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February 19, 2017

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Q+A: Mr. Chow arrives at Caesars Palace after 48 years of global restaurant success

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Courtesy

Mr. Chow owner Michael Chow.

Mr. Chow

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Chicken satay at Mr. Chow.

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Green prawns at Mr. Chow.

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Squab with lettuce at Mr. Chow.

It’s set to be the tastiest Christmas gift of all. Acclaimed global restaurateur and artist Michael Chow is finally opening his Mr. Chow palace of Chinese cuisine on the Strip in time for the holidays. It will be the seventh restaurant in his nearly half-century global mission for perfection to prove his belief that Chinese food is the world’s best cuisine.

His restaurants in London, Miami, the California cities of Beverly Hills and Malibu and two in New York have become celebrity-studded spots for everybody from Lady Gaga to Paris Hilton to Keifer Sutherland and the Kardashians. Mr. Chow has become an institution for the rich and famous and Hollywood’s biggest stars.

The new Las Vegas restaurant is inspired by Michael’s personality and style. It offers a modern, sleek design with clean lines and pops of color. The restaurant features a comfortable, warm and welcoming charm, living room-style furniture and dynamic sculpture in the center showcasing energy reflective of Mr. Chow.

The cuisine will pay homage to the traditional family banquet. It is a social event meant to be experienced with others. Dishes are served communal style to ensure that all guests experience everything. The principles of Chinese cuisine are entrenched in a theory of harmony, dictating that all facets of the senses are stimulated equally.

A balance of tastes, textures, fragrances and colors are presented in a way that enhance and accent one another. To ensure the most enjoyable experience, a single person, typically the host of the group, traditionally does the ordering.

Patrice Rozat will be general manager of Mr. Chow Caesars Palace, and Kam Kwan Chee has been appointed executive chef. Menu favorites will be featured including Beijing duck, fried Gambei seaweed and Mr. Chow Noodles.

Food Network star Alton Brown showed how amazing executive chef Danny Yip at the Beverly Hills venue makes them on this YouTube video. If we are lucky enough, the chef in Las Vegas also will present the spectacular noodle-making.

Mr. Chow Caesars Palace will seat 277, including the main room, two private dining rooms and outdoor terraces. Michael, who I have known for more than 35 years, flew in for a progress inspection and gave me the first private tour before we sat and talked:

So, Michael, the first thing that strikes me as I walked in here is an extraordinary piece of mobile sculpture in the domed ceiling. What did you create it as?

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Independence Day” inspired me. I think of it as a spaceship. This space has a dome of 60 feet in diameter, which is unusual, no columns supporting it, so it’s fantastic open space. I felt that this would also be our moon, 26 feet in diameter, so it opens and closes with lighting. It keeps on changing not just color but different shapes, so very sculptural.

With people sitting underneath, it will be a special experience. I’ve always designed all my restaurants — I think that I am part of it — so that means every single aspect from A to Z. I think it’s important that it’s very integrated, so that’s the relationship from this particular connected sculpture to the rest of the restaurant.

It’s very different from the previous Emperor’s Court space. Instead of one elevator in the lobby downstairs, you now have a champagne lounge that’s open for the first time to the casino and two elevators.

Ah, yes, the champagne lounge. Mr. Chow is unique. We always had a champagne trolley where you could have champagne by the glass from a large selection. You have Dom Perignon, which is very difficult to have by the glass. Most people have probably never tasted it, so champagne always works very well with our type of cuisine because it’s light and bubbly and happy.

We are on the second floor, which faces the pool, which is a very harmonious space. We have outdoor patios with seating all season long. Spring, summer and winter. We have a very good heating system, and we’ll be enclosed by glass up to about six feet.

You will really feel welcomed in the middle of the winter to enjoy this beautiful view. This space is very harmonious because the 60-foot dome controls it, and the scale is going to be very beautiful. This is our seventh Mr. Chow, although we opened a few others before it happened.

I’ve always wanted to come back to Las Vegas. It has always been important. We had five opportunities to open restaurants here, but each time there was a problem. The last time, fate intervened. We were going into MGM’s Harmon hotel tower, which never opened and was recently demolished at CityCenter.

That wasn’t very lucky, but finally I see us in a very good fit with Caesars Palace because it’s a classic. It’s the foundation of Las Vegas and had the longevity of enjoying this reputation and classic, so Mr. Chow is the same thing. Mr. Chow will be 48 years old next year, and that’s a long time.

It all started in my hometown of London?

A lot of changes, but no change in one sense. We started as a classic, and we’re still here half a century later.

Were you the first Chinese fine dining restaurant?

No, I wasn’t the first, but certainly the best. … I was motivated not as a business but in the quest for perfection and teaching the world about our food. In my opinion, it is the greatest cuisine ever! I was uprooted from China at age 12 to England and was devastated because I lost my country. My parents, although they didn’t die, I couldn’t communicate with them for political reasons.

I always had this desire to communicate between the west and east, so the restaurants became self-appointed ambassadors to create the culture. The restaurant for me is a very cultural place. It’s always related to art or creative people, artists, directors, celebrities and movies.

Creative people have always been attracted to the Mr. Chow restaurants. It hasn’t changed much, although we have accumulated a lot of good ideas and details over the years to form what now we call Mr. Chow.

Are you more of an artist than a restaurateur today?

