Just seconds before this interview is supposed to start, I panic. How am I supposed to address the person I’m talking to? He was born Zhou Yinghua, and took the name Michael Chow when he moved to the U.K. as a young man, but I’ve never heard anybody call him either of those names. People in his orbit famously refer to him simply as M, but the optimal word here is “famously”— I don’t think I quite rank with Chow’s famous friends past and present, like David Hockney, Michael Caine, or Jean-Michel Basquiat, so I’m uncomfortable just using the letter. I go with the third option, addressing him as Mr. Chow—but even that makes me feel a little strange, because that’s the name of the string of restaurants he began opening in the 1960s, always in the right place at the right time.
As it turns out, none of this matters to the man I’m about to speak to.
“I don’t even know who the fuck Mr. Chow is. I’ve never heard of him. I don’t know who the fuck I am. I still think I’m nobody,” he says before pausing. “Not nobody. That’s not true, but I’m not conscious of that shit.”
The new HBO documentary AKA Mr. Chow, which premieres this Sunday, is a look at Chow’s life and times, his philosophies, and the decades he’s spent blurring the lines between art and dining at his restaurants in London, Beverly Hills, and Manhattan. When Chow made his way to America in the 1970s, Chinese food was supposed to be inexpensive. It was served in paper oyster pails that you’d take home to eat, and what you got when you opened up the white boxes often didn’t resemble anything they served in China. Chow’s goal was to elevate the cuisine of his homeland. Instead of the chop suey or General Tso’s chicken that Americans were familiar with, he gave customers Peking duck pancakes, a quail’s egg fried in shrimp toast, and noodles—pulled in-house and tossed with bits of pork, cucumber, and a little hot sauce. Reviews from the era suggest diners typically paid about $20 a person before tax, tip, or cocktails– or about $87 in 2023 currency.
For the people who frequented his restaurants, the food—which generally earned mixed reviews—was never the point, nor was the price. It was never about going there because you had to try the minced squab nested in lettuce leaves; it was about eating it off of plates designed by Cy Twombly. You didn’t decide to dine there because you wanted a quiet meal; you hoped to be in the same room as Jack Nicholson, Julian Schnabel, Tina Brown, or any of the other famous people that Mr. Chow has counted among its patrons over the years. If you used matches from the restaurant to light your cigarette, you struck a matchbook with art by Ed Ruscha. If you were somebody people talked about, or you at least wanted to be associated with those people—in swinging ‘60s London, the Hollywood of the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls era, or New York during the neo-expressionism boom—all roads led to Mr. Chow, a place subsequently name-checked as shorthand for luxury by everyone from Steely Dan to Jay-Z.
But as the documentary shows, there’s a lot about the famous restaurateur that most of us didn’t know or consider. It shows Chow the personality as well as Chow the boss, Chow the painter, and Chow the immigrant. Everybody from art world maven Jeffrey Deitch to Grace Coddington—ex-wife number one—shows up to talk about him. But the documentary also explores the more painful experiences Chow has dealt with over the years, from the racism he faced as a Chinese man moving to the West to the AIDS-related death of his second wife, Tina Chow.