The acclaimed chef and restauranteur on her latest and most daring venture to date.
I think it takes something special to be successful in many industries, restaurants included. What do you feel differentiates you from others who work in the restaurant industry?
There are so many restaurants that you can go to, and the food is plated perfectly, and the lighting is right, the service is good, but they lack soul. I’ve worked at a lot of places, and I’ve also dined out a lot. I’ve never wanted one of my restaurants to be a place where people say, “That place lacked soul.” I think many people don’t realize that cooking is an art. The general consumer at restaurants goes to eat but not to appreciate what’s on the plate. We would never ask a singer to sing something they couldn’t truly get behind, we would never ask an artist to paint something that they weren’t truly feeling in their bones, and I never cook anything that I don’t really believe in. For me, if I opened a restaurant that just satiated everyone’s palate, that would be the epitome of mediocrity. I don’t do this for money. (I wish I did.) We make enough money to supply the art.
Do you feel like you’re mislabeled when someone calls you a chef and restaurateur? How do you describe what you do?
At the end of the day I am a chef and I am a restaurateur. The misconceptions lie in how Americans view the dining experience. You look at different cultures . . . France, for example. You see all of these insane, beautiful cookbooks coming out of France. They’re complicated, and no one will ever cook from them, but they produce the books anyway, and the government subsidizes the production of the books because cooking is a national treasure. In America, speaking as someone who wrote a book, I had to dumb everything down because cuisine isn’t viewed as a national treasure.
You’ve opened up this new restaurant, Les Trois Chevaux, which people are writing about with a lot of excitement. What parts of Les Trois Chevaux are an expression of you?
I don’t do anything that I can’t irrevocably stand behind. This is the first restaurant that I’ve started from a blank canvas, and this was very much a labor of love. Everywhere you look in this place, it’s a reflection of who I am right now and what I have to say right now. As creatives, we continue to evolve. The Beatrice was a reflection of who I was then, but this is a bit of a different thing. Everything from the design elements to the way we conduct service, the food, the uniforms, that’s all a reflection of where I am right now and what I believe the city needs right now. The city very much needs an injection of culture.
Tell me more about that.
I fell in love with New York 20 years ago, and it was a very different city. And I’m not even comparing it to this last pandemic year; I’m talking about New York 5 or so years before the pandemic. I lived in LA before, and there is zero culture in LA, and so I fell in love with New York and moved here because I felt like I really needed the culture. Then 5 or 6 years ago, it started to become more finance driven than about the artists, chefs, actors, literature and theater. It became more about having a black card. As any real New Yorker will tell you though, we don’t care if you have a Black Card or just two nickels to rub together. True New Yorkers care about what your opinion is, what your vibe is. And I think the city has lost some of that. The silver lining on the dark pandemic cloud is that it’s become more about the vibe you’re bringing to the city, what you have to say and less about the finances behind it. It’s very much what I remember from 20 years ago, which is an exciting and welcome change for me.
Les Trois Chevaux takes a clear position that it’s important to bring a level of care and aesthetics back to dining and life more generally. What role do design and aesthetics play in your life?
If you know me, you’ll know I always want to be surrounded by beautiful things that inspire me every day. If we’re going to create beautiful things, it’s important to be surrounded by beautiful things, by interesting people. I’ve always surrounded myself with creative people, who have a vision and opinions, even if they don’t totally match my own.
But with this space, I wanted it to be a tremendously evolving piece of art that you can live, eat and breathe in, so we partnered with people who are artists and at the top of their game, where I could say, “I trust you and your vision, just give me the best.” For me as an artist, that is the ultimate compliment, when someone says, “I don’t care what I eat tonight, just feed me.” That’s what I tried to do with everyone here, like Christian Siriano. “This is the vibe of the place. Design everybody’s wardrobe. We trust you.” We have an art piece here by the artist William Sorvillo. I only gave him the dimensions of the wall. I didn’t even see the piece till it was installed, and I love it. I cried when I saw it. Art has always been a part of my life since I was a kid. My dad designed our house. It was built in the late ‘50s, and it was mid-century modern meets Hong Kong.
Is he an architect?
