Paul Qui: Quiet talent on a big stage
Michael Barnes, Out & About
The orders spilled out from the ticket printer onto the sushi bar, where Uchiko guests waited noisily for six precious words.
Then, just before 10 p.m. on Feb. 29, "Top Chef Texas" host Padma Lakshmi said, following a requisite pause: "Paul ... you are the Top Chef."
Uchiko's sushi chefs raised their fists in a mighty, unified cheer. Then, they instantly dropped their eyes and returned to their knives. After all, scores of delirious Paul Qui fans waited for service.
"Every kitchen has drama," a calm Qui told me the following Saturday in the cool, empty Uchiko dining room, hours before opening. "I tell my line cooks, `Just keep your head down and cook.' That's what this industry is about. Keep your head down and you will be successful."
After Qui's exhilarating victory, Austin social media lighted up with questions about the city's first winner of the popular Bravo TV contest.
"Is Paul really that humble and genuine?"
"Where did he pick up those killer cooking skills?
"Hey, I want to know what he'll do with all those winnings."
The answers: 1) Yes. 2) Uchi and Uchiko. 3) Qui: "Change and evolve."
"Over the eight years Paul has worked for me, he has grown from a young cook in his early 20s right out of culinary school into an experienced, talented and creatively awesome chef and adult," says his primary mentor, Uchi chef-owner Tyson Cole. "From student to master, some might say. And I'd have to agree. A quick study."
Less than a decade ago, the James Beard Award nominee was a college dropout from Houston who had sold pot to help make ends meet. He worked for free at Cole's Uchi, cleaning coolers and waiting for a chance to show some basic skills, picked up at Austin's Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts.
"Cutting kabocha pumpkins, cutting brie, skewering things," Qui remembers. "All the small tasks that are hard to mess up for a beginner."
Born in Manila, the Philippines, Qui is the child of a split marriage. His father works in the service department of a Southwest Houston car dealership. His mother practices accounting in suburban Virginia.
Qui was not acting when, on "Top Chef," a look of utter surprise passed across his face when his parents were introduced to viewers without explanation.
"It was definitely a little awkward," he says. "The last time I saw them eat together, I was very young. The last time I saw them together at all was at my high school graduation."
Qui, whose broad, expressive forehead and light-absorbing eyes telegraph awe, joy and bashfulness, lived with his father until age 10, then his mother until 17. He's since been on his own, following a brief reunion with his father. He attended the University of Houston, after preparing at an all-boys Jesuit school in the Philippines and then the familiar American sequence of elementary, middle and high schools in Virginia.
He was a pretty good student who ran track, played soccer and basketball and even some football in high school. No question, Qui was shy, but he still made friends. At UH, he changed majors restlessly.
"I did a whole bunch of stuff," he says. "I was definitely very confused in college."
He's far from proud of the fact that he sold drugs in college to pay rent and subsidize a good time.
"It's something I look back on and think of how dumb I was for putting myself in such dangerous positions," he says, "but I can't say I regret the experience, because that's how I learn."
He might not feel regret, but he admits to some lingering guilt about his chaotic college life.
"I know how hard my parents have to work for their money," he says. "It was a big deal that they took care of my school."
He did work during college, waiting tables at Houston's Miss Saigon Café, P.F. Chang's China Bistro, Steak and Ale, Pappadeaux (for about a week) and a Japanese restaurant called Fish,
"That's how I got into cooking or wanting to cook," he says. Not that he experimented at home. "It was all boiled eggs and ramen, or baked potatoes, or rice and soy sauce."
Both of Qui's Tagalog-speaking grandmothers, however, cooked memorable Filipino food.
"I remember snacking on food that was cooked with lard," he said of his maternal grandmother. "Everything in the Philippines is based on pork, probably from Spanish influence. I'd walk into the kitchen and there would be plates of rendered pork fat that were little snacks."
His paternal grandmother's speciality was dinuguan, a pork blood stew, which includes pig bits, chiles and vinegar.
"She doesn't use recipes," he says. "But she uses a lot of giant rock salt."
Remarkably for a profession with a famously fluid job market, Qui has worked for only one man: Tyson Cole.
When Cole met Qui, he noticed: "A driven, hungry, focused guy who had the willingness to learn and ethic to work harder than everyone else," Cole says. "He's got a God-gifted talent of creativity and sensibility, of just always knowing what works and what doesn't."
Cole was not his only mentor. Shawn Cirkiel, now the chef owner of Parkside, the Backspace and the new Olive & June, worked alongside Qui at Uchi.
"I saw an incredibly talented person busting at the seams with ideas and energy," Cirkiel says. "He has learned how to both focus those ideas and build upon them."
Another key influence on Qui has been pastry chef Philip Speer.
"He's a sponge for the culinary and restaurant world in front of him," Speer says. "Seriously, the guy is an anomaly. I have only ever met a few people like him: Strong work ethic, passion and thirst for knowledge, combined with creative and artistic background."
