'Top Chef' countdown: The Paul Qui tapes

By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 02.29.12
UPDATE: Paul Qui won.
Tonight on the finale of “Top Chef: Texas” (9 p.m., Bravo) we’ll find out whether Austin’s Paul Qui is the winner or a runner-up to Chicago-by-way-of-Houston chef Sarah Grueneberg. Their challenge will be to take over a restaurant and cook a four-course dinner. The 31-year-old Qui is no stranger to taking over. In 2010, he carried the expectations of Uchi’s Tyson Cole on his shoulders to open Uchiko. We’ve seen bits and pieces of Qui’s biography during the season, but I got a more detailed look during a series of interviews I conducted with him for an American-Statesman story called “Uchiko’s Key Player.” Following are never-before-published clips from those interviews.
Mike Sutter: Your very first restaurant job was at Uchi?
Paul Qui: I moved to Austin to go to culinary school, and a friend of mine was working at this restaurant. He was like, “Why don’t you just come in and hang out for a bit?” That restaurant was Uchi. So I worked for free for a few months. Then there came an opportunity, and they were like, “OK, we just lost this guy. You want to work here?” This was right before Uchi kind of blew up. It was a weird kitchen. I was doing the tempura station, which at that point was the lowest station. There were only three guys in the kitchen, so we did a little bit of everything.
How did it happen that you’d be running Uchiko?
I got great mentoring from Tyson and the staff here. I kind of just worked my way up the ranks, but ever year that I worked I always went somewhere to stage because I wanted to check out different kitchens. I just worked a lot. I wanted to work a lot. After my first year (at Uchi), I was like, “All right, I’ve got a little bit of chops. I guess I’m going to move. And then they said, “All right, you can start making rice now.” Then they started training me for sushi. After a year, I do sushi, maki. And then I’m like “All right, I’m ready to go.” Then at that point there was the opportunity for me to take the sous chef position, which I didn’t really want in the beginning. I guess I didn’t want the responsibility at such a young age. It kind of just fell in my lap.
I had to learn it backwards, because I hadn’t really cooked that much. Basically, I looked down the list from our purveyors and ordered everything I didn’t know. Like all the different fish. I asked a bunch of questions. It was 2006 or 2007 that I started doing my food at Uchi. The “specials” page. Ninety percent of that was dishes I’d developed over the years. I always made challenges to myself. I kept on changing the specials page for me to learn and grow with different techniques.
At that point, I was like, “Yeah, I should go to a big city.” But I kept on questioning myself. I had a bunch of friends who moved to L.A. or New York or San Francisco, and they come back and they’re all cocky.  I don’t want to talk smack, because they’re my friends. But I said, “You know what? I want to represent Texas.” So I made the decision to commit myself to Austin.
When did you come to Austin?
I’m from Manila originally. I moved to Virginia when I was 10. I moved to Houston when I was 17. Austin was late 2003, maybe.
As a child, what was eating at your house like?
My dad’s more on the Chinese side and my mom’s more Filipino. Eating at my mom’s house is more Filipino food, which shares the same spices as some Mexican or Spanish foods. We have paella, we have our own sausages. There’s definitely a lot of garlic, peppercorn, bay leaf, those kinds of spices. A lot of pork in Filipino cuisine, just because of the Spanish. And a lot of fresh seafood.
At Uchiko, you’ll be doing sushi and maki and grilled, like you do now?
Yeah. Our sushi pieces, you can order them with or without yakumi, which is basically a garnish. I’m trying to get that perfect bite. I think my best experience at Uchi at the sushi bar was when the customer just let me do what I wanted with that one piece. The beauty of sushi piece is that you can give them that one perfect bite.
Doing what you do, you must get particular about what you eat when you’re not at work.
You’d think so. I like some dirty nacho cheese sometimes. I accept food for what it is. I don’t expect everything to be haute cuisine or fine dining. I guess part of it’s that I was never really classically trained. I get the pursuit of perfection. But for me, food is an experience, and it doesn’t have to be technically right to be good.
How are you taking the pressure?
I guess I like the pressure, so I just kind of take it with open arms. Whatever’s going to go down is already going to go down. If it’s going to go wrong, it’s going to go wrong. The important part is also what I tell my cooks and sushi chefs: This is how we move forward.
Do you get much down time? And when you do, what do you do with it?
I end up thinking up stuff like the East Side King.
(Photos by Mike Sutter)
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