By Shelley Seale
In one of Austin’s most anticipated dining debuts of the year, Top Chef winner Paul Qui unveiled his new signature restaurant, QUI, on June 20. In the East Austin kitchen, Qui takes inventiveness to the next level, creating unique dishes day by day.
The beginnings of the constantly changing menu start at the inspiration wall, where tags hang with a multitude of top-quality ingredients from which creative food genius begins. From rabbit and cote de beouf, to juniper, watermelon and an herb garden, Qui and his team are defining Asian fusion food in Austin.
“There are different ideas and flavors from different parts of the world,” Qui says. “It has to be ingredient-driven, how delicious the ingredients are and where they’re from, in that order. It has to be interesting and it has to be intelligent. There has to be that connection and story to the food.”
I first met with Qui the first week the restaurant opened, in June. The celebrity chef’s reputation for modesty was confirmed; the interview began haltingly, as I tried to draw out the seemingly shy Qui, who seemed reluctant to talk much about himself. It was only when I began asking him about other people—his team members—and the food itself, that he lost his self-consciousness and began opening up, becoming effusive even.
“It’s been a learning curve for sure,” he says of the process of opening the restaurant. “Dealing with things that don’t even have to do with cooking like structural, plumbing, contractors—all that fun stuff.”
It was all put in to motion in early 2012, just before Qui left Austin to compete on Top Chef.
“I had made up my mind at that point that I was going to try and do something else, and the process [of creating the Qui concept]just kind of happened organically. As soon as I got back from Top Chef, we found this space. At that point, it hit me that this was going to happen quicker than I thought,” Qui says.
With plans moving forward, Qui didn’t have a specific team in mind.
“I just put an ad out in different cities, to see what I was going to get. At the end of the day, it’s great to work with people I’ve worked with in the past. It’s also great to bring in fresh blood and work with new people. My partners are also chefs. I’m just excited to have as much talent as I do under our roof, and I’m excited to be able to create the different kinds of food we are doing here.”
Qui works with many local supply partners such as Urban Roots, Johnson’s Backyard Garden and Farm to Table. The plates come from local sculptor Keith Kreeger, the coffee and tea are all local, and the team worked with Public School design firm just down the street.
“Part of it is getting familiar with all the things I can source locally,” Qui says. “Urban Roots and other local farms let us go harvest their farms. I give them a list of things that I want to grow for the season.”
But while he has a focus on local sourcing, he’s adamant that he won’t say no to anything that’s amazing from anywhere else in the world.
“I’m not going to pigeon-hole myself in to being a farm-to-table restaurant or purely locally sourced restaurant because we’re not. We are committed to working with local partners; it’s about building a community and building relationships within that community. But the food philosophy for this restaurant is definitely ingredient-driven. The priorities are how delicious the ingredient is and where it’s from, and in that order. It’s not good enough that it’s local; it has to be good and local.”
All of this was evidenced in the evening’s menu on a recent visit, from the kanburi maki (wild winter yellowtail, daikon, trout roe and ponzu) and pasta (sea urchin, trout roe, ogonuri, yuzu, chanterelle and squid ink) to the Salt and Time butcher’s-cut beef brisket. Even the dessert was a previously undreamed concoction: a cheddar-cheese ice-cream sandwich served between crispy waffles with goat-milk cajeta and peanut praline.
And does Qui have future plans for more dining creations? Absolutely.
“I like opening restaurants. As stressful as it is, it’s fun,” he says. “The most fun for me is being with a group of people with the same mindset as I have, whether they’re in the design or architectural realm or the cooking realm, it’s a lot of fun.”