Can Mr. Chow Teach Scenesters How to Eat Again, Again?

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Michael and Eva Chow hold court in the kitchen. Photo: Angela Smith

It’s an interesting time in the Mr. Chow dynasty, and we’re not just talking about that nasty little lawsuit they filed against Philippe Chow over myriad trademark infringements. "Opening in Miami 100 yards from our future location and representing himself as the real Mr. Chow was the last straw," says the real Mr. Chow. (Philippe, however, says this is hardly the case: "I specifically chose to name my restaurant Philippe to alleviate any confusion with Mr. Chow.") An unpleasant scuffle, indeed — although not, as our brief history of restaurant ripoff lawsuits reveals, an uncommon one — but there are brighter things on the horizon, including a location in the W South Beach come August and long-overdue Vegas outpost at the Harmon Hotel in 2010. And for the first time in its 41-year history, Mr. Chow will soon make a major change to its menu (a rare document in and of itself, until now), introducing a seven-course "banquet tasting" — essentially a tasting menu to showcase his skill — to go alongside their current lineup of family-style classics. The move is, perhaps, a nod to changing times — and the changing tastes of ever-more-discerning diners. "This banquet menu will make us more sophisticated and put us in the category of world cuisine," explains Mr. Chow.

Mr. Chow, of course, has fallen into and out of and back into favor as cyclically and consistently as seasons change (the lackluster response to their most recent branch, which opened in Tribeca in 2006, is a testament to that). And though the Chow restaurants can run for long stretches on autopilot, without Mr. Chow being hands-on, when we caught up with Michael Chow and his wife, Eva, in Beverly Hills, they seemed focused, re-engaged, and ready to talk. "I have a saying that now you have to go house to house," Chairman Chow says. "No more, 'You open the Champagne and people come.' Now, you have to go to the fundamentals." Here, then, some more fundamentals, straight from Mr. Chow himself.

On Chinese translations:
"I use this opportunity of opening this restaurant [in Miami] — you know, the Chinese for 'disaster,' the literal translation is 'new opportunity' — so this is a new opportunity."

On the restaurants and reality:
"When the door opens, it's no longer life. Restaurant is not life. In film, dialogue is not conversation. Dialogue is dialogue. Conversation is conversation. Restaurants, it’s the same thing. Everyone has their uniforms, they've got a performance to do."

On loyalty:
"I try to find the best chair there is. Once I have it, I use it forever. I'm faithful to it. Once I find this light, I'm faithful to it. I'll use it continuously. I don't change."

On bad reviews:
"By now I'm used to it — all the food critics, most of them are very critical of my food. Fortunately, one of my restaurant mentors is Arrigo Cipriani. He has the best ingredients, best chefs. They also have gotten very bad reviews, so that cheered me up."

On consistency:
"I think consistency is very important — and I used to joke that if it's bad it has to be consistently bad. That's a joke — don't print that."

On self-reliance:
"We will do three things. Be true to our dream, true to our time, and true to ourselves."

On the classics:
"At the end of the day, there is not datedness. If you keep it straightforward, about simplicity, it never dates. I don't care how sophisticated people get. At the end, the basic truth is truth."

On dining as a ménage à trois:
"It's a three-way thing, between the waiter, the kitchen staff, and the client. It's a triangle relationship which forms this thing."

On the orchestrations of power:
"[The restaurateur] is the conductor. The chef is the first violinist."

Related: Mr. Chow's Menu...Revealed!
A Brief History of Restaurant Ripoff Lawsuits [Grub Street New York]