Sky-High Prices? Bad Reviews? No Matter: Mr. Chow Powers On
Michael Chow looked at ease in his favorite banquette at the Carlyle hotel, beneath a portrait of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in their “Easy Rider” prime, but something in his peripheral vision nagged at him.
周英华看上去轻松自在，他坐在卡莱尔饭店自己最心爱的靠墙软座里，头上是一幅彼得·方达(Peter Fonda)与丹尼斯·霍珀(Dennis Hopper)的照片，照片上的两人正值出演《逍遥骑士》(Easy Rider)的全盛时期。但是透过眼角余光，他看到的景象有点让他心烦。
A nearby couple had gotten up to avail themselves of the breakfast buffet, leaving their table askew. Through his signature circular spectacles, Mr. Chow kept darting glances that way.
“The table’s not straight,” he finally said, giving the impression that he was prepared to get up and tackle the symmetry issue on his own if need be. “I’ve been in the restaurant business too long.”
That longevity, he contends, has hinged on his paying attention to countless details, both great and small. Mr. Chow opened Mr. Chow — the original, in a glamorous neighborhood of London — on Valentine’s Day in 1968. Almost half a century later, at the age of 77, he can remember how that felt.
“On the first night, everybody came: the Stones, the Beatles,” he said. “Everybody was rocking. The energy there was fantastic.”
It snowballed. A Beverly Hills, Calif., branch opened in 1974; in 1978, Mr. Chow came to East 57th Street, and 10 years ago, to TriBeCa. Everything that was surging in high art and pop culture seemed to converge and collide over noodles and dumplings at Mr. Chow. He ticked off the names of film directors, musicians, actors, painters and models like Federico Fellini, Daniel Barenboim, Jack Nicholson, David Hockney, Yoko Ono, Jerry Hall.
他的生意越做越大。1974年，他在加利福尼亚州的比佛利山庄开了分店；1978年，Mr. Chow来到了东57街；10年前，又来到了翠贝卡。高雅艺术和流行文化界的一切新潮似乎都在Mr. Chow餐厅摆列面条和饺子的餐桌上融汇、碰撞。他谈起不少电影导演、音乐家、演员、画家和模特的名字，比如费德里科·费里尼(Federico Fellini)、丹尼尔·巴伦博伊姆(Daniel Barenboim)、杰克·尼克尔森(Jack Nicholson)、大卫·霍克尼(David Hockney)、小野洋子和杰莉·霍尔(Jerry Hall)。
But along with success came scrutiny, including a scathing zero-star review in The New York Times from Frank Bruni, who wrote in 2006 of a lamb shank at the TriBeCa restaurant: “If I learned that it had been plucked from a freezer after the better part of a decade and then nuked in a microwave for the better part of a day, I’d be shocked. It didn’t taste nearly that tender or flavorful.” Adam Platt, the New York magazine critic, reported that “a dish called Drunken Fish ($31 à la carte) consisted of a couple of wet pieces of sole sunk in a curious gelatinous substance which had no color and very little taste and looked perilously like pond slime.”
但是伴随成功而来的还有挑剔。比如2006年，《纽约时报》上就曾经刊登过一篇尖刻的餐评，给Mr. Chow打了零星，作者是弗兰克·布鲁尼(Frank Bruni)。他这样描写翠贝卡餐厅的一份羊腿肉：“如果我知道它是在冰箱里放了快10年才拿出来，然后又在微波炉里加热了差不多有一天，我会震惊的。它尝起来远没有那么柔嫩美味。”《纽约》(New York)杂志的评论家亚当·普拉特(Adam Platt)
Under normal circumstances, lines like those would be enough to sink a restaurant. Yet the Mr. Chows in Los Angeles and New York are still thriving, drawing celebrities and other customers who weren’t born yet in 1968, or 1974, or 1978.
Somehow, at a time when 10 years seems a full life span for big-city restaurants, Mr. Chow persists, and even grows. A Las Vegas outpost arrived at Caesars Palace late last year; a Mexico City version is around the corner, and Mr. Chow is building a 60,000-square-foot art and cuisine center in Los Angeles.
In this sense, the Mr. Chow brand has evolved into a prime example of the bulletproof restaurant. Just as there are superhero movies and hit songs that continue to rally a wide audience despite the wincing disapproval of critics, the allure of Mr. Chow does not seem to dim no matter how many times customers are told that they’re crazy to pay that much for stir-fry.
