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‘Artists Can Do Anything In Our Restaurant’: Michael Chow on Food, Painting, and Mae West

Michael Chow.

Michael Chow.

Michael Chow had been a struggling painter in London for ten years before founding his first restaurant, Mr. Chow, in 1968. He eventually expanded the business to New York and later Los Angeles, and now also has spots in Malibu and Las Vegas, among other places. Chow is best known for being the ringmaster of social life in the New York art world throughout the ’80s, the de facto host for gallery dinners for SoHo’s more hedonistic corners. He provided a safe haven for artists, who could get away with anything at his restaurant, in between plates of Chicken Satay. “Mr. Chow’s became sort of the cafeteria of all these artists,” Chow said in a phone interview from California this week.

Many of the artists who were Mr. Chow regulars at their peak in the ’80s—Julian Schnabel, Kenny Scharf, Red Grooms, Francesco Clemente, and so on—are experiencing a popular resurgence now. Chow has not been overlooked in this nostalgic reassessment. Schnabel, who is not exactly known for praising others, toasted Chow at an event last year at Art Basel Miami Beach. (Or, he attempted to. The speech devolved into a Schnabelian rebuke of the audience.) Chow’s first solo show in the United States is on view now at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. And Chow, along with his wife Eva, will be honored next Monday at the New York Academy of Art’s Tribeca Ball.

Chow speaks in art-historical tangents, and offered a rather concise narrative of the New York art scene when he opened his restaurant on East 57th Street in 1979, a story that was entwined with the roots of the New York Academy of Art.

Andy Warhol (Chow’s friend) and others founded the Academy in 1982 in order to champion the importance of figurative painting and classical drawing. “Andy’s worries were that the art of classical painting was getting lost,” Chow said. “But it’s sort of ironic that he almost singlehandedly destroyed that kind of painting! When he was a kid he always did transfers, and later on he broke through with the silk screen, part of a Duchamp way of thinking. Of course, a few years later, everyone was claiming that painting was dead, which is a ridiculous statement.” He said claiming painting is dead is the equivalent of telling a restaurant owner “no one is going to eat meat anymore.”

Chow was born Zhou Yinghua. He was “uprooted from China” in 1952, going to England at the age of 13, after which he “lost everything, so to speak, including my name.” His father was the celebrated opera performer Zhou Xinfang, who died during the Cultural Revolution. Chow did not ever see his father again after leaving China. He trained as a painter at Central Saint Martins in London, around the time that Abstract Expressionism was peaking. The rise of Pop art in the early ’60s, Chow said, “destroyed everything. Even Rothko’s career was on the rocks. All the other different schools were put on the wayside.” Chow was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to survive as an artist, so he took what he described as a “50-year sabbatical.” He’s only recently gotten back into it, though he was always a connoisseur. Alongside his own work at the Warhol Museum are selections from his collection of portraits of himself, by artists like Keith Haring, Ed Ruscha, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. (The Academy will also put one of Chow’s own paintings on view at the Tribeca Ball.)

Taking a cue from his father’s history, Chow decided to start a restaurant after giving up his painting career, “because I treated it like theater.” He also saw some overlap between art and food: “You make a painting, like you make cake,” he said. “That’s the implication.” His inspiration for the look of the restaurant was Rita Hayworth glamorously gliding across the screen in the 1946 film Gilda. (Chow’s fondest memory is of another Hollywood icon, Mae West, coming into the Los Angeles Mr. Chow: “The whole room stood up and applauded.”) But, more than anything, he thought of Mr. Chow as a way to educate the West about Chinese culture. The restaurant quickly became a gathering place for artists, models, and musicians—Paul McCartney, he said, banged out the rhythm for “Back in the U.S.S.R.” on one of the dinner tables. Chow commissioned original art to hang in the dining room. Most of these were portraits of the restaurant’s owner. At the time, he said, “portraiture was out. Just like meat is out, or painting is out. Only the queen got her portrait done. Those who did portraits were in Siberia, as far as artists go.”

In New York, Mr. Chow opened in midtown, but it quickly became a piece of downtown folklore, SoHo’s restaurant of choice. Cathleen McGugigan’s classic profile of Basquiat in the New York Times Magazine opens in the restaurant, a scene so full of cameos, it is worth quoting in full:

When Jean Michel Basquiat walks into Mr. Chow’s on East 57th Street in Manhattan, the waiters all greet him as a favorite regular. Before he became a big success, the owners, Michael and [his first wife] Tina Chow, bought his artwork and later commissioned him to paint their portraits. He goes to the restaurant a lot. One night, for example, he was having a quiet dinner near the bar with a small group of people. While Andy Warhol chatted with Nick Rhodes, the British rock star from Duran Duran, on one side of the table, Basquiat sat across from them, talking to the artist Keith Haring. Haring’s images of a crawling baby or a barking dog have become ubiquitous icons of graffiti art, a style that first grew out of the scribblings (most citizens call them defacement) on New York’s subway cars and walls. Over Mr. Chow’s plates of steaming black mushrooms and abalone, Basquiat drank a kir royale and swapped stories with Haring about their early days on the New York art scene. For both artists, the early days were a scant half dozen years ago.

Chow set out to have his restaurant be a place for creative people to congregate. “Creative people have a tendency to be glamorous—to be beautiful,” he said. “Artists can do anything.” He quickly qualified this. “Artists can do anything in our restaurant. They have that right.”

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