Paul Qui
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Grilled In a Minute: Paul Qui

Julie Mautner - August 19th, 2013

Chef Paul Qui, 32, was born in Manila and raised in Spring, Virginia, and Houston, Texas. Although his wasn’t a particularly food-focused family, an interest in cooking came while waiting tables in college. He followed that interest to Le Cordon Bleu Austin where he graduated in 2004 with an associate degree in culinary arts.

Qui stayed in Austin and landed a job at Uchi, a contemporary Japanese dining and sushi restaurant, where he was so inspired by Tyson Cole that he signed on to work without pay. Qui worked with Tyson for nine years, training in every station and at the sushi bar, and working his way up to chef de cuisine.

During his tenure at Uchi, Qui met Moto Utsunomiya, a blues musician, sushi chef, and longtime friend of Cole’s. Together they founded East Side King, the highly acclaimed food trailer in East Austin’s Liberty Bar in 2009, running the food truck after work and on their days off. It began as a side project with no set hours and eventually grew to include three food trucks and trailers behind assorted dive bars in East Austin and and one brick-and-mortar restaurant at Hole in the Wall. More locations are planned.

In 2010, Qui helped Cole open his Japanese farmhouse-style restaurant, Uchiko, taking on the role of executive chef. The restaurant was met with widespread accolades, including nods from The James Beard Foundation, where Qui was a semi-finalist for the Rising Star Chef award and Uchiko was a semi-finalist for Best New Restaurant.  

In 2012, the City of Austin granted Qui a Key to the City, and declared April 6 “Paul Qui Day.” A month later, Qui took home The James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef Southwest.

2013 has seen no abatement of activity. In late June, he opened Qui on Austin’s East Side, serving “ever-evolving seasonal cuisine” that draws inspiration from his Filipino heritage, classical French training, many years in Japanese restaurants, and extensive travels.

He’s engaged to Deana Saukam, his manager and PR director. The couple live in Austin and say they’ll marry “after we stop opening restaurants.”

So, Paul! Tell us about your new restaurant!
At Qui, I created a space to explore food and relationships with different cultures. The style is Asian inspired, the vibe and decor very minimalist.

How did and will all your early years working with Japanese cuisine impact/affect the menu or the vibe at Qui?
My ideas on food and plating come from a very Japanese perspective. The foundation for a lot of my cooking is also based on Japanese cuisine.

Tell us the three best-selling dishes so far.
•Salmon butter: Ora King salmon gently poached in an aromatic oil to the texture of spreadable butter and served with traditional caviar accoutrements.
•Rabbit 7 Ways: composed of various preparations from French, Thai, and Vietnamese traditions and served with garden greens and carrot nuoc mam dipping sauce.
•Cheddar cheese ice cream sandwich: with crispy waffles, goat’s milk cajeta, peanut praline, honey, and clothbound Cabot cheddar ice cream.

What was the hardest thing about this opening?
Everything! Especially the things that don’t involve cooking or food, like AC units and plumbing. They were solved by a lot more money and patience.

OK, let’s talk about Top Chef. How did appearing on it two years ago and then winning it impact/affect your life, attitude, and/or career?
It opened a lot of opportunities (new guests, food festivals) and allowed me to travel and see the world.

What’s your best advice for young chefs?
Focus on the cooking. Nothing else matters while you’re cooking.

What’s one thing in your kitchen or restaurant you couldn’t live without?
My knives. I use Takamura and Nenohi, which are well crafted and super sharp.

What’s one thing that other chefs/cooks do that makes you nuts?
Cook with spoons in their back pockets.

And one thing customers do that makes you nuts?
Not eating while the food is hot (or cold).

Music in your kitchen during prep?

Music in your kitchen during service?
It depends on the vibe on the floor. It could be LCD Soundsystem, Band of Horses, Rolling Stones, Jay Z, Kanye West, MK Doom…

Three adjectives that your employees or colleagues would use to describe you?
Crazy, intense, neurotic.

And three adjectives you would use to describe yourself as a boss?
Crazy, intense, neurotic.

Were you ever fired?

Last great meal in a restaurant not your own?
Saison in San Francisco. The level of excellence is what made it so great.

For a chef, please suggest three restaurants in Austin that illustrate the best of the food scene there today. Or, three great restaurants they should definitely experience.
Franklin BBQ, Sway, Ramen Tatsu-Ya.

Where do Austin chefs go after service to eat, drink, and chill out?
Liberty Bar, Justine’s, The Grackle, P. Terry’s.

Best day of your career so far?
Opening the doors at Qui. It’s what I’ve worked my whole career to accomplish.

Worst day of your career so far?
Opening the doors at Qui. It’s far from where I think we will be.

What do you know now that you wish you had learned earlier in your career? Or, if you were just starting out today, how would you do it differently?
Nothing. Exploration and failure has been an integral part in my continued education in this industry.

So you and your fiancée are together 24/7. Any advice for making that work?

Finally, what’s your best tip for someone just starting the process?
Immerse yourself. Don’t hold back on anything.