Friday, February 17, 2012

Chow v. Chow; The Final Countdown to World Domination





After four weeks of contentious and at times personal testimony, the legal tussle between two swanky Chinese restaurants in South Beach is finally in the hands of a federal jury, which will soon decide if there’s room in this town for more than one “Chow.”

Attorneys on behalf of plaintiff Michael Chow, owner of the famed Mr. Chow chain of eateries, and co-defendant Philippe Chow — a one-time Michael Chow disciple who created his own eponymous restaurant franchise in 2005 — gave closing arguments in a Miami courtroom with markedly different styles Thursday, each making one last sales pitch before the jury decides the companies’ fates.

Michael Chow has sued his former protégé (no relation) and Stratis Morfogen, Philippe Chow’s money man, on grounds they stole Mr. Chow’s popular menu, recipes and ambiance — and ultimately his customers. Michael Chow has asked for more than $20 million in damages, a sum that would all but destroy his top competition, a string of restaurants known as Philippe by Philippe Chow.

Philippe Chow and Morfogen have counter-sued, claiming Michael Chow defamed his ex-pupil in the press. They contend that Chow instructed his former attorney, Alan Kluger, to tell a Miami Herald gossip blogger that Philippe was “a fraud” who was nothing but a food chopper while working in Mr. Chow’s kitchen. In closing, defense attorney Anthony Accetta asked the jury for $25 million in punitive damages for this affront.

Thursday, Michael Chow’s current attorney Bert Fields doubled down on the “fraud” accusation, saying that Philippe Chow — through Morfogen — habitually misrepresented himself to the public.

“[Morfogen] repeatedly said that Philippe Chow was the architect of Mr. Chow’s menu, the mastermind behind his dishes,” said Fields, whose measured, even-keeled delivery had the feel of a grandfather reciting a shopping list.

“He’s someone who tried to hitch a ride on someone else’s property. He essentially destroyed Mr. Chow’s business in New York.”

Accetta approached things differently, playing on the jurors’ heartstrings. He depicted Philippe Chow as the embodiment of the American Dream — escaping mainland China for Hong Kong in search of a better life; then later moving to New York and working for decades in Mr. Chow’s kitchen before finally going out on his own.

Along the way, he legally changed his name from Chak Yam Chau to the more-Westernized Philippe Chow — a change that Michael Chow claims impinges on his trademark rights.

“There was no plan to steal, no plan to cheat, and no plan to lie,” Accetta said. “There’s only one person that’s a liar, and that’s Michael Chow.”

Legal experts from across the country have watched with keen interest due to its unique trademark infringement aspect, but Fields spent little of his 90-minute close on that aspect of the case. Rather, he focused predominantly on the false advertising count. Their claim: Morfogen passed his prized employee off as the brains behind Mr. Chow, but Philippe Chow was never the restaurant’s first or even second chef, but rather acted as a substitute chef and food chopper.

“He didn’t create one dish, and has since admitted as much,” Fields said.

The trial’s list of witnesses looked more like a roster of guest lecturers at a culinary institute. Cooks and maitre d’s spent the last month arguing about the authenticity of recipes, and many of Philippe Chow’s employees filled Judge William Hoeveler’s federal courtroom Thursday, some in their kitchen attire, while Accetta made his final plea.

A verdict is not expected before Tuesday.


BY ADAM H. BEASLEY
ABEASLEY@MIAMIHERALD.COM

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