After cleaning and cutting at Uchi, Qui took on more complicated tasks, gaining the trust of the other chefs.
"I'm not the quickest learner," he says. "I have to mess up a few times to get it right."
Qui says he was surprised how quickly he was promoted at Uchi, but once the responsibility landed in his lap, he went for it.
"I ordered whatever I could from whatever purveyor I could find and just put it together," he says. "I would just order things, like whole monkfish. You only use a part of it, like the cheeks and liver. What do you do with the rest?"
One way or another, he found out, working his way through a world of global ingredients.
By 2006, Qui had risen to chef de cuisine at Uchi on South Lamer Boulevard, in charge of everything in the kitchen. Eventually, a new project evolved in the minds of Cole and Qui. Uchi's staff was stable and talented. The chefs just needed room to grow. Why not an Uchi spin-off?
Thus was born Uchiko, a horizontal, comforting space on North Lamar Boulevard, designed by architect Michael Hsu. It was an instant hit, with Qui taking unexpected gambles on Japanese food. The light Asian dishes, some with a shot of heat that sneaks up on the diner, won rave reviews. And with "Top Chef," Qui's fame has circled around the world to his home country.
"The Filipino community has really been following this and has been behind him, even 10,000 miles away," Joseph Vasquez said during the finale watch party at Uchiko.
The only other chef who has reached this level of fame among Filipinos is White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford. And she's not from Austin.
Qui was a bit queasy when he and Diner 24's Andrew Curren were selected to compete on "Top Chef" for its first Texas-themed season.
"I had a lot of trepidation," he says. "I was worried it would ruin my street cred if I got on a TV show and cooked."
Adding to the stress was representing his home state.
"I didn't know it was going to be in Texas," he says. "When I heard, I thought: `Oh great. Puts more pressure on me.'"
Like most television reality contests, "Top Chef" garners plenty of drama from frazzled nerves and butting personalities. Miraculously, Qui steered clear of the worst on-set politics.
"My plan was just to cook," he says. "I stuck with that. But I operate the same way in the kitchen. I'm just here to do a job, the best job I can and get out of here."
Did Bravo producers try to fan the flames of interpersonal conflict?
"They let things like that develop organically," he says. "They put us in situations that required our patience. But rather than urging us on, they let us be."
The post-cooking scenes of the contestants drinking - often prominently placed Shiners - were not followed by wild affairs.
"We hung out for sure," Qui says. "We all made dinner at least once. We were all pretty cool together. I barely drank while I was on camera. I wasn't there to party."
On the show, Qui came off as empathetic and deferential, but all business.
"I'm not a huge personality compared with other personalities on the show," he says. "I stayed true to myself."
This sponge for culinary knowledge listened as carefully to the show's judges as he did to his mentors in Austin.
"I felt like I was staging (working for free) in all their kitchens," he says. "When you are doing that, it's not just about the food, it's about the demeanor of the chefs. Aspiring chefs need to look for somebody who will say: `Let me introduce you to my palate. Let me tell you why this works and why this doesn't work.'"
He wasn't even pained by the recorded comments that he didn't hear until the show aired.
"It wasn't bad," he says. "I can see what I could have done better. Critiques like that don't phase me. I like being that way, because that way I can improve my food."
Qui knew that the other finalist, Spiaggia executive chef Sarah Grueneberg, would make a potent competitor in the big cooking challenges for scores of diners, such as the finale.
"We can edit," he says. "It's about planning. You've got to know all along what you would do if you got into the finale."
Qui fans were horrified when, in the finale, the second set of judges was served overcooked chawan mushi.
"I told the judges it was nobody's fault but mine," he says. "A lot people on the show - or in kitchens in general - should look to themselves first rather than blaming those around you."
Not evident on the edited show, Qui had picked five perfect dishes for the judges, but the server took them to another table.
"I was so tired at that point, I didn't care. It was done. It was over," he now says. "I had already thought: `If I am going home, I'm going home for this. I saw it and I didn't fix it.'"
He did win. Week in and week out. His take included $185,000 in cash, a Prius, a trip to Costa Rica and a place for him and girlfriend Deana Saukam at Charlize Theron's next movie premiere. (Theron proved an unusually adept guest judge. Pee Wee Herman did not.)
Saukam, who helps Qui with his ultra-active social media persona and his three East Side King trailers, appeared on the show. Where Qui seems at times awkward and shy, Saukam is socially fluent and outgoing. They've known each other for eight years and have dated for two.
Post-"Top Chef," business at Uchiko and the trailers is booming. At this point, Qui has no plans to leave his home eatery.
"This spot is my baby," he says. "I'm working on a new project, but I'll keep it vague until it's closer to conception. It's about changing the game, changing what you are doing and evolving."
Contact Michael Barnes at email@example.com