Francesco Clemente, and Jean-Michael Basquiat have all immortalized Michael on canvas, and Warhol and Basquiat famously worked off their restaurant tabs by painting Michael, a preferred payment that enabled him to keep the patronage eclectic.

For the last 20 years, Michael has shared his success with the strikingly elegant woman he made his wife, Eva. “Eva is extraordinarily talented,” boasts Michael. “She is an incredible chef, great at flower arranging and giving parties. As far as I’m concerned, I’m not bad, but she is much better.”

As a young girl in Korea, Eva trained with masters of Chinese watercolor. Their influence has carried her through life; she looks at form and design, and expresses her own individuality with the skilled eye of a designer. She left Korea at the age of 17, eventually landing in New York and becoming a prominent figure in the fashion scene. Her line was sold internationally and carried by such exclusive shops as Barneys New York, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bergdorf Goodman. Eva left the fashion industry upon giving birth to her daughter Asia, but she continues to design her own jewelry—masterfully detailed Art Deco creations she molds and casts using the highest quality gems and pearls. These days her creativity and trained eye are put to excellent use as she works side-by-side with Michael to conceive and design their restaurants. The business is known for being relentlessly competitive, but “we like it,” she says. “Obviously we have some days where we look at each other and say, ‘Why are we doing this?’ but that doesn’t last too long. I love to entertain, and Michael loves to promote China and Chinese culture. The greatness of Chinese food is his motivation and passion, and I think he feels very rewarded when he sees his restaurants and his diners eating and happy. Those are magical moments. In restaurants there is a similarity to performers who get their high on stage in the sense that you get so much satisfaction from the reaction of your clients.”

Opening a restaurant in Miami was something Michael and Eva have been debating for 15 years, so when they were approached by the team behind the new W South Beach, the couple knew this was the right moment. “My husband and I aren’t the type of people who aggressively pursue something,” says Eva, “especially when it comes to opening a restaurant. The Miami location has been long coming, and we waited very patiently and turned down a lot of opportunities. We are glad we waited and are happy to be doing this with the W.”

In so many trendy new restaurants, owners save money on design by using inexpensive and easy-to-find materials that can be masked by the use of low light. The opposite is true of Mr. Chow establishments where quality, craftsmanship, and art reign supreme. Michael and Eva’s approach to creating their restaurants is organic and an extension of their lifestyle, where global education is communicated through color, comfort, and artistic vision. The Miami restaurant, located on the ground floor of the W South Beach, is nearly 160 feet long. Gold leaf Swarovski chandeliers run the length of the room, acting as ornate halos of light. The walls and floors are adorned with French limestone, and tables and chairs have dark brown and black lacquered accents. Known for their patronage of the arts, the couple’s personal extensive collection is displayed in all of their locations; in Miami, a majority of walls are windows, so the view serves as the artwork. However, they will be hanging a piece by Denise De La Rue, an emerging Mexican artist, as well as a series of Sir Peter Blake portraits, an eminent British pop artist Michael has known since his teens.

The cuisine is of the same caliber that has come to be expected of the Mr. Chow name. “I think there is a very fine line with being consistent and always moving forward,” says Eva. “The most important thing for us in our restaurants is that the food and service stay consistent, yet never boring. Our staff is our family and many of them have been with us for more than 25 years. They also have relationships with our clients, and therefore our clients feel special when they dine with us. This makes our service and food consistent, yet we always stay up-to-date with the advances being made in Chinese cuisine. For the first time in Chinese history, regional foods are merging, creating new flavors and spices. This is a very exciting time for people who like Chinese cuisine,” explains Eva. “For the first time in the evolution of Mr. Chow you will find new dishes with heavy spices; it’s very off the grill, so to speak.”

In the Chows’ home in Bel Air (yes, Michael designed that too), dominating his-and-her fireplaces blaze on opposite sides of the indoor courtyard, flanked by a Julian Schnabel portrait of Eva in her Vivienne Westwood wedding gown, and a Jean-Michel Basquiat portrait of Michael painted in the ’80s. The couple has been painted and photographed by the world’s leading artists, an honor bestowed on very few. They were recently featured in L’Uomo Vogue’s Icon Issue as one of the most beloved couples in the world. Their allure goes beyond design and lives in a realm that merges continents and gives us a cultured view of what happens when East meets West.

Their hospitable nature transcends into their home. Together the couple hosts parties based on the theater mantra: Don’t bore the audience. To receive an invite to one of these gatherings is to be inducted into Hollywood high society. For each of these alluring evenings, Eva has special tablecloths made and uses antique silver and china collected during her travels around the globe. She handpicks flowers so the blooms time perfectly with the soirees. As passionate about philanthropy as she is hospitality, Eva serves as a trustee of Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the couple is active in several charities.

Whether fully immersed in their philanthropic endeavors, in hosting elegant evenings in their home, or welcoming their loyal patrons into a new dining venue, it is clear that no matter what the venture, it will be a fervent extension of the Chows themselves, and a warm welcome into a culture and lifestyle they are proud to share.

Mr. Chow Miami opens for W Hotel guests this August and will begin taking outside reservations in September.