When it comes to restaurateurs, there may not be anyone more thoroughly modern than Michael Chow. The Mr. Chow founder’s knack for re-invention, not to mention his catholic range of interests—food, art, architecture and design, film—betray a profound self-awareness and a burning desire to be progressive. He’s a man with a deep respect for his heritage but a contempt for complacency. Chow, in short, is always moving forward.
Which is why it should make total sense that the premiere of a new documentary about him, AKA Mr. Chow, directed by Nick Hooker, took place at New York’s Museum of Modern Art on Thursday evening, followed by an after-party at none other than Mr. Chow, on 57th Street.
The film, which was executive-produced by AIR MAIL Co-Editor Graydon Carter and his documentary partner Annabelle Dunne, follows the 84-year-old Chow from his childhood as the son of opera royalty in Shanghai and, later, at a boarding school in England, while, back in China, Chairman Mao purged “counterrevolutionaries” (a group that included Chow’s parents); to his first job, as an actor in films such as You Only Live Twice and 55 Days at Peking; to the opening of his first restaurant, in London’s Knightsbridge, and the growth of his global restaurant empire; and, finally, to his third act, as an action painter. Chow’s restaurants, with their imposingly high prices, exuberant theatricality, and swinging clientele, attracted a creative element that included artists, actors, and models, and consumed their owner’s—and his family’s—life.
At the after-party, Chow, who has taken “M” as his artist’s nom de guerre, looked every bit as debonair and spry in a double-breasted aubergine corduroy suit as he did in the film—you’d never guess the man is 84 years old—with a pocket handkerchief leaping out of his breast pocket like a metaphor for the heart that lies beneath it. He was joined by two of his children, China and Maximillian, and his wife, Vanessa.
The Mr. Chow staff, headed by longtime executive general manager Brian Murati, moved with typical swiftness and grace, serving lychee martinis and champagne to the likes of actor Victor Garber, Louise Grunwald, actor Griffin Dunne, and writer and former Interview editor Bob Colacello, while longtime P.R. flack Nadine Johnson flitted around the room, talking up Chow’s latest restaurant opening, in Riyadh this month. There was a quorum of media and publishing types—literary agent Luke Janklow, former Vanity Fair editor Dana Brown, New York Times journalist Michael Grynbaum and his wife, the writer Juli Weiner, and New York magazine reporter Shawn McCreesh.
The art dealer and trusted Chow adviser Jeffrey Deitch was also there, looking every bit the part of an art-world consigliere. Investor Arki Busson hunkered down at a corner table while AIR MAIL LOOK Editor Linda Wells worked the room. Meanwhile, HBO’s grandes dames of documentary—Lisa Heller, Nancy Abraham, and Sara Rodriguez—and Dan Cohen, who runs Paramount Pictures’ recently revived studio label, Republic Pictures, were a reminder that the New York Film Festival runs through this weekend.
But more telling than anything, perhaps, was the fact that the Chow clan was stationed at a table outside the restaurant, eating dinner with the film’s director, Nick Hooker, while everyone else mingled inside. To Michael Chow—every bit a modern man and bulwark of bohemianism—nothing could be more important than family.
AKA Mr. Chow will be available for streaming on HBO beginning October 22
Nathan King is a Deputy Editor at Air Mail