Paul Qui is on the Path of the Perfect Bite. But first, lunch.
Uchi's second-in-command has agreed to meet me at a Vietnamese cafe to talk about Uchi's baby sister, Uchiko - the restaurant he'll oversee as executive chef when it opens to the public July 6.
Qui (pronounced "key") orders a whole fried catfish. It laps over the sides of a serving platter, its body gilded with batter: fins, tail, head, eyes and all.
He goes to work on the fish, tearing off pieces to fold inside a spring-roll wrapper. The meat is still as hot as the fryer it came from, but the heat hardly registers as Qui loads the roll with bean sprouts, cilantro and basil, then shows me how to do the same.
He doesn't mind the build-your-own spring rolls. The work focuses him. His movements become quicker, his expression sharper.
At 29, Qui looks young enough to play a teenage son on TV. But they haven't been easy years. I can see scars like tiger stripes on his right arm, left there when pork fat from an overhead broiler took its red-hot revenge. The same arm carries a tattooed sun that could be rising or setting.
Let's call it sunrise.
Uchi, meet Uchiko
Here's the thing about Uchiko: It's not Uchi the Second.
In the beginning, chef and owner Tyson Cole imagined it that way: "One on the north end of town and one on the south, and that would be a perfect world." But as both the thinking and his No. 1 pick for executive chef evolved, "It started making more sense to make a departure. Still maintain the same style of service, similar cuisines, somewhat Japanese focus, but work off of what we've learned at Uchi."
Both restaurants have menus divided into cool and hot "tastings" that average about $17, plus sushi and sushi rolls, grill sections and desserts by pastry chef Philip Speer. But the ingredients and preparations have personalities of their own.
Cole's Japanese-centric menu has smoked yellowtail with yuca chips and Asian pear. Qui's more pan-Asian menu has amberjack with fennel and Fuji apple. Uchi has "Uchiviche," with salmon and tomatoes. Uchiko will have "Koviche," with scallops and tomatillo.
Sorry, Uchi fans. Uchiko has no tempura-fried "Shag Roll" with avocado and sun-dried tomato and salmon. But it does have the "Toledo," with big-eye tuna and greens and grilled garlic.
Do a double-take, Uchi fans. Uchiko takes reservations. To be fair, so does Uchi, but only from 5 to 6:30 p.m. and 9 to 10 p.m. The rest is up to the walk-in gods, who listen with conspiratorial glee as we wonder aloud: "Do we hire the baby-sitter for two hours - or five?"
"The space at Uchiko, we're hoping, is going to be mostly reservations," Cole said. The restaurants will share a phone number (916-4808) and reservationist.
"The bar at Uchiko has about 50 seats. The bar at Uchi has five seats," Cole said. Uchi has 100 seats in 2,700 square feet; Uchiko has 200 seats and just shy of 5,000 square feet.
The numbers don't stop there. A third Uchi concept is in the works for Houston, set to open inside the Loop before the end of next year, Cole said. Meanwhile, he confirmed that another project with which his name was associated - a Spanish-influenced restaurant called Canteen planned for the W Hotel in downtown Austin - is on indefinite hold.
The Perfect Bite
It was Cole who set Qui on the Path of the Perfect Bite, back when he let the culinary student work for free at Uchi in 2003. It was Qui's first job as a cook.
"They were like, `We just lost this guy. You want to work here?'" Qui said. They put him on the lowest station, doing tempura frying. "The fry station was like salad and dessert station, too. You kind of did a little bit of everything."
Qui was born in Manila in the Philippines. His family moved to Virginia when he was 10, then to Houston when he was 17. He came to Austin in 2003 for culinary school.
"I guess I just worked my way up the ranks," Qui said. As he started to pick up skills, he'd announce he was leaving to capitalize on those skills somewhere else, and Uchi would offer him another step up: "OK, you can start making rice now." Then came sushi and sushi rolls.
"My best experience at the sushi bar at Uchi was when the customer just let me do whatever I wanted to that one piece," Qui said. "The beauty of a sushi piece is that you can give them that one perfect bite."
That's his boss's influence talking. "That's kind of where Uchi food came from, and it's how I taught Paul over the last seven years," Cole said. "There are things called yakumi - that's the stuff you put on top of pieces of sushi - and I wanted more interesting yakumi. Things that just made incredible bites of food."
Then came a shot at sous-chef, then chef de cuisine, Cole's right hand. "It was 2006 or 2007 that I first started doing my food at Uchi." If you've ordered from Uchi's nightly specials page - dishes such as mussels with tomato water and basil blossom or a rabbit terrine with quail egg and pear mostarda - you've gotten a taste of what he can do.
Both physically and mentally, Qui lives somewhere between Uchi's little house on South Lamar Boulevard and Uchiko's more industrial space on North Lamar near Central Market, shuttling between the two as he works full time at one and trains his staff at the other.
At Uchi, the staff sits down in the afternoon for "family meal" before service starts, the cooks trading off who puts it together. It becomes a training ground, a canvas for expression. If a sushi chef wants to make hamburgers, the restaurant orders ground beef. If a line cook wants to learn to make Thai food, somebody will teach him.