在这个意义上，Mr. Chow已经发展为一个屹立不倒的餐厅的典型。虽有评论家们的皱眉反对，超级英雄电影和热门金曲还在继续吸引大批观众和听众；同理，不管消费者被告知多少次，花那么多钱吃Mr. Chow的炒菜简直是发疯，它的魅力似乎依然没有减弱分毫。
If critics tend to say that nobody goes to Mr. Chow for the food, Mr. Chow and his wife, Eva, who plays a key role in the brand’s expansion, beg to differ. Their fare is an authentic reflection of Beijing cuisine, they say, and they recruit chefs and cooks from Hong Kong and Beijing to prepare it.
“Sticky-sweet,” “gooey-sweet” and “crunchy-sweet” can seem to be the dominant effects, but for diners who hew closely to the dependable territory of soup dumplings and salt-and-pepper prawns, a pleasant meal can be had.
Should you point out that the prices seem punishingly high (Beijing duck, for instance, is $74 per person), Mr. Chow will smile and nod in affirmation. Steep prices are part of the strategy.
“People say, ‘Oh, it’s so expensive,’” he said. “I say, ‘Fantastic!’” He added: “Expensive is important. Very important.”
First off, charging exorbitant prices has allowed him to make a statement about the cuisine of his homeland. (His name at birth, in Shanghai, was Zhou Yinghua; his father, Zhou Xinfang, was a titanic star of the Peking Opera.)
“Chinese food was supposed to be cheap,” Mr. Chow said. “I changed all that. But it took me almost half a century.”
He is happy to go further. (“Too old to be too cautious,” he said.) Are those pricey portions at Mr. Chow noticeably small? Yes, he said, on purpose. He always wanted portion sizes to stand in stark opposition to the heaping platters at chain restaurants like the Cheesecake Factory, where you might dig into “a salad you keep eating for two hours.” (At breakfast in the Carlyle, he consumed only a bowl of plain yogurt.)
他还乐于走得更远（“我太老了，来不及谨慎行事了，”他说）。Mr. Chow的昂贵菜品菜量是不是特别少呢？是的，他说，这是故意的。他一直希望Mr. Chow的菜量和Cheesecake Factory之类连锁店的大盘子大碗形成鲜明对比，在那样的地方，“沙拉能让你吃上两个钟头”。（在卡莱尔饭店吃早饭时，他只吃了一碗原味酸奶）。
High prices have also allowed him to foster the see-and-be-seen cachet he wants to cultivate. To this day, a Champagne cart rolls up alongside your table when you sit down at Mr. Chow. “Champagne is luxury,” he explained. “There’s no luxury without fantasy. And no fantasy without sex.”
Does it seem like kind of a show? It’s supposed to. “It’s all about theater,” said Mr. Chow, also a painter whose artwork was recently shown in an exhibition at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. “It’s very important that you cast it like a theater. It’s all about, ‘Don’t bore the audience.’”
Servers, whose ancestral homelands are apt to lie closer to the Mediterranean than to the Yellow Sea, hover like Broadway stagehands, making sure that props are in place.
At his table at the Carlyle, Mr. Chow demonstrated how he always wants the tines of a fork to be pointed downward, toward the table. (He harbors an anxiety that when they are pointed upward, someone could accidentally smack them and send the fork flying into an eye.) It can take weeks, he said, to teach a server to place the utensils properly.
“If you build an environment based on details like that, you will create a harmony,” he said. “Every single thing you do properly. It’s all connected.”
Julian Schnabel, the artist and filmmaker who has been a Mr. Chow regular since around 1980, said that sense of harmony can be felt from the moment you pass through the front door. “You feel like you’re going somewhere auspicious when you go there,” he said. “There’s a sense of ceremony about it. He’s got a method to his madness, I guess.”
艺术家、导演朱利安·施纳贝尔(Julian Schnabel) 自从1980年左右便是Mr. Chow的常客。他说，一走进大门，便可以感受到那种和谐。“到那里去，你会觉得来到了一个吉祥的地方，”他说。“有一种庆典的氛围。我猜他这种近乎疯狂的做法自有它的道理。”
In his 1996 film, “Basquiat,” a portrait of his friend the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mr. Schnabel shot scenes in the Midtown Mr. Chow to recreate the ambience of a place where stalwarts of the Upper East Side establishment could trade glances with strivers from the worlds of avant-garde painting and hip-hop.
