3/06/2013 11:10:00 AM

A Chat With Top Chef Paul Qui

Photo by Rebecca Fondren
Superstar Paul Qui literally has a key to the City of Austin, and he figuratively holds one to the rest of the country. The unassuming, teddy bear of a chef won season 9 of Top Chef and is known for his Asian-fusion trailer chain East Side King and his killer Brussels sprouts and creative small plates at Uchiko (a gig he has since left). The city is waiting with bated breath for his new restaurant, qui, which is slated to open in late spring. We caught up with Qui to talk about ramen, the hyperseasonal philosophy of his new restaurant, and SouthBites, his SXSW trailer park.

How is ESK at Hole in the Wall going?

It’s been good and busy. It’s been very steady, and campus has been super supportive. We’ve been getting a lot of good and bad feedback, which always makes us better in the end.

I feel like we have a lot of challenges. But I’m always about trying to make things better. If you ask me, I’m always like, “Everyone’s doing bad, we need to fix this, this and this.” And there have been improvements.

We heard you redid the menu there a few weeks ago. What has changed?

We redid the base broth, and we brought in real bowls. At first our mentality was that we were going to do the to-go containers because it’s near campus. But truly good ramen isn’t conducive to being taken to-go. But we can’t help it on campus, because people order it and ask for a to-go container anyways. We’ve also been tweaking our flavor profile.

Last year we started upgrading all of our ingredients. Our eggs are from Vital Farms and the pork and other meat doesn’t have any antibiotics and is all natural. I don’t want to raise prices, but I want to serve better-quality ingredients.

After winning Top Chef and getting so much national recognition, do you feel like you can still go around Austin as you please? Or do you feel like you’re “seen” everywhere?

Austin’s really cool. I can do whatever I’ve been doing. I usually walk around town, ride my bike to the East Side, grab beers. It’s totally the same.

So tell me about how qui is coming along. 

We’re going to push things back until - I don’t even want to say a date - probably late spring. We’re going to move when things are ready. We’re not going to force anything.

The menu is going to be the best of whatever I can find during that time. It’s a 12 to 14 item menu, and the philosophy behind the restaurant is going to be very seasonal. I’m not limiting my seasonality to how local the product is. That philosophy spans across not just food but wines and spirits. And with cocktails we’re not just focusing on the seasonality of the ingredients or the mixer but more like when the spirits are allocated. Like there’s a gin season, different rums, different bourbons, that kind of stuff.

We’re going to do the same thing with teas and coffees. We’re working with the Houndstooth guys for coffee and the Steeping Room for tea. I want to deliver Austin with the total package as far as a restaurant experience goes. All those little things make a difference.

A lot of the inspiration is going to come from those ingredients and what I can get from my local guys here as well as what I can source from around the world. I’m looking at seasons within seasons. I’m not just looking at like, for these four months I can get strawberries. I’m look at, all right, out of these four months, which are the ones where I can get the best strawberries? That’s the beauty of having a small menu. I can be nimble. 

What kind of flavors and ingredients are you excited about using this spring? 

This spring I’ve been working a lot with John Lash from Farm to Table for what I can get locally. I also work with Sebastian at Countryside Farm, so I always know I can get good rabbit and ducks. I’m working with the Salt and Time guys as well, and they’re down the street from me, so I’m asking them to save all their pork spines for me.

Asparagus will be coming up around that time. There’s cauliflower, different carrots. I’m talking to Urban Roots as well because planting season was last month, and I’m meeting with the head grower so they can start some things for me. As far as the amount of ingredients, I don’t care if it’s one asparagus or one bushel of asparagus. I just want to serve the best asparagus in the world.

It’s amazing how far Austin’s come as far as what I can find at the farmers’ market. Last week I was looking at sunchokes and romanesco. It’s exciting right now to see how I can make those ingredients shine. I’m coming up with a set of rules about how we’re going to source ingredients. The order is quality of ingredient, locality, seasonality and then down the line. I’m going to have circle diagrams for my chefs. That’s going to be a huge deciding factor about what ingredient to use when.

I like the Venn diagram idea, because it’s hard for people to figure out whether it’s more important to eat local, organic, seasonal and so on. 

I don’t want to preach to anyone, and this is just for my cooks. We’re going to try to make the most delicious things we can from these items.

So what do you have planned for SouthBites?

SouthBites is basically a food court for SXSW. It’s going to be up to 15 trucks. Most trucks haven’t confirmed with us yet, but I’ve reached out to trucks from Columbus, Ohio, to Portland, Oregon, to come down here. L.A., Houston, San Antonio of course, and local guys in Austin. I want a nice spread of different cuisines and ethnicities.

I hope it can handle the crowds. It won’t handle all of SXSW, but it will cover a decent chunk.

As for East Side King, for the last month we’ve been trying to construct a new truck for Shangri La. For SXSW, since there are going to be a ton of people in the city, we’re going to preview our new Shangri La truck at SouthBites. So the old one will stay at Shang right now and we’ll sell the same stuff we’re selling there now. But after the festival we’re going to give it a new menu that Moto has created.

What’s on the menu?

Right now it’s a mixture. I don’t know if it’s Chinese or Chinese-Japanese food, but it’s definitely fusion, like what we do with the rest of the East Side King thing. Something fun. Some of the menu items we’re looking at right now are eggrolls and fried rice but done in our way.

Speaking of festivals, the Austin Food and Wine Festival is coming up. Are you participating?

Yep, I’m going to do a demo and whatever else the festival needs me for.

I’m a soldier, man. We’ve got to promote Austin as a unit, and we have all these amazing platforms that even larger cities don’t have, like SXSW, ACL, Austin Food and Wine, F1 - you name it, there’s a festival next week. Marathons, LiveStrong events. There’s a huge list.

How has Austin’s food scene grown, in your opinion?

When I first started in Austin I was still in culinary school and I wasn’t that educated about the food scene in Austin or in general. I was slowly learning. There was Uchi, there was Jeffrey’s and there was Vespaio. Now there are a billion other restaurants in the city, and those restaurant groups are growing too. I’ve met some really cool people like RenĂ© [Ortiz] from La Condesa, Bryce [Gilmore, from Barley Swine], Andrew Wiseheart at Contigo and Shawn Cirkiel, who is one of my mentors.

Maybe I just wasn’t in the in-crowd before, but now more than ever I feel a connection to these other chefs, and I feel that we’re closer to the same page in terms of how we want to grow the city and what opportunities we have to make this place stand out on the map.

You just named some great restaurants. What are your go-to places in town?

My go-to places are actually almost no-name places. I like to sneak away and go up north and eat a lot of Asian food at quieter places like Pho Van and the ladies at Tam Deli. I like shooting the shit with them, because they’re funny and they’ve been around town for a long time To me, banh mi is comfort food. Even though I’m Filipino that’s what I ate when I was in college. It’s easy, quick and cheap.

Besides eat awesome bang mi, what do you like to do in your free time now? 

Now Deana [Saukam, fiancĂ© and manager] and I just acquired a puppy, so I’m just taking care of the puppy and taking care of the cats. It’s nice and relaxing, especially after work, when I’m amped up and I can be aggro or high energy. It’s nice to hang out with pets. They bring me back down.

It’s been high energy in our household, because Deana is really invested in not just me but the whole thing. Like she’s been handling the management, the PR. She’s been doing a lot of work that I can’t even think about handling. My comfort zone is the kitchen and hers is the computer and talking to people. As much as I can be very introverted, she’s very extroverted, so we make a good team.

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