Ted Gachot / November 2005
Food Arts presents the November 2005 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to designer/restaurateur Tony Chi. For more than 20 years, Chi has been designing gems of understatement, restaurants couched in a soft-spoken voluptuousness that consistently achieve "wow" by avoiding it.
"We try to produce mature design," explains Chi, "which means ‘just enough.' Know the don'ts and know the dos. It's a balance we're playing with. We definitely haven't perfected that yet, but it's a goal we're working very hard on." With an estimated 800 restaurants under his belt, the fruits of those efforts are probably more visible today than they have ever been.
Take the elevator to the upper reaches of any conspicuously new or recently renovated hotel, for example, and you stand a very good chance of finding yourself in a restaurant designed by Chi. His projects from the last handful of years include such commanding presences as Asiate and MObar at the Mandarin Oriental New York; Alain Ducasse's Spoon at the InterContinental Hong Kong; The Oak Door, Juniper, and Maduro at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo; Azul and Café Sambal at the Mandarin Oriental Miami; Nobhill at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas; and NoMI at the Park Hyatt Chicago.
So much Chi in high places is perhaps even better news for the hotel industry than it is for the designer because he brings to such projects the same down-to-earth instinct for what makes a restaurant physically and psychologically comfortable that he employs in smaller neighborhood restaurants like Umu, an oasis of old Kyoto in the heart of London's West End, or Yé Shanghai, a whiff of the old Bund in a restored merchant's house, or Gobo, a vegetarian country kitchen in New York City's West Village. Always thinking in terms of "comfort" and "quality" rather than "luxury" (a term he studiously avoids), Chi's approach—sophisticated yet democratic—has prevailed as the new model for easygoing glamour. In a sense, taste has finally caught up with Tony Chi.
Born in Taiwan and raised in New York City, Chi is instinctively in tune with a smaller, more connected world. Whether in Asia, Europe, Australia, America, or the Middle East, he builds restaurants that feel both of their place yet welcoming and familiar to visitors. He is as comfortable referencing 1930s China (like he did in Shanghai Lily at Mandalay Bay) as he is California patio-style (for the Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill at the MGM Grand). The simple truth about Chi, however, is that he knows in his bones how to create likeable restaurants. He has a better sense than perhaps anyone in the field for how to give limits and coherence to a project, to employ a controlled palette of subtle colors and textures, and to choose appropriate artwork. Working with a hand-picked staff of 30, he also has the means to lavish attention on details like lighting, tableware, uniforms, and plantings. He has, in the end, the good sense to follow his gut. And what his gut tells him is that "Restaurants are all I want to do."