Michael Chow knows the essential ingredient of life and is not afraid to share it with others: harmony. “Everything is connected,” says the famous restaurateur behind the legendary restaurant chain Mr. Chow tells Yahoo Entertainment. “We all need to speak from the heart and with harmony and understanding.”
For over 50 years, Chow has sought harmony through food. Since opening the first Mr Chow in London in 1968, the son of Peking Opera superstar Zhou Xinfang has brought his signature blend of Chinese cuisine to cities like Los Angeles, New York, Miami Beach and Las Vegas. And every new location is an opportunity for him to build bridges between East and West at the dinner table.
“I think of it as a type of music,” Chow says, linking his career to his father’s operatic legacy. “I use Chinese cuisine to communicate with the West and to harmonize the cultures, so to speak.”
But as revealed in the new HBO documentary Also known as Mr. Chow, Chow’s eventful life traverses countries and industries. After leaving China in 1952 to attend a British boarding school, the now 84-year-old entrepreneur pursued passions that ranged from the fine arts – a career he has only recently returned to – Filming acting for fashion. But as he notes in the documentary, the prejudices of the time ultimately pushed him toward two specific career paths: restaurant or laundry. He chose the former and never looked back.
“Circumstances led me to enter the world of food,” he says now. “It is my job, my responsibility and above all my culture. I’ve always been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, whether it was the Swinging Sixties in London or New York in the 1980s.”
And if the audience takes away a message Also known as Mr. ChowChow hopes it is: “I hope it helps people harmonize. The world should be getting smaller, not bigger, and we should all move forward in harmony.”
1. They brought Mr. Chow to America at a time when Chinese cuisine was not highly valued here. Have you encountered any resistance?
There are three types of Chinese food: One is the great, great Chinese cuisine, which is eaten by 1.4 billion people in China. And Westerners can’t eat any of it! Or at least almost none of it. The second type was developed in the United States and is based on a type of racism. The most famous dish of this type of Chinese cuisine is Chop Suey or Egg Foo Young, which are kind of crazy and ridiculous. And then there is the third style, which I curated at Mr Chow over half a century ago, which highlights a special way of eating and respect for the original author’s menus.
Someone said that Chinese cuisine is like a symphony while French cuisine is like a beautiful quartet. So that’s the scale difference. Chinese food is very difficult [for Americans] Eating when you are very young – it is too demanding and complex. It’s not a piece of meat between two slices of bread! These taste buds need to be developed as a child, and I think I have made the public more and more accustomed to Chinese cuisine. At the beginning I gave them sugar, then later the more demanding foods. But I never compromised on the original recipes – I always followed the author’s intention.
Food helps build bridges. Mr. Chow has been on this planet for 50 years and I have seen the West become more comfortable with my cooking. Food is very nutritious and it is my job to feed people. When serving a classic Chinese dish like Peking duck, I always try to stay true to the original concept of the dish. It’s a very complex dish and I can’t get it all right, but I’ll do my best to make it as true to the author’s intent as possible. Basically, it is a mix of high culture and low culture, but it has dignity, it has righteousness, and it helps people appreciate the beauty of Chinese cuisine.
2. The Mr Chow restaurant in New York attracted art world superstars such as Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. What was it like having such celebrities as regular customers?
I created an environment where all creative people were welcome, whether classical musicians, writers, directors, actors or artists. And it was organic, not calculated. Since I was born into a theater family, I was lucky enough to be able to pass this on to others.
I remember Andy [Warhol] was very extroverted back then, because he was shot afterwards [by Valerie Solanas in 1968], he switched bands, so to speak, and became very sociable. I was very lucky to meet him then. At the time, Studio 54 in New York was having a big break in the ’70s, but Mr. Chow opened in the early ’80s when it was winding down. In fact, as you can see in the documentation, [Studio 54 owners] Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell threw me a birthday party with over a thousand people. It was also a farewell party [to the club]and there was no drinking because the liquor license had been lost!
So Mr. Chow came in and took over and gathered all these artists in one place. This is common in the art world; Think of Picasso and all those poets Meetings in cafes in Paris in the early 20th century. And then there was the devastating AIDS crisis, which was closely linked to the art world. So many creative people have died. It was very painful and we can still feel her loss today. I happened to be in the middle of it too.
3. Back when you were actors, you and your sister, actress Tsai ChinThey were both in the 007 adventure You only Live Twice. What is your fondest memory of Sean Connery?
Well, he was Mr. Cool, wasn’t he? He had an incredible sense of humor and looked better as he got older. He was a giant and was greatly missed. It was a great honor to work with him. Daniel [Craig] was also a fantastic Bond. The Bond films are fantastic. They’re very operatic, aren’t they? Opera is on a grand scale, and the same goes for these films.
I’ve been very lucky to work with a wide variety of actors and directors. I’ve worked with Nicholas Ray, Wim Wenders, Francis Ford Coppola – the list goes on. I made a film called 55 days in Beijing with some of the biggest stars in the world: Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, David Niven. I’ve always been in these types of environments; I don’t know how and I don’t know why, but I’m not complaining!
I find it very unfortunate what has happened to the films. People prefer to talk about content rather than art, which is very sad. I saw John Huston’s film The asphalt jungle last weekend, and it’s such a beautiful film. I’m going to the premiere of Martin Scorsese’s new film [Killers of the Flower Moon] and this kind of film is very important. Films must survive amidst the noise.
Also known as Mr. Chow Premieres Sunday, October 22nd on HBO and Max.