No, he wasn’t. But he worked with an architect and designed it with him. My mom collected a lot of antique pieces, so we were surrounded by vases from the Ming Dynasty, and we had silkscreen paintings from the ‘50s in Hong Kong. With that design aesthetic in mind and having those really strong pieces in my early life, naturally that’s something I wanted to incorporate into my life here.
What are some of the pieces you feel have a special place in your life now?
There’s a 1972 Leonor Fini here, Ileria. I have the 19th edition out of 30, and it’s of a sphinx. I lost my father about 3 years ago, and I went to France to decompress. I found this piece in a gallery in the 16th [arrondissement], and I went to visit it every day for a week. I ended up not buying the piece, I don’t remember why. And for three years, it was the piece that got away. Every few months, I’d go online and look for it and could never find it. When we were looking for artwork for this restaurant, I said, “Let me just look again,” and I actually found it in a gallery in San Francisco, the Joseph Grossman Gallery. Joseph had bought the print in Paris, and he couldn’t remember if he’d bought it in the 16th [arrondissement], but it must be the same one [laughs]. It’s been a three-year courtship of getting this piece here.
I also have these Tung Dynasty horse lamps that sit on the bar that I love, and which came from an antique dealer in Antwerp. My mother was so glad I found them. She said to me, “You know that that’s how your family got their name, right?” When she married our father, she translated our history, and apparently, my last name isn’t Mar, traditionally, but one of our ancestors was the caretaker for the emperor’s horse during the Tung Dynasty. He was so good at it that when he retired, the emperor bestowed on him the last name Ma – which means horse – and bestowed on him a city. (Where’s our real estate?) But that’s how we got our last name Mar.
So there’s fate that pulls you to some of what you buy, but what are you drawn to visually?
My taste in art is very varied. I love things that are luxe, that are elegant, and I don’t tend to buy or build things unless they’ll be here 20 years from now. Even if you were to go through my closet, there’s nothing tremendously trendy. Everything’s classic. But I’m drawn to things that I love. I don’t buy things for labels. I didn’t buy my Banksy because it’s a Banksy, I bought it because I love it.
Do you collect other things?
Vintage Tom Ford I have . . . a lot of. The Gucci years, I have a lot of that. Nothing very trendy, always things that I’ve been in love with for a long time.
You’ve been really successful and embody at least a couple of underrepresented groups. How do those identities play a role in your life and career?
Alright, let’s talk about being a woman first. That’s a big one. One of the questions I often got when I was coming up was about me being a woman in the culinary space. I never really felt that my gender was an issue when I was cutting my teeth. I didn’t feel my gender became a topic until I started doing a lot of interviews, and then my gender was a topic. It wasn’t something I thought about until I started gaining some popularity. But it is something that I’m conscious of now.
It was also something that didn’t really affect me until I started looking for investors to buy my first restaurant. I realized that there aren’t a lot of people running to give money to women to open restaurants. Meanwhile there are men who’re getting investors left and right. And then I thought, “Okay, if banks and private investors don’t want to lend me money because I’m a woman, even though I have a better track record than the men, I’m just going to do it myself.” And isn’t that everybody’s goal, to have the F-U money? I don’t have any partners at this restaurant, and I like it that way. And that’s when true creativity can flourish.
What about being an Asian American?
There have been more hate crimes and more awareness of them during the pandemic, and it’s made me more proud to be a part of the AAPI community. It has made me more in tune with my heritage; it’s made me want to showcase my roots more than ever before. The last year and a half, I’ve gotten hate calls to my restaurant within 10 minutes of me getting off nationally syndicated television, been accosted in the street in London, haven’t taken the subway. It’s hurtful but at the same time, I also feel that I’ve found strength in it.
Other underrepresented groups find strength in banding together, whereas in my experience, the Asian American community has had this very individualistic approach, where you sink or swim, and you don’t complain. But I think that prevents us from having a collective impact.
It’s a part of the culture. You need to be that model daughter, that model citizen. And you take it so much harder when you don’t do well . . . but you would never cry or throw a fit in public. We tend to internalize. It’s not until recently that I’ve felt a supportive and collaborative energy among Asian Americans, that these are our people. Ultimately, to support each other, we’ve got to spend money with our people. Put your money where your mouth is. For the last year, I haven’t eaten anywhere that isn’t owned by an Asian American. And we have to do things like we’re doing now . . . from one Asian American woman to another, give each other a platform to highlight our accomplishments.