They’re not. After having effectively put down the paintbrushes when he launched his first restaurant, Michael has begun painting again in earnest. Though initially reticent to discuss the matter, he later shows me the large sculptural canvases he has been working on (in parts painted with sheets of silver for added texture) and reveals that he is contemplating an exhibition. (“I don’t know how much he is letting on, but he has been so invested in his painting and is working really hard, like, well into the night,” says his youngest daughter, 18-year-old Asia.)
We retire to his ground-floor library, a Macassar ebony–lined tribute to Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, the French master of Art Deco design, to whom he often refers as his god. Michael, who has designed all of his restaurants, as well as outside commissions like the Armani boutique on L.A.’s Rodeo Drive, says that from the time he was an art student, he has admired Ruhlmann. Michael rejected the reigning Bauhaus orthodoxy, which dismissed Art Deco as dated display and ostentation. “Ruhlmann, to me,” he says, fidgeting with a pen, “is the finishing of Versailles, so to speak: the culmination of the great 18th-century tradition of decorative arts, architecture, and furniture.”
Michael certainly appears to have taken to heart the sayings of his idol (a voluptuary if ever there was one), especially the tenet that there is no luxury without fantasy. On one wall of the aristo-looking library stands a fireplace sourced from a Scottish castle; above it hangs an Ed Ruscha painting from 1973 titled Mr. Chow L.A. and rendered in organic substances like egg yolk and soy paste. Behind two handsome desks is a commanding 16th-century Belgian tapestry depicting David going to battle against Goliath. “What can I say? I take collecting very seriously, and I am very obsessive,” he offers flatly.
True to his word, his obsession extends to religiously amassing everything from prestige cars to door hinges, Lloyd Wright–designed houses to ice buckets. An asthmatic since childhood, he is also threatening to start collecting wheezy friends like Martin Scorsese, with the view to forming an asthma club. “I collect the lot, including the greatest Ruhlmann collection of all time—of all time…I sound like Muhammad Ali, right? King complex, you know. Doesn’t mean I’m a bad person.”
A cineast with an impressive below-ground screening room, Michael has a Socratic memory when it comes to recalling opening scenes from movies. “Name me a film,” he taunts me, “and I’ll tell you the opening shot.” Modesty Blaise, by Joseph Losey, I suggest, after he rejects Chinatown for being too easy. “Modesty Blaise?” he asks incredulously. “Also too easy. Opening scene is of me!”