Chow v. Chau/Chow - Battle for World Domination!!
It’s the food fight of the century for all the egg rolls.
Chow v. Chow. Teacher versus student. Legend against upstart.
And it all goes down in a Miami federal courtroom beginning Monday, when a jury must grapple with this fundamental question: What’s in a name?
Among the potential witnesses: none other than former Miami Heat cornerstone Alonzo Mourning.
In one corner — Michael Chow, aka “Mr. Chow,” the creator and owner of the eponymous chain of upscale Chinese restaurants.
In the other — Philippe Chow, 53, a former Michael Chow disciple (and no relation) who went out on his own seven years ago. With the financial backing of restaurateur Stratis Morfogen and several famous athletes, he opened similarly swanky Asian cuisine restaurants intended to compete with Mr. Chow in New York, Los Angeles and South Beach.
The name of his growing empire: Philippe by Philippe Chow.
Confused? According to Michael Chow’s attorneys, that’s the point.
In a federal trademark infringement lawsuit, Michael Chow claims his pupil stole his restaurant’s name, its recipes and even its unique ambience in an attempt to confuse the public into thinking Philippe Chow was the original “Chow” — which is one of the most common family names in China. The suit, which depicts Philippe Chow as a fraudulent imitator whose 25 years in Mr. Chow’s kitchen were spent as little more than a glorified food chopper, seeks north of $20 million in damages.
The accused says all that is nonsense and has counter-sued on defamation grounds. Philippe Chow’s legal and financial teams claim he was a high-level chef, and along with Philippe’s mentor Sik Chung Lam, helped create Mr. Chow’s menu. As for Michael Chow, Morfogen describes him as a narcissistic celebrity front man who got rich on the backs of others.
“Michael Chow can’t boil water,” said Morfogen, who lured his star chef away from Mr. Chow’s New York location in 2005, only to open a near-replica just three blocks away. “He’s not a chef. The real story behind this lawsuit is Mr. Chow’s ego.”
Morfogen’s attorney, Anthony Accetta, plans to make that very point, with the help of a star-studded roster of witnesses.
Mourning, who along with fellow athletes Chauncey Billups, Al Harrington and Jerome Bettis is an investor in Philippe’s locations in Miami Beach and Boca Raton, is expected to testify on behalf of Philippe.
So too is hotelier Giuseppe Cipriani, the target of a similar Michael Chow lawsuit in California. Cipriani’s insult: Calling his Beverly Hills hotel and restaurant Mr. C — also too similar to “Mr. Chow” for Michael Chow’s liking.
Michael Chow, the 72-year-old Chinese expat whose father Zhou Xinfang was the famed grand master of the Beijing opera, declined comment during a break in his case’s final pre-trial hearing Wednesday.
But his attorney, Curtis B. Miner, has framed the debate as a battle for intellectual property rights, claiming that Philippe mimicking Mr. Chow’s essence and the recipes to what appear to be common Chinese dishes is tantamount to stealing the secret recipe to Coca-Cola.
While the lawsuit wasn’t filed until 2009, Michael Chow has been simmering for some time. It began when Chow learned that his old employee had teamed up with Morfogen to plan a Chinese-cuisine restaurant in New York. Alarms went off, the lawsuit states, when Michael Chow learned that his new competitor had legally changed his name from Chak Yam Chau to Philippe Chow and gave his new business the same moniker
And when Michael Chow got word in 2008 that Philippe Miami had bought space in the Gansevoort Hotel — just a quarter-mile from the W South Beach, where he would soon thereafter open South Florida’s first Mr. Chow — it was simply too much for Michael Chow to stomach.
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Miner said. “To think that the individual that [Michael Chow] brought to work for him, that he took care of, literally lent him money to buy his first house, would do this to him is galling.”
Morfogen’s counter-argument: If Michael Chow truly felt like his trademark rights had been violated, why not file suit seven years ago? Why wait until 2009, when the Philippe brand had become a lucrative, bicoastal competitor?
“Considering the timing, I think this case was nothing but a publicity stunt,” Accetta said. “It was all about, ‘How do I get the best publicity for the grand opening of my restaurant at the W?’”
Philippe Miami has since moved out of the Gansevoort and recently reopened a few miles south on Ocean Drive — a move motivated largely by a desire to get away from Michael Chow, Morfogen said.
While Miner would talk little about his strategy for the trial, expected to last up to four weeks, his witness list does give some clues.
Miner indicated he plans to call current Mr. Chow Tribeca executive chef David Hor (possibly to attest to the uniqueness of the company’s recipes), Ernst and Young accountant Sergio Negreira (who will speak to the damage caused by Philippe Chow’s actions) and of course, Mr. Chow himself.
It’s a line of argument that has a good chance of succeeding, said trademark law expert Greg Lastowka, a professor at Rutgers School of Law.
“The trademark and unfair competition claims seems pretty plausible to me, since there appears to be evidence that some consumers were confused about the affiliation of Philippe with Mr. Chow,” Lastowka said. “But I don’t see any particular claim as a clear legal slam dunk. There are contested facts and potentially persuasive arguments on both sides.”
That means Philippe’s fate largely hinges on which story the jury finds most feasible: Philippe Chow as a thief or as the embodiment of the American Dream.
Should Mr. Chow prevail, the Philippe chain would likely go broke. In addition to the crippling damages, Michael Chow is demanding the Philippe restaurants remove from Philippe’s menu items he claims are his property.
“[Michael Chow] didn’t invent Peking Duck, didn’t invent chicken satay, didn’t invent sautéed beef,” Morfogen said. “These are traditional Chinese recipes that have been around for thousands of years.”
As for any chance of a last-minute settlement?
“We just were not going to do it,” Morfogen added. “There was a mediation, but we weren’t in the spirit of settling.
“Michael Chow has used his money and power to muscle people around before, but this time he’s met a formidable foe.”