Next up on his plate: an artist’s life in a loft

Times Staff Writer

LEANING his long and lanky frame outside his door, Philip Chiang welcomes a visitor to his downtown loft, built with a spot-on view of the 4th Street bridge and Boyle Heights beyond. The third-floor unit has east-facing windows that capture intense morning light, but on any given day, they also frame dozens of car crashes, foot chases and crime scenes -- all staged by the film crews that flock to the street’s gritty glamour.

It’s quite a difference from his previous Hancock Park digs, but then his change of address is about reinvention. After decades as a leading restaurateur, chef, consultant, graphic artist and expert scrounger, he has fully embraced the life of a fine-art painter at his warehouse district loft.

It is the latest creative incarnation for Chiang, 59, who hails from restaurant royalty. He is the son of Cecelia Chiang, founder of the Chinese restaurant Mandarin in Beverly Hills. (She is said to have been to Chinese food in America what Julia Child was to French cuisine here.) He succeeded his mother at the Mandarin and then created the template for hip Asian eateries with Mandarette on Beverly Boulevard and Lucky Duck on La Brea Avenue.


Chiang also lends his expertise and shortened surname to P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, the 154-unit chain he co-founded with Paul Fleming (he’s the P.F.). When Chiang’s not painting, he remains the restaurant’s “culinary ambassador.”

This fabled son of food fame says acquaintances assume he’s living in a mansion or commanding his own Chiang chain, but then they come to understand him.

“I’m pretty funky. I’m very bohemian,” he says. He travels frequently enough for P.F. Chang’s that a lock-it-and-leave-it loft has great appeal. And for now, he’s had enough of running restaurants.

His building shares space with other artistic and commercial enterprises. His loft formerly housed an architectural firm. Just inside the door is Chiang’s lightly paint-flecked studio, the painting area strategically ordered like the prepped ingredients of a chef’s mise en place. The rectangular room features a large easel, custom built-ins for supplies, and a floor and table protected by taped-down plastic sheets.

THOUGH his career transition to serious painter might indicate he’s abandoned restaurants, Chiang’s loft proves otherwise. Restaurants remain an important part of his identity and a key element of his decor. You just don’t notice at first.

Neatness is part of the aesthetic and helps blend his swap-meet finds into a balanced whole. “I can do the whole very designer-y thing,” Chiang says, listing names of famous furniture sculptors. “But it’s like, ‘Ah, forget it.’ This is much more fun because you can mix and match.”


A short inventory: a Hopi kachina doll, deer antlers, a wooden woman’s-torso lamp, tidy towers of CDs, an awful lighthouse-scene upholstered chair, commercial kitchen appliances.

The clues to his past life add up in an accumulation of odd objects.

Those white bleached, billowing curtains that conceal a long closet? They’re un-ironed tablecloths, acquired at swap meets and hung from a specialized clip and rail system suggested by his ex-wife, interior designer Jackie Terrell.

The main room’s centerpiece is a heavy-duty rolling picnic table with padded benches of sorts. If it reminds you of the former Hillmont steakhouse (now Cobras & Matadors) in Los Feliz, that’s because it came from there.

The red rug under his ultra-low-slung table used to soften the steps of visitors to the Mandarin. The table used to host family dinners in his old Hancock Park condo, a historic but darkish place not conducive to painting.

Many collections are of interesting tableware -- antique sake cups, smooth wooden bowls, dense iron teapots, Japanese lacquer trays.

In the kitchen hangs a Mexican art calendar from a favorite Santa Fe restaurant, Cafe Pasqual’s. The pair of stainless-steel worktables, the deep double sink (one side for washing brushes; the other for dishes) and the range that’s so high-powered it burns his rice came from a Los Angeles supplier of used restaurant equipment.

It’s the pots and pans that surprise. No fancy brand names here, save for two Le Creuset casserole pans. The sturdy stainless-steel set came from a Camarillo outlet store. Saved a bundle.

“I used to be hands-on in the kitchen, and I enjoyed that part of it a lot,” Chiang says. He doesn’t entertain much these days, but he still scours swap meets near and far.

Hanging above his bed, like a great mother figure inhabiting his dreams, is a stiff, linen ceremonial cheongsam dress that he bought at a Shanghai flea market.

A living room wall covered by flea market portraits peeks into Chiang’s sly, dry wit. (Lucky Duck’s menu featured “Ugly Dumplings” and “Capitalist Pig” barbecued pork, while his e-mail address contains “forkitover.”) There’s a rare paint-by-number nude, a masculine-jawed woman next to a feminine, flirty-eyed guy. The formality of a button-down executive’s pose is counterpoised by its simple frame and relaxed brushstrokes.

Beneath the simple portraits, bookshelves compartmentalize his life. A paperback of significant graphic design from 1970s California artists highlights Chiang’s album cover artwork for Black Oak Arkansas, the Four Tops, Keith Jarrett and John Coltrane, and a poster for Lynyrd Skynyrd that’s now in a museum. Another section holds art books; a third, cookbooks; a fourth, volumes on Asian art and history.

ON a recent Saturday night, he greeted friends and fans in a rear room of the Frank Pictures Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica.

This was the first full-scale showing of his ethereal oils and acrylics, and a significant public step. The 4-by-3-foot canvases reveal a soul concerned with vast spaces, shadows and light, a desire for wisdom. (Hence the owls that figure prominently.) It is no surprise that in art and decor, Chiang is oriented toward the spare and graceful.

“My influences are actually other artists,” says Chiang who has bachelor of fine arts degree from Art Center College of Design. “Georgia O’Keeffe is my huge influence. I love the way she collected stones and branches and twigs.”

Like Terrell, whom he met more than 30 years ago, Chiang favors a judicious use of color, clever groupings and an enlightened embrace of swap-meet chic.

“He has a great eye for things,” says Terrell, who is working to place Chiang’s paintings with her clients.

As one would expect, Chiang has a wide circle of acquaintances he met through his various restaurants. Laurie Frank, the art gallery owner who staged his show, remembered being impressed by him years ago when he was the maitre d’ at Mandarette.

“I thought that he had a natural elegance that was so compelling,” Frank says. The image was indelible. “I loved the way the Mandarette looked and the way he appoints himself. The art he put into the Mandarette was way ahead of his time.”

And now, Frank sees a biographical imprint on Chiang’s spare paintings.

“He was born in China and raised in Japan. There is something about his aesthetic that is a mix of those cultures. It has the intricacy of a Chinese sensibility and the simplicity of a Japanese one.”

That is perhaps why Chiang, who also speaks Chinese and Japanese, painted a lonely expanse to surround an intensely complex hummingbird that makes the barest impression in a landscape. Or why he can arrange simple stacks of cups, bowls or trays into artful still-life compositions.

Despite the seeming randomness of his household assortment, Chiang explains that each piece has a visual and a visceral effect on him.

“Once I see something beautiful, I can’t let it go,” he says. “It’s like when you look at a good piece of art. It melts you. I find that, whether it’s in teacups or rugs.”