The staff meal at most restaurants is usually a tossed-together collection of yesterday's unloved food. Not at Uchi. "We get mad if it's not good. That's part of the challenge," Qui said.
What does he cook? Vietnamese pho, Southern fried chicken ("it came out all right").
The chefs might do four-way battles to make the best family-meal dishes. Macaroni and cheese. Cookies. Or Cole might bring in bags of groceries, and the challenge is to make lunch out of whatever he brought, like an afternoon episode of "Chopped."
Out of that family environment grew East Side King, a food trailer Qui set up last year with two other Uchi cooks, Moto Utsonomaya and Ek Timrek. In the late-night swirl of East Sixth Street's ironic hipsterverse behind the Liberty bar, they sell nothing you'd expect from a trailer: pork belly steam buns, french-fried beets, herbed salad with fried Brussels sprouts, Thai fried chicken.
Cole is OK with East Side King and the possible brain drain on his own operation, seeing it as a logical extension of his philosophy about continuing education. For cooks who've been with him awhile, Cole pays them to go work for free - to stage (in French, pronounced stahj) - at other kitchens. Qui, for example, staged with David Chang's Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York City.
Cole's own career was helped by mentors such as Smokey Fuse at Musashino - his Food & Wine magazine Top 10 Best New Chef award, his James Beard Foundation nominations, a crownful of local "best-ofs." Now he'd like to see Qui grab that same New Chef award.
Mat Clouser, who along with Mark Strouhal is running the kitchen at the new M2 restaurant and lounge downtown, was Qui's boss at Uchi as chef de cuisine for three years starting in 2003. For a time, Clouser and Qui were part of an Uchi team that also included Deegan McClung, now the chef at another high-profile Austin restaurant, Jeffrey's.
"Chefs get a reputation for being sort of high-intensity screamers, short-fused," Clouser said. "That's just not Paul at all. Paul is very even-keeled, very sweet and gentle, and I think that's going to reflect in his food."
Any stories about Qui from those green days? "He almost blew himself up starting the tempura wok one day. We heard this huge boom, like all the air had been sucked out of the room. Paul came out and he was missing his eyebrows," Clouser said.
Another tale of wear and tear: When Qui was practicing for his 2008 appearance on "Iron Chef America" with Cole and Speer, he rammed his right index finger into the blade of a mandoline as he was slicing yuca. On the show, the bandage is as big as a foam finger at a football game, a contrast to the roguish figure cut by Qui in a full beard. It didn't seem to slow him down. The Uchi team didn't beat Japanese titan Masaharu Morimoto, but the trio was tight and fast.
Mulberry executive chef Zack Northcutt is friends with Qui by virtue of the revolving door that is the world of Austin cooks. Northcutt worked with Qui when the two, along with Ben McBride, accompanied Parkside chef Shawn Cirkiel to cook at the Beard House in New York City last year. McBride, a veteran of Parkside and Perla's, will take over Qui's job as Uchi's chef de cuisine after Uchiko opens.
About Qui, Northcutt said, "He works about a hundred miles a minute. Very fast and furious in the kitchen."
Dressing up baby sister
Restaurant designer Michael Hsu's name is on progressive hamburger stands, the occasional upscale taqueria and space-age bistros all over town. But with Uchiko, he didn't have an old family home to work with the way he did with Uchi. He had the shell of a medical office building.
Thus far, I've seen Uchiko only when it was covered in sawdust and blueprints. It came by the sawdust honestly. The flooring is antique white oak, a cabinet wall is made with rough-sawn walnut of irregular pedigree and the sushi bar looks like a single slice taken from an arboreal goliath.
An entry wall is covered in charred pine, something Hsu said is a traditional Japanese technique that carries weather-sealing powers and a diaphanous rainbowed sheen. Another wall holds tiles of pecan wood salvaged from a tree once standing on Barton Springs Road.
The kitchen footprint is enormous, a two-line stainless-steel monster with a brick-rimmed robata grill, a prep counter the length of a playground slide and twin copper fryer vessels the size of Spartan shields. "Daryl (Kunik, co-owner of Uchi and Uchiko) and Tyson didn't necessarily want a big restaurant, even though this is larger than what Uchi is," Hsu said. "That extra space went into the back of house ."
Hsu said the kitchen, along with the bar and restrooms, pushes the proportion of the restaurant not used for seating to about 50 percent, a number typically around 35 percent to 40 percent for a 5,000-square-foot space like Uchiko.
A big kitchen for big ideas.
Qui looks like a first-time homebuyer as he gazes up at the towering vent hood. Is he ready? "I like the pressure, so I just take it with open arms," he said. "It's like I tell my cooks and sushi chefs: This is how we move forward."
Restaurants in this story
• Uchiko. 4200 N. Lamar Blvd. 916-4808, www.uchiaustin.com/uchiko . Hours (beginning July 6): 5 to 10 p.m. daily, until 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
• Uchi. 801 S. Lamar Blvd. 916-4808, www.uchiaustin.com/uchi . Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. daily, until 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
• East Side King. Behind the Liberty bar at 1618 E. Sixth St. www.eastsidekingaustin.com . Hours: 7 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Mondays-Wednesdays and 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursdays-Saturdays.