In our experience, restaurateurs generally keep mum when they’re smacked with a lawsuit, but not Stratis Morfogen, God love him. We found him more than willing to talk about allegations that he and his chef, Philippe Chow, infringed on the Mr. Chow’s trademark in order to lure customers away. Our conversation was a long and lively one (Morfogen even ended up sending us his chef's passport in order to show us he legitimately changed his name to Chow), so let’s get right to it. (By the way, if you thought Mr. Chow was taking the hard line, check out yesterday’s am New York article about Mister Softee sicking investigators and tow trucks on imposters.)
Did you see this coming?
When I partnered up with Philippe Chow five years ago and we opened four years ago, I said, “Something’s going to come where this guy is going to challenge it,” but Sirio didn’t do it to Daniel and I can name twenty other examples. If you’re not going to do it the first year, why four years later, when we have such big momentum? It’s suspect that it coincides with his opening in Miami. It’s all a PR stunt. One, it sounds desperate, and two, he wants to show we’re not the real deal and we’re the “imposter” or whatever he called us.
How is Philippe feeling about all this?
He actually wanted to call Michael Chow. He feels he has a 27-year history with him and he doesn’t understand why he doesn’t want to wish him well.
You think that’ll happen?
It won’t — Michael has always been about what’s best for Michael. He doesn’t have any chefs that are partners. He doesn’t have a history of sharing with his chefs or the guys that have made him a success.
Did he come to you with these concerns and ask you to stop before filing the lawsuit?
Never, never, never. You want a laugh? I actually sat at the same dining-room table at a Balenciaga party with Michael and his wife — maybe he didn’t know who I was, but I found it completely okay to sit at the same table as him.
Has your lawyer given you any indication of how solid his case is?
It’s meritless. Their complaint is that we’re confusing the customer. When we first opened, we went out of our way to take the extra steps and safeguards to make sure we were introducing our brand as something completely different than Mr. Chow. We don’t want to be associated with Mr. Chow. Obviously there are similarities in the dishes because the chef came with us and went after the American Dream and went on his own. He’s been cooking this way for 27 years. It all comes back to the fact that I don’t agree with the customer experience at Mr. Chow. They’re bright lights, we’re dark. They don’t give a menu, we do. They do orders for one, we do it for two or family style. They don’t have a lot of music in the house, we have music in the house. We wanted a complete turnaround from what customers were experiencing there. I was going there for seven years and I’d always eat the same thing and get a different bill.
What about this accusation that Philippe lifted dishes? When you designed the menu, did you think about how similar they should or shouldn’t be to Mr. Chow’s?
Mr. Chow doesn’t own the words Beijing chicken or Peking duck or lettuce wrap or chicken satay or crispy beef. They’re in a hundred Chinese restaurants. For him to say he has a trademark means Burger King should be wiped out because McDonald’s has a trademark on the hamburger. We’re not calling it the Whopper, or “Mr. Chow’s chicken satay.” Thirty percent or 40 percent of our menu is dishes that Michael Chow does not have. Keep in mind, Michael Chow is not a cook. It’s fine if Michael Chow wants to say that I’m just an amusement-park owner or whatever, but let’s be clear: Michael Chow is not a chef. He’s lived off other people and other chefs.
And was Philippe a chef or was he really just an expediter, as the lawsuit claims?
To portray him as a chopper is comical. That hurt him, because he put 27 years of his life in there. When I was introduced to him by managers, waiters, and staff, they called him Chef Philippe, Chef Philippo, Chef Philippa — always Chef. In his office there are pictures of him and celebrities photographed in the middle of the dining room in a full chef’s outfit. Our lawyers will tear this apart because his whole complaint is contradictory. It’s almost laughable. Actually, when Philippe said he was leaving, Michael Chow offered him a couple years' salary not to open a new restaurant. Why would you make that kind of deal with a “chopper?” And if you want to clear up this thing about him being the chef, why don’t you do that the first week we open so that we don’t have any momentum?
Is it true you slipped a bus boy a twenty in order to be introduced to him?
It wasn’t a $20 bill, but I gave a business card to the bus boy and that’s how he came out. That’s not how the deal came about — we became friends first. I mean, not friends, but he knew who I was and he would see me and say hello and we ended up coming together in 2005.
Obviously Mr. Chow seems to be doing well for itself. Do you think they’re doing this because they see you’re not doing as well and they want to sink you finally? Or is it that they see you as a threat? Who has the bigger business?
We average 400 to 500 dinners a night — he averages 50 to 60 dinners a night. Ninety percent of the market share has come to Philippe.
How do you know Mr. Chow’s numbers?
The chefs all talk. They’re all friends. We have about six or eight people that left Mr. Chow and worked with us. The ex-waiters filled in the missing information [about Mr. Chow] — they charged you whatever they wanted to charge you.
A great deal of the acrimony seems to be because you’re located so close to each other. Is this like a Pinkberry–Red Mango thing where you’ve made a conscious decision to be near him?
Our decision is to stay away from him. We signed the Miami deal before his deal and opened a year and two months before he opened. I don’t understand how he says we went where he was. I’ve been offered a dozen different locations in Beverly Hills and I’ve intentionally stayed away from all of them.
But your publicist did kind of go after him by pointing out that he supposedly hired a non-Chinese chef. Do you think that might have triggered this? Do you regret that?
I don’t think it did. That was really an internal conversation we had with our publicist, and it wasn’t meant to go out. To tell you the truth, I thought it was pretty smart for him to go in a different direction.
Finally, there’s the accusation that you tried to use search tags and whatnot to lure away Mr. Chow’s would-be customers. You have to admit, you must’ve tried to snag some of his customers in the beginning.
Absolutely not. Yes, in Google we bought the word Chow — we bought different words like “Chinese food” because that’s just good marketing. Why shouldn’t we get the word Chow when our chef’s name is Chow? There are one million people in the world named Chow! You know what’s funny? Philippe Chow’s birth name and his American name are pretty similar — they’re both pronounced Chow. Michael Chow’s birth name has nothing to do with Michael or Chow. This is borderline egomaniacal! The world doesn’t revolve around Michael Chow.