施纳贝尔1996年的电影《轻狂岁月》(Basquiat)描绘了他的朋友、画家让-米切尔·巴斯奎特(Jean-Michel Basquiat)。施纳贝尔在中城的Mr. Chow取景，重现了那种上东区主流社会的拥趸与前卫绘画派和嘻哈乐圈的奋斗者彼此对视的氛围。
“I think there’s a great understanding of spaces, in the places he has, so that people can see each other,” he said.
The actress Olivia Wilde, a frequent customer at Mr. Chow in TriBeCa and elsewhere, echoed that notion of ceremony. “It makes you feel like you are part of something that is larger than just a meal,” she said. “I think that’s why people are drawn to it.”
女演员奥利维娅·怀尔德(Olivia Wilde)是翠贝卡及其他地区的Mr. Chow餐厅的常客。她也提到庆典这个概念。“它让你觉得你属于某种比一顿饭更宏大的东西的一部分，”她说，“我觉得那是它吸引人的原因。”
If there is something cinematic about the mise-en-scène, that is probably no accident. Ms. Wilde said that she and Mr. Chow have a continuing conversation in which she will randomly mention the name of a movie from the past century. “He can tell you the opening shot of the film,” she said. “I challenge you to challenge him.”
His attention to detail applies to customers, too. When her son, Otis, was 9 days old, Ms. Wilde and her partner, the actor Jason Sudeikis, dropped into Mr. Chow for a meal. She soon realized that she needed to heat up some milk to feed the baby. Servers took note.
他对细节的关注也用在顾客身上。怀尔德的儿子奥蒂斯(Otis)9天大时，她和男友演员杰森·苏代基斯(Jason Sudeikis)去Mr. Chow餐厅吃饭。她很快意识到需要热点奶喂孩子。服务员注意到了。
“They brought me the most beautiful silver bowl of water to warm up the breast milk,” she said with a laugh.
If there is one central principle that keeps the Mr. Chow mission chugging along, it’s the same that applies to Shake Shack or Starbucks: consistency. If you are familiar with the menu at the Southern California branch of Mr. Chow, and happen to drift into the Midtown Manhattan branch, don’t worry: The menu is essentially the same.
如果有一个中心原则，推动周英华的生意不断稳步前进，那就是与Shake Shack或星巴克(Starbucks)相同的原则：一致性。如果你熟悉Mr. Chow南加州分店的菜单，然后偶然走进曼哈顿中城的分店，那你不必担心：菜单本质上是一样的。
“I do love how loyal to the original menu they stay,” Ms. Wilde said. “It’s so nice to be able to walk in and not look at a menu: ‘This is what I want. This is what I’m craving.’”
In Beverly Hills, “we have waiters that have been with us since 1974,” Ms. Chow said. Many of today’s loyal customers, she added, are the children of their fans from the 1970s and ’80s.
The couple live in Los Angeles but are buying a place in Brooklyn. Ms. Chow recently worked closely with a manufacturer in Ohio to help create mass-market versions of three signature Mr. Chow sauces.
Mr. Chow has three children: China, Asia and Maximillian, who is the head of culinary operations for the restaurants. (He has been married three times, once to the fashion editor Grace Coddington.)
Ultimately, the secret behind Mr. Chow may simply be Mr. Chow himself. There is a reason the man’s portrait has been painted by the likes of Warhol, Basquiat and Keith Haring. In person, he is effortlessly charming and unflappable, tossing out quotes from philosophers and smiling in a way that suggests that critics who harp on the air-kissy, grand-operatic excess of his restaurants are missing the point.
说到底，Mr. Chow餐厅背后的秘密，可能就是周英华本人。沃霍尔(Warhol)、巴斯奎特(Basquiat)和基思·哈林(Keith Haring)等人画过他的肖像是有原因的。他轻松自如，充满魅力，从容镇定，经常引用哲学家的名言。他微笑的方式像是在暗示，那些大肆谈论他的餐厅宏大奢华歌剧风格的批评家们没有切中要点。
Running a restaurant is rumored to be impossible. Mr. Chow respectfully disagrees. “Very easy, no?” he said. “Be true to yourself — you can’t go wrong. Don’t follow trends. Be yourself. Just be true.”
Moments later, having left the Carlyle, he sent a text that signed off with his own emoticon: