Restaurateur Michael Chow on Vintage Cartiers, Big Tips, and Why He Only Drives Rolls-Royces

Michael Chow

Michael Chow © Adam Amengual

The legend behind Mr. Chow on what still inspires him after 85 years.

“I hate people who drop names—and Lady Gaga agrees with me!” says Michael Chow, better known as Mr. Chow, the name of his global network of fine-dining temples. Joking aside, memories involving A-listers are always within reach for the restaurateur. 

Chow was just 12 when he left his native Shanghai to attend boarding school in England. Both his mother and his father, a leading Beijing opera performer, fell victim to China’s Cultural Revolution. He wanted to be an artist but was told that Chinese men in the West faced a stark choice: “restaurant or laundry,” as he put it in last year’s HBO documentary aka Mr. Chow

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He turned to acting, scoring roles in films including You Only Live Twice, before his entertainment-world contacts helped finance his first restaurant in London in 1968, when he set out to prove that Chinese cuisine can be as chic as anything you’d find in Europe. 

Soon, regulars included the likes of the Beatles and Jerry Hall, and within a decade the hot spot had outposts in New York—where Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat often dined—and Los Angeles (Jane Fonda and Marlon Brando were fans). The seventh Mr. Chow outlet opened in Riyadh late last year, and another is just about to open in Dubai. Now, at 85, “M”—as he is referred to in art circles—has returned to his original calling and believes waiting a lifetime to pursue his artistic dreams has made his work stronger. “To be a great painter, you need soul,” he says. “Otherwise, the painting is meaningless.” 

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning? 

I get up very early, and in the morning, when I have clarity, I reanalyze what I did the day before. So I start the morning very fresh, before I get polluted by the reality of the world. 

What apps on your phone do you use the most? 

I’m technologically illiterate. I don’t know how to use email—I don’t even have email, thank God. But I do text, and I love to. Because if I don’t know how to spell something, I can just talk into the phone. 

Do you have a uniform for certain occasions? 

My costume is formally dressed. I need armor to compensate, otherwise they keep putting me down! So I’m all dressed up. A bespoke suit from Hermès, George Cleverley shoes. The socks are by Charvet. 

Chow at home in L.A. © Adam Amengual

What do you crave most at the end of the day? 

A cuddle from my wife and my two babies. 

How do you find calm? 

When I go to sleep, I usually design an interior [in my head]. I just design, design, design, and then I go to sleep. 

Who is your dealer, and what do they source for you? 

Jacob Twyford at Waddington Custot, a gallery in London. He’s incredible. Very knowledgeable. And he’s the only one that gave me a show. It’s very difficult to find someone who loves art and is also very straightforward.

His painting One Breath hangs at left next to Gus Van Sant’s Mona Lisa. © Adam Amengual

What is your exercise routine, and how often do you do it? 

I’m not very sporty, because I’ve suffered from asthma since I was young, but I do swim. I try to swim three times a week for 40 minutes. 

What does success look like to you? 

If you can practice every day to be kind and above all, to be real, that’s success. Don’t be a phony. And on top of that, give me a Ferrari.

Do you wear a watch? 

I’m too chic to wear a watch. You see, I’m beyond watches! But I specialize in collecting vintage Cartier watches and Mickey Mouse watches—the early ones.

Vintage Cartier from his watch collection. © Adam Amengual

If you could learn a new skill, what would it be? 

Maybe tai chi. It’s very powerful. Because it’s internal. Oneness with nature and all that stuff. 

What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten? 

Sam Spiegel, one of the greatest producers ever, gave me three pieces of advice: Always drive a Rolls-Royce, always tip big, and always borrow big and pay on time. And I follow two and a half [of those]. I drive a Rolls-Royce. I don’t believe in tipping, but I do believe in overtipping. And I do borrow big, but I never pay on time. 

What car are you most attached to? 

My first Rolls-Royce was a straight-six Silver Cloud I. Right now I have a Bentley Continental II. I ordered it from the factory in 1985, and I only have something like 60 miles on it. And then I drive a Volkswagen Type 1 convertible. It’s a stick shift. It’s, like, falling apart, but it’s cool. 

Drive or be driven? 

It depends. As you get older—and you’ll find out—everything deteriorates. So driving at night is difficult. Also, I don’t know how to use GPS. 

A 1985 Bentley Continental II. © Adam Amengual

Who do you admire most in the world? 

Leonardo is a great one. Not DiCaprio—Leonardo Da Vinci. In the film world, Luchino Visconti, [Akira] Kurosawa, all these great movie directors. Elia Kazan. I think Marty [Scorsese] is great. 

What’s your favorite hotel? 

It’s always changing, but one of them is Eden-Roc—that’s my number one in the world. Because of the landscape, the history, the whole thing. Claridge’s has some history, too. I think London has some good ones. 

What’s worth paying for? 

Expertise. When you come to a point where you need to know something right now—whatever you have to do, pay for it. If I’m stuck in certain things, I’ll pay anything. Otherwise, I can’t move forward. 

How much do you trust your gut instinct? 

I think I’m trying to do that 99 percent. But it’s very difficult. Because sometimes you’re scared, right? But I’m trying to. 

What’s always in your hand luggage? 

Well, I’m trying to be a minimalist, but I need my costumes.

Chow says the blue frames of his Theo glasses “make me more handsome.” © Adam Amengual

What’s the last film you paid to see? 

Oppenheimer. I hope you’ve seen it. 

Last box set or Netflix binge? 

The Crown. Because I grew up in England. 

What kind of music makes you happy? 

Oh, I love Ennio Morricone. I love him. It’s kind of romantic. I love Beethoven and opera—and the Beijing opera, my father’s stuff. 

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