She founded the event in 2011 as a fundraiser for film programming, and it rivals the Met Gala in star wattage. Chow was the perfect hostess Saturday night, wearing a white gown by Gucci’s new creative director Sabato De Sarno and cozying up to the fashion brand sponsor’s new chief executive officer, floating among J. Lo and Keanu Reeves at the dinner tables and planting a kiss on Kim Kardashian’s cheek on the dance floor.
After decades of helping to oversee ex-husband Michael Chow’s Mr. Chow restaurant empire, including introducing Mr. Chow wine, she’s settling into a new life and brand — Khee soju, which was front and center on the cocktail bars at the gala, natch.
“I started this because I love going back to Korea. I was born there, but I came here when I was young, so I guess I missed it. And I really gravitate toward Korean culture,” Chow said over glasses of Khee (which is her name in Korean) on a recent afternoon at her art-filled Beverly Hills house, which is currently on the market for $70 million.
“I want to sell and move to Trousdale to a smaller house, midcentury,” she said before opening the doors to the impressive library where she has entertained the Obamas, among many others.
Dressed in a casual sweater, pants and ballet flats, she uses a pair of silver tongs to put ice cubes in crystal lowball glasses, offering her soju neat (it comes in 22 or 38 proof for $39 to $59) or mixed with flavored Perrier. It has a pleasingly clean taste, is refreshingly cold and easy to drink without a bite.
“While I was getting divorced with Michael, I said, I need to do something to spend time in Korea. So I thought, you know, there’s this national drink but outside of Korea, nobody really knows about it. They know sake, and if you distill soju more it becomes sake. The technique is the same but the rice is different in Korea. So mine is very specific to my taste.”
Chow was born in Seoul, and her family moved to the U.S. when she was a teenager. She never tried soju — the clear, colorless alcoholic drink made from rice or sweet potatoes — until she was an adult.
“When I started going back to Korea, we’d be in restaurants and everybody’s drinking the stuff. One night I was having dinner with Psy, you know, the singer, and he says, ‘you’re Korean; you need to drink soju.’ I’d never had it. So he taught me everything. I thought it was so harsh swallowing it and it smelled of medicine alcohol, so I wanted to make something different.”
She spent three years developing Khee, which first launched in Korea last year. It’s also available in the U.S. at Bristol Farms, Wally’s Wines, and at restaurants such as Mr. Chow and Spago in L.A. and the Cote Korean steakhouse in New York.
“It’s the number-one premium soju in Korea now. A lot of people are used to the diluted cheap stuff which comes in a green bottle usually, and sells for 7 or 8 dollars. This is made in an area where they grow the best rice, the water comes from 500 meters underneath the ground, we use the very best yeast and nothing else,” said Chow, who designed the bottle resembling a perfume flacon.
She has the design background, having attended the Otis Parsons School of Design in L.A. While there, she put together a small collection of simple evening dresses and tailored suits and showed it to a buyer for Neiman Marcus. When the buyer placed an order, she was in business. At its height, the Eva Chun label had a showroom at 550 Seventh Avenue in New York, she had her own manufacturing company, and sold to Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys New York, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and specialty boutiques globally.
“Now, I’ve kind of made premium soju fashionable in Korea,” she said, noting she sold 100,000 bottles last year in Korea, where “Squid Game” actor Jung-Jae appears on her billboards, and she opened a member’s-only bar in Seoul that is frequented by the stars of BTS and Blackpink, execs from Samsung, Shinsegae and other friends to experience the drinks, she said.
The U.S. has been a little harder to crack, mostly because people don’t know much about soju.
“I need to educate American people about what soju is,” she said. “The biggest thing in Korea is soju and beer, but it also makes great cocktails. I think this is the next big thing; we’ve had vodka, tequila and gin, and with this you don’t put on weight, it’s very pure.”
Unlike music, art, fashion and film, soju is one aspect of Korean culture that has yet to really go global in a mass way.
“When I was working in New York as a fashion designer, there were hardly any Koreans, much less Korean restaurants. Now you have Cote, and you open Netflix and it’s all Korean content,” said Chow, who is financing the brand herself.
Her many Hollywood friends have been happy to support. At last year’s LACMA gala, Miley Cyrus was photographed draped across the Khee bar.
“So far, I haven’t really been in front of it. Because despite what other people think of me, I don’t do me, me, me,” said Chow, whom the New York Times has called “the culture queen of Los Angeles” in a 2015 profile that depicted her as a persuasive figure. “But I want to go really mass so I need to come forward and be attached to my brand. Next year, I’m taking it to Europe and then China…I made this for the world, not just Korea. And when people get to know Korean culture, Chinese culture, Israeli culture, that’s when they really become one. I think that’s where we should go and that’s where we’re going.”