This story first appeared in the Nov. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
“My basic drive is to live life like a movie,” says renowned Hollywood restaurateur Michael Chow, the eponymous avatar behind the inevitably celebrity-soaked, invariably critically derided Mr Chow, marking its 40th anniversary in Beverly Hills. “I’m always looking for those moments when my daydreams are somehow coming true. This movie is manipulated to be real.”
Chow’s “movie” included a scene Oct. 10, when he and wife Eva hosted President Obama and 20 guests for a fundraiser in the Macassar ebony-lined library of their 11,600-square-foot Holmby Hills home (its design was inspired by Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia). Among those who paid $15,000 to attend, in a brokered accord worthy of Jimmy Carter, were Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West, whom the president famously called a “jackass” in 2009. (One attendee says West interrupted the proceedings to commiserate with Obama, at length, that both are good guys targeted by haters.)
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Up next, on Nov. 1, another Chow Bella set piece: Eva, 57, a Los Angeles County Museum of Art trustee, again will head up — with her handpicked co-chair, friend Leonardo DiCaprio — the glittering annual Art+Film Gala, which has over the four years of her stewardship become a resounding financial success (netting $4.1 million in 2013) and the city’s pre-eminent social event, L.A.’s answer to the Met Ball.
The couple, hailed by tastemakers as the epitome of chic — he with urbane, edged wit and she with easy grace — long has been a cultural force. Burnished by their dazzling aura, their restaurants have remained at the center of a fickle celebrity zeitgeist for decades. Mae West once prompted a standing ovation at the Camden Drive address; Andy Warhol would come by New York’s 57th Street location multiple times a week. These days, Beyonce and Jay Z head to Mr Chow in Tribeca for a casual date, while Leslie Moonves and Bob Daly share a power lunch in Beverly Hills. Meanwhile, the Chows’ A-list dinner parties pull an astonishingly starry guest list from the worlds of fashion, film, art and music (move a seat over, Mick Jagger). Right now, the pair, who, as Michael puts it, are “always looking for ‘the moment,’ just like in the theater,” appear to have found it (again), with Eva emerging as one of L.A.’s key culture czars, and her husband, at age 75, in yet another act, transforming himself into a noted fine artist.
Eva met Michael, whose seemingly charmed life has been defined by unspeakable tragedy, in 1990, when she was a rising fashion designer. Her Eva Chun line was sold in Barneys and New York’s Bergdorf Goodman. “Every time I had money and could celebrate, I came to Mr Chow,” she says. “I could afford it very rarely. I thought it was terribly good and glamorous.” Michael had separated a few years earlier from model and jeweler Tina Chow, the minimalist muse to Karl Lagerfeld and Giorgio Armani who died in 1992 from AIDS — a topic he finds too painful to discuss.
Another off-limits tragedy: the fate of his parents, who shipped him to an English boarding school when he was 12 and who, it’s believed, subsequently were tortured and killed during the Cultural Revolution. He never saw them again. “I lost everything when I left,” says Michael. “My life has been a big melodrama. It’s been a regaining.”
In spite (or because) of that upbringing, Chow managed to cultivate a now-legendary sense of purpose and self. That includes a distinctive personal style. He is known for his custom suits — first Yves Saint Laurent, more recently Hermes — and owlish Cutler and Gross frames, which he donned in part so that people would “look at the glasses instead of my Chinese-ness, which is sad but true.” The Shanghai native, whose father was a famed Peking Opera grand master and mother an heiress to a tea fortune, calls his fashion approach “trade dressing — like a logo. [Friend] Brian Grazer does it with his hair.”
Eva, a watercolor prodigy in her native Korea who immigrated to Los Angeles with her family at 17, eventually dissolved her line, married Michael in 1992 and gave birth to their daughter, Asia, 20, now a music and English literature major at Columbia University. (Tina and Michael’s son, Maximillian, 37, runs operations at the L.A.-based restaurant group, while daughter China, 40, is best known for judging Bravo’s short-lived Work of Art: The Next Great Artist reality competition with New York magazine critic Jerry Saltz.) Michael’s sister, Tsai Chin, is an actress who played a Bond girl (You Only Live Twice) and Auntie Lindo in The Joy Luck Club.
“After his beautiful wife Tina died, it was hard to imagine Michael would find a partner who might share his feeling for art and beauty, luxury and innovation,” says Anjelica Huston. A longtime friend of the couple (Huston’s late husband, sculptor Robert Graham, created pieces based on Michael and Eva), she credits Chow for his “instinct about talent and arts” — including her own, noting that he was the first person to offer her a job in film (he was casting a martial arts film) and fondly recalling modeling “in my early days” at the Mr Chow in London for designer Zandra Rhodes. “Michael found that in Eva. Eva’s eye and her unbridled attraction to the arts proved to be an extraordinary complement to Michael’s passion. They are simply one of the coolest couples on the face of the Earth.”
Their custom-designed home evinces such coolness. The art isn’t just blue-chip (Ed Ruscha, Peter Blake, Jean-Michel Basquiat, et al.). It’s full of portraiture of the Chows by those blue-chip artists. They’ve got a trove of rare pieces by French art deco master Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann. Their screening room’s piece de resistance isn’t yet another vintage-style popcorn maker. It’s aquarium-like picture windows into the adjacent swimming pool.
