Arnold Chan is currently Britain's greatest yet least well known restaurant export.
So far this year he has fine tuned the opening of more than 15
top restaurants round the world including two new Mr Chows as
far afield as Seoul and Mexico City. He is currently working
on the soon-to-open KittiChai in the fashionable Thompson
Hotel in New York as well as on hotels and restaurants in
South Beach Miami, Los Angeles and the Maldives. Anyone who
has eaten at The Wolesley, London, Georges in the Pompidou
Centre in Paris or at The Landmark Hotel in Hong Kong will
also have felt the influence of Chan and his company
But rarely will anyone have seen his name. Chan specialises in
one particular aspect of the restaurant business to such a
professional extent that restaurateurs often come to talk to
him about their next project before even talking to an
architect let alone hiring the chef. Chan's forte is lighting
which as most women know only too well is one of the two most
important factors in every restaurant long before even the
food, wine or location of the table are considered (and for
anyone who cannot guess the second it is the state, condition
and overall cleanliness of the ladies' lavatories).
And although installing lighting that is both flattering and
conducive to mutual appreciation has been important, Chan is
the first to admit that his business, which now has offices in
London, Paris and Hong Kong, has benefitted from a fundamental
change in restaurant ownership.
"Most new restaurants today are no longer Mom and Pop affairs
where the focus is on the food, friendly service and value for
money. They are increasingly multi million dollar start ups
where the minimum involved is $2 million and the maximum,
although this is a one off, is the $12 million spent on Per Se
in the Time Warner Building. It is difficult to put a figure
on what my involvement will cost but I tell restaurateurs to
budget on £5-8 per sq ft but as fine dining restaurants become
ever more sophisticated, the system I am asked to design has
to deliver an increasing range of effects."
"The first and most crucial to the restaurant's eventual
profitability," Chan explained, "is in effect to create two
restaurants, one that customers enjoy at lunchtime, the other
one that they will return to in the evening. This is not as
easy as it sounds now that restaurants are being constructed
as part of a new building with limited natural light. If the
space, the feel is not bright enough at lunch then people will
just not come in. And yet if the lighting is too bright in the
evening then as restaurateur Ian Schrager puts it 'no-one
And that is good lighting's role, to make us feel and look
better and surreptitiously to induce us to spend more.
"Lighting's role early evening is to set the stage, to create
a friendly ambience throughout the place so that customers can
see who is there and what is going on. But then the table
becomes the stage and it has to be lit as though it were in a
theatre. Initially, I light the table and then I work
backwards from where the table is to light the customers'
faces. That is the principle, to work from the centre of the
table back to the customer."
Although that is not always the case. At the highly successful
L'Atelier du Robuchon, with branches in Tokyo and Paris and
undoubtedly more to follow, where customers sit next to one
another at a counter, the centre of attention is not the other
guests. This therefore Chan has lit directly and only from
above so that the light falls on to the principal actors, the
kitchen, the chefs and the food.
And it is no longer a question of simply installing the most
appropriate system. "During the course of an evening our
lighting systems will have to change four or five times but so
subtly that no-one realises what is happening. That is when I
know that I have done my job properly because unlike the
architects or the interior designers I work alongside no-one
should ever notice what we have done. Good architectural
lighting should never stand out - it must just be seen as part
of the interior."
Chan, 46, was born in Hong Kong then educated at St Paul's,
London before an architectural training that eventually led
to a career in lighting which has brought out a latent
passion. Over lunch he mentioned his love of good food on
several occasions and the obvious excitement and pleasure
working with restaurateurs and chefs over the meals that forms
an integral part of the planning stage.
Despite working with some of the world's super egos in the
shape of today's architects and designers, Chan remains
seemingly modest and calm. The only explanation he offered for
his success was that he seems to have an ability to understand
what the finished design will look like at a very early stage.
And the only time he sounded at all exasperated was when
talking about the new Hotel Puerta America in Madrid where he
is installing the lighting for the whole building but each
floor is being individually designed by one of the world's top
Perhaps most importantly Chan appreciates what and how we want
to feel. "There is a synergy between the lighting work I do
for private clients, for offices such as Clifford Chance's in
London's Canary Wharf, for Dolce & Gabbana and Burberry in retail and
for anyone who eats out in any of the restaurants I have
worked on. We are becoming more sophisticated while
simultaneously more casual, more aware of quality and less
reluctant to tolerate even the second best."
And while Chan admits that technology, particularly in the
shape of LED's, light emitting diodes, is increasing the
capability of what any sensitive lighting specialist can do in
any available space, the one piece of lighting he is most
proud of involved no technology whatsoever. "It was a dinner
for 800 in Malaga for the new Picasso Museum in a long black
tent with the King of Spain present. I lit it with 5,000
candles along the tables and on 120 chandeliers. It was
fantastic, " Chan said with a huge smile, "and would have made
a great restaurant."
Arnold Chan can be contacted via isometrix.com