High fashion, cult art and fine food intersect in the world of Michael Chow, one of the world’s best connected and most respected restaurateurs. Lisa Markwell hears about his half-century of success.
One hesitates to use the word iconic about anyone, but Michael Chow is as close as we might get.
For instance, when asked for a photograph, an Andy Warhol portrait arrives. His art knowledge and collection of works by the 20th century’s leading artists is astonishing. He has seen pretty much every major celebrity of the recent times in his restaurants – and been married to the fashion legends Grace Coddington and Tina Chow. And while London’s landscape changes constantly and irrevocably, the Mr Chow restaurant in Knightsbridge has remained the same for 50 years.
It is on the occasion of Mr Chow’s anniversary that I asked both Michael and his son Maximillian about the enduring success of the restaurant (which is also in eight locations in the US and Mexico). Michael – known as M – is now 78 and spends his time painting at his 57,000 sqft studio and Max runs the business day-to-day. They both live in in Los Angeles.
What was your plan, your intention, when launching the original Mr Chow in Knightsbridge back in February 1968?
M: When the original location opened, I think there was a feeling of both wanting to show the western world of the beauty of Chinese culture, and also to create an environment that was fun and sexy. Back then London was going through very exciting – almost revolutionary – times so there was a nexus of energy between showing Chinese history through food and being contemporary and provocative. In a lot of ways the plan was to show the world something they’d never seen before.
Is the London restaurant exactly the same in appearance as when it opened?
The decor is so ‘on trend’ right now?! M: There have been one or two kitchen fires over our 50-year history, but the dining rooms have remained the same.
Some artwork has been shifted out, but I think you’d be hard pressed to point out any differences. There is a lovely patina to the Knightsbridge location; even as the neighbourhood has changed, Mr Chow has remained, almost like a time capsule.
Did you imagine then that you that you would still have the restaurant (and have other branches) 50 years on?
M: Fifty years went by quick! It’s a miracle though. It was mostly hard work and from time to time, the magic happened. It made it all worthwhile. Max: Mr Chow started on its own but quickly there were other London restaurants, which my father opened under different names and concepts. But at the heart of it, Mr Chow was opened with such a clear sense of purpose that it was the one that remained. I’m not sure if anyone thinks of having something that would be around for 50 years...
Would you say that food has changed immeasurably in that time, both what is available globally and the diners’ knowledge of ingredients and techniques?
Max: In 50 years, food and dining has changed and also very much remained the same. People didn’t eat out as much back then, it was considered a novelty.
Now, it’s the opposite. The information available at our fingertips has turned us all into experts. We think convenience and health have come to the forefront, but those were always important.
You can get quality anything almost anywhere, at any time of year, but we’re also seeing the importance of locality. It’s interesting as food culture progresses, so much of what is new is old styles of food preparation that were long forgotten, and we’re learning that in many cases, these heritage processes are the most beneficial ways to eat. However, our expectations have changed – we need to be blown away in every bite.
And could you tell me why the Mr Chow menu has remained almost (or is it entirely) the same since it started?
Max: There have been many changes to the menu, but they’re almost imperceptible due to the fact that they’ve happened over the course of 50 years. Certain items, which Mr Chow pioneered and were once considered exotic, have since become commonplace and are no longer on the menu. However, the core of the Mr Chow menu is based on classic Beijing cuisine, which is centuries older than our restaurant. All those dishes have focus and purpose, which we are constantly trying to define and perfect.
Mr Chow is beloved by a great number of celebrities and has a very loyal fanbase of customers – what do you believe is the secret of your unprecedented success?
Max: Mr Chow was always meant to be theatrical. A party where everyone was part of the performance. The most important part of that is making sure everyone felt like they belonged. Connecting on personal level with every person that comes through the door.
We constantly remind our staff of that and rehearse service like it was a play. There is an element of theatre to being involved at Mr Chow. Every night is a performance that won’t be repeated.
Mr Chow’s good taste in design and art is well documented. There seems to be an eternal argument whether food can be considered art – where do you stand on this?
Max: Art usually doesn’t serve a function beyond being art. That is the difference between art and craft. Craft is functional and repeatable, art is not. Can you do that with food?
Many articles about the restaurant talk about the expense of the food – and Mr Chow has responded in interviews that it’s important to be expensive. Could you expand on that?
Max: If something is small, expensive and heavy, it’s usually good. Value is an important aspect of society. You could get the same advice for free from a random person on the tube or pay someone to shout it at you in a three-day seminar. You’re going to listen far more intently to the person you paid. When Mr Chow first opened, Chinese people and Chinese food in the west were considered the lowest of the low. In order to gain any modicum of respect, Mr Chow had to be more expensive.
Where do you go out to eat? Are there restaurants/chefs/cities that you are inspired by?
Max: I think it operates in cycles and it’s ever-evolving. I’m constantly on the lookout for new places and ideas but also drawn to the familiar. More and more, I find comfort in simplicity.
There is a trend right now with open fire and fermentation, which are really the oldest forms of cooking. In New York, a friend of mine, Negro Piattoni, has a restaurant called Metta that is doing exciting things with fire and fermentation.
In Los Angeles, there is a restaurant called Baroo, which is simple yet inspired using lots of fermentation. Another restaurant in my neighbourhood is called Felix Trattoria, which is getting a lot of attention right now, and has great pasta. I am also just as content eating a good taco off a food truck.
Do you think there is still a place for professional food critics nowadays? Or has their job been replaced by social media posts and customer reviews?
Max: Tough question, depends on what we determine the purpose of a food critic was in the first place. There is always a place for good writing and someone who has refined a certain expertise and skill. With restaurants, it’s tough to say because we are all experts and all amateurs. We all have different tastes, backgrounds and experiences.
Mr Chow has spoken in the past about loving Chinese people and culture. Do either of you go back to China much?
If so, how has the food culture changed there? Max: We all spent time recently in Shanghai and Beijing and it felt as if something, which was missing, had been brought back in. China has changed by leaps and bound in recent years, primarily because of the money. With that came a plethora of consumer growth, but also of national pride. It has been very much reflected in the food. Chinese cuisine is more diverse than any other in the world. It is very exciting to see the respect and curiosity it is receiving within China and around the world.
Some big brands – the Ivy comes to mind – do a “roll out” to multiple sites to maximise profits, almost like diffusion lines in fashion. Mr Chow has never done that, seeming to have a few, well-chosen locations instead with organic growth. Was that a deliberate decision?
Max: So much of Mr Chow’s success has been around the feeling of the locations and cities we’ve been fortunate enough to inhabit. It hasn’t been deliberate to stay on the smaller side, but the way we are run and the ethos with which we operate require something a bit more hands-on. I think we’ve also felt our brand and history are something to be protected, so we are very deliberate in how and when we choose to expand.
What is the future plan for the Mr Chow restaurants?
Max: Mr Chow is in an interesting place. Fifty years of history yet also still filled with enormous potential for growth. I think one of the great things about Mr Chow is that it always nurtured creativity. Whether it’s expanding on the tried and true blueprint or new concepts, the mindset of Mr Chow will continue to be the same.
Although you are the legendary face of the Mr Chow brand, it’s now a family business. How does the working relationship work?
M: In short, it’s a relationship made in heaven. Max: And...I do the typing.
This article was first published in Issue 13 of CODE Quarterly.