“When you eat at their house, the plates are from Hungary,” says family friend Brett Ratner, who cast Michael in small roles in all three Rush Hour films. “It’s the taste! You can’t buy it. It’s the specificity of these choices, the sensibility. I’m fascinated by it. Now I’m the idiot who gets my shoes handmade for $5,000 in London like he does.”
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In recent years, to focus on his “sensuous and violent” neo-abstract expressionist works, the self-made restaurant magnate has stepped away from the day-to-day running of his fine-dining empire (there are six locations, including Malibu and Miami; Vegas is on the way). Yet Chow, whose scrappy early years in London involved immersions in scenes ranging from architecture and art to film and even hair (he started a salon later sold to model Twiggy), still exudes passion for the restaurants’ operation, placing them within the shadow of his father Zhou Xinfang‘s opera work and the continuum of his own larger artistic oeuvre. “Mr Chow is a theater for me — the backstage, front stage, it’s different characters,” he says. “I still tell the waiters and the maitre d’s what to do, how to hold themselves. As the theater director knows, don’t bore the audience.”
The initial innovation of Chow — who avers that he doesn’t read much but is a fanatical cinephile (a favorite parlor trick is naming the opening scene of any film of the past 70 years on-demand) — was to serve traditionalist Beijing specialties amid a European-modernist decor: Josef Hoffmann chairs, monochromatic color scheme, sleek angles. Like the “subliminal, conceptual idea” of elegance inherent in a checkerboard dining floor (inspired by Rudolph Valentino‘s preferred dance floor), the Oriental-meets-Occidental gambit was meant to glamorize Chinese food for his British and then American clientele who, in the 1960s, still saw it as lowbrow and exotic.
“When Mr Chow opened, it was crying out for understanding and respect,” he says. “And I’ve been chasing that rabbit for a long time — with humor: If you charge a lot of money,” he adds, referring to the restaurant’s famously high prices (the classic “drunken fish,” sole poached in wine, costs $40), “you’ll get respect!”
Well, some respect: While the restaurants have been a popular and financial success — still full, still star-studded in beyond-flighty culinary hotbeds — they’ve long attracted gleeful detractors among the foodie cognoscenti who deride the fare as mediocre and overpriced and the scene as gauche. (In 2006, then New York Times critic Frank Bruni took the opening of the new Tribeca outpost as an opportunity to eviscerate the restaurant group’s “oxymoronic experiment in haute kitsch,” noting that “it proved that you didn’t need great cooking to attract boldface names; you just needed other boldface names.”)
Chow says such gibes have more to do with cultural bias than his failings. “Ninety percent negative reviews all of these years, and I’m proud of it,” he says, his voice strict. “Chinese food was so low when I started. You had this Chinese man coming along, almost overcompensating. They couldn’t accept it. The reversal was so violent.” And now? “There’s still a hole-in-the-wall bias,” he says, then pauses. “It’s racism. What I’m saying is no good for a restaurant career. But I’m old.”
The Chows dine out often and are drawn to restaurants that manifest classic glamour or a stagy undercurrent. Their favorites include e. baldi, Lawry’s and the Palm.
Michael, who is quick to self-identify — decades after his assimilation into the highest echelons of American power and culture — as a “refugee,” contends that when he started his career, he thought of far-off Hollywood as a place of yearned-for glamour. But once he got here, he realized that “all of the sophistication of the place came from the foreigners — the Wilders and the Lubitsches,” directors whose refined output was tinged by diaspora-bred despair. It’s not hard to regard his creative impulse, the filmic fantasies enacted in his theatrical restaurants, as rooted and shaped by similar forces. So, too, is his penchant for willful self-creation, his deeply romanticized artifice — the quintessential work of an outsider to L.A. The conjuring calls to mind that of his Holmby Hills neighbor Hugh Hefner.
As Chow sees it, he’s won his culture war, fully becoming the man he has spent a lifetime arranging to be. Now, after what he describes as “this 50-year radical sabbatical,” he has been holed up in multiple painting studios, returning to the fine art career he abandoned half a century ago because he felt it wasn’t a viable path for someone who wasn’t white. It’s a reality, he points out, which held true “until Basquiat.”
In his studios, he produces his mixed-media assemblages, comprising everything from varnished egg yolk to two-dollar bills and sparkling gold leaf. (“Andy [Warhol] said, ‘Put money on the wall,’ so I thought, ‘What’s the best way to do that conceptually?’ “) Given the early imprimatur of former Museum of Contemporary Art director Jeffrey Deitch, the works will debut Jan. 21 in Beijing at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, where the acclaimed likes of Sterling Ruby and Ryan Trecartin also have recently shown. For Chow, the exhibit constitutes a “reuniting with my country,” the end of “a long journey.”
But first, there’s a LACMA gala to orchestrate, which through a certain prism is just the latest by-product of a couple for whom, says Michael, “every detail is a universe,” with the city serving as their wellspring. Explains Eva: “London in the ’60s, New York in the ’80s — Los Angeles is the pioneering city at the moment with this exciting, full-blown energy. It’s at its height right now.”