I know that I am an artist. Even the way I do the restaurant is an art. It’s basically like writing a musical. The convention of a musical, everything has a convention, so I just wrote the restaurant as a musical with the backstage, front stage, costumes, characters and the cast of players. I was a painter — a starving artist. When I was very young, for the first 10 years, I lived in England.

Then I switched to restaurants and now just four years ago I switched back to painting. Fortunately, I enjoy great success. I had matured obviously over 50 years of a radical sabbatical.

To me it’s the same thing, the continuation of the creation, and the restaurant is very much creativity because in the restaurant I direct everybody like a director. How the maitre d’ should stand, walk, talk, everything, all the details.

Where did you find your team of perfectionists for Las Vegas?

Chinese cuisine led by the chef is a team. I’m very fortunate; they all come from Hong Kong. Stylistically, they’re compatible with our form of cuisine. Basically it’s Beijing cuisine based, but at the end to me a restaurant is always about its relationship to food, so of course if you are chef, you’re responsible, but even if you’re not a chef, the cuisine still belongs to the restaurant.

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Mr. Chow.

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Mr. Chow in Tribeca in New York City.

So food like everything else here is detailed — what I call every detail in the universe right down to the sounds you will hear. Every detail has to be true, and when you do that, it filters to the others and cumulatively speaking becomes very powerful. You always have a vision, and the vision I want is to create magic every night.

If you want to create magic every night, what you have to do is make sure A to Z is truthful, be harmonious, because every detail is like the universe. There’s no difference between something very big and very small. This is the philosophy behind the restaurant and in a way the philosophy when I do architecture — all the same philosophy.

Will we see your art hanging on the walls?

No, no, no. That’s for an exhibit in a museum. My only art is this particular piece designed as a connecting sculpture. This is the only Mr. Chow with it, although we could make another for a museum if they want one.

Your restaurants are ticking up to the 50-year mark in longevity?

Yes. We opened the first in London on Valentine’s Day 1968, and it’s still going strong. Beverly Hills is 44 years old. The design hasn’t changed; both restaurant designs haven’t changed very much, maybe 10 percent. Why? Because we start with this already classic; it’s already truthful. If you are truthful, be honest, and it should become a classic.

I then opened New York on East 57th Street, then I took a long pause before I opened Tribeca. Now I’ve opened Miami, then Malibu, and we’re about to open Mexico City in May 2016.

Taking in this space, Las Vegas looks as if it will be the largest?

No. Miami is very big and beautiful also; it has a 125-foot chandelier in it. I’m very happy and grateful that I’m able to propagate. … I felt that Chinese cuisine and culture are so great, so I really want the west to communicate with us and still respect the Chinese culture and people.

Let’s talk about the fried seaweed — the Gambei — for a moment. It isn’t seaweed, but you’ve kept the recipe a secret for years. How on earth did fried seaweed catch on with the stars and become this cache food item?

Gambei has mutated from one thing to another. In fact, in the beginning, it was with dry scallop in Chinese — all scallop called Gambei. You’re outdating yourself because now people don’t talk about Gambei too much. They talk about the other things.

So what replaced Gambei? In terms of the cache?

I don’t replace anything; I always add and improve. We created this particular dish called chicken satay — the sauce is a secret. It’s a very popular, fantastic sauce. We created a few classic dishes. The menu has changed maybe 20 percent since Day 1. I don’t change my design. If it’s not broken, why fix it?

How are you going to change 47 years? What are you going to change to? In order to survive, you have to change a little. If you really think about it, the chair has always been the same. Once I find the perfect chair, I stick with it. Once I find the perfect fork, I stick with it. Once I find the perfect ice bucket, I stick with it. So I always enrich, enrich, enrich.

They’ve become integrated with one another because that’s the best chair you’re going to get. Our chairs are fantastic because it doesn’t occupy space. It’s the same level as the table, so all these things … you see people say, “It’s so boring, let’s change the interior, which is crazy.”

If you walk into my Beverly Hills restaurant, the Richard Smith mobile painting is still up there. It doesn’t look like it was built yesterday, right? It doesn’t look like it’s 44 years old.

How do you envision this Caesars Palace location turning out?

We’ll have seating for 170 or 180, I’m not sure, in the main room, then three private rooms with one of them convertible to become a big room or two smaller rooms, and finally the seating around the dome overlooking Garden of the Gods pool.

The bar is interesting. It is going to be intimate in one sense because you can see everything, and yet it’s huge and grand and scaled right. When the light is dimmed, the whole thing will be very, very beautiful. And color comes in — we have beautiful long-stem roses — the people will look beautiful because the lighting becomes very glamorous.

It transports you to somewhere else. It also has a ’30s or Latin kind of feeling, which I was always fascinated by. I love it — a very romantic, European feel from another time.

Have you set your opening dates? Hurry up — we can’t wait!

We’re opening mid-December for the soft opening, but we will have the huge party in late January.

I’m also opening an art show in the Andy Warhol Museum in February in Pittsburgh. I just had two shows, one in Beijing, one at the Power Station in Shanghai, a huge museum. I’ve been very lucky and successful with a painting career. My paintings are very abstract, Expressionist landscapes.

You know my expression of “champagne wishes.” How would you toast to the success of Mr. Chow Las Vegas after trying to open five times previously?

Here’s to Las Vegas, and never say no!

Robin Leach of “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” fame has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past 15 years giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Las Vegas Sun Entertainment + Luxury Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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