Chow vain? Caterer to the stars celebrates a life in woks of art

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The Independent Online
Michael Chow, the restaurateur, is celebrating 30 years of serving Chinese food to celebrities by putting his valuable collection of pop- art portraits of himself on display. Louise Jury examines how Mr Chow is depicted by Andy Warhol, David Hockney and friends.

In one of the most unusual art collections of recent times, the face of Mr Chow stares out in the distinctive styles of the artists who socialised at his eponymous restaurants.

Some were commissioned by Michael Chow himself, others really were exchanged for dinner, either in the original Knightsbridge Mr Chow or those he opened later in New York and Los Angeles. Keith Haring depicted Mr Chow as a prawn in the artist's favourite dish, green prawn in a bowl of noodle. There is a self-portrait photograph, and photos by Helmut Newton who wrote on one: "You stick to the noodles and I take the snaps! Love Helmut".

An even longer list of artists from Francis Bacon to Howard Hodgkin doodled in the "artist book" which was kept in the restaurants and features in the film Basquiat - made last year - in which David Bowie played Andy Warhol.

Now, in an extraordinary blitz of publicity, the collection of around 30 works is being brought together from his home and restaurants for the first time to mark three decades in business.

This month it is on display in Los Angeles. Next October it comes to the London gallery of old friend James Mayor where it will be launched with a suitably star-packed party. In a similarly immodest accompanying gesture, celebratory postcards list the stars from Muhammad Ali to ZZ Top who have supped chez Chow.

When the first restaurant opened for business in Knightsbridge, south- west London, on Valentine's Day 1968, Mr Chow was credited with merging East and West, serving Peking cuisine to celebrities who included Lauren Bacall, Marlon Brando, John Lennon and Mae West in meticulously designed surroundings.

He went on to become a celebrity himself, marrying four times including once to the model Tina Chow, who later died from Aids, and acting in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice. Now in his 60th year, he lives in Los Angeles.

Philippe Garner, a Sotheby's expert in 20th-century decorative art, became Mr Chow's friend when the restaurateur was one of the great collectors of art deco furniture and he has written the introduction to the catalogue of the collection. He insisted yesterday that Michael Chow was far from the egocentric that having so many portraits might suggest.

"It's not like that because he has got a great sense of humour. He was very determined building the collection, but he managed to do it with a certain wit and a certain flair that defuses any pretentiousness and pomposity," Mr Garner said.

"In every case they have grown out of either friendship or a mutual respect. I don't think he's ever gone cold to an artist he doesn't know."

A spokeswoman for Mr Chow said that he had always had a great affinity with artists. "Right from the beginning, artists would paint in exchange for dinner. I wouldn't like to put a value on the collection but it's very valuable," she said.

Asked whether it did not appear somewhat egotistical to have so many portraits of himself, she said: "He's a most self-effacing men. It's not really an ego trip at all."