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Rock-Star Chef

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Top chef Paul Qui wins James Beard Award, bringing it to Austin for a second consecutive year / By Russell Pawlowski

Here is a recipe for a rock-star chef:

1. Depart Austin for the Kentucky Derby. Embrace the pageantry and take in a little Southern flair.

2. Hob nob with celebrities, watch the ponies run, throw in a pinch of relaxation on Millionaire’s Row.

3. Jump on a plane and head to New York City for the presentation of the James Beard Foundation Awards, the veritable Super Bowl of the culinary world.

4. Win the James Beard Award.

5. Breathe.

6. Add heat. Hit New York City to celebrate with friends.

7. Jump on a plane to Paris.

8. Answer press requests with staccato-like efficiency via iPhone from the luxury of your Paris hotel suite. Simmer.

9. Create a designer sushi-flavored breakfast cereal with Kanye West.

10. Eventually return to Austin to a cornucopia of rumors about what is next.

(OK, so number nine may be a slight fabrication for the time being, but I am sure that at some point in the future, phone numbers will be exchanged, text messages will fly, and the next thing you know, we will see a picture of Chef Qui smiling over a bowl of Louis Vuitton Breakfast Bites. You heard it here first. )

So anyone with a television set and basic cable knows what Top Chef is, right? It’s Bravo’s hit culinary competition that somehow always makes you believe that you have the ability to walk to your kitchen and create beef wellington out of tuna fish, orange juice and a few hot sauce packets from Taco Bell. Admittedly, the sole reason I initially watched was Padma Lakshmi (worth the time to Google), but I was quickly drawn in, namely because season two contestant Frankie “The Bull” Terzoli was a drinking buddy of mine back in San Diego. Damn you, Frankie! If you only knew back then how to make that quiche on the beach in episode seven, I would have had the pleasure of enjoying the culinary creations of two Top Chef winners. I digest. Err, I mean digress.

The show is great and, yes, there it is, a test of a chef’s skills. But think of it as more of a backyard Olympics filmed by your creepy uncle who has really great video-editing skills and knows the value of product placement. The James Beard Awards are very much the real deal. They are absolutely The Oscars of the culinary world, and the winners are voted on by 600 of their peers. How you look on camera has nothing to do with these awards, although I am sure that Tom Colicchio has one of those 600 votes.

Qui’s response to which one he enjoyed winning more? “Both,” he says. “It’s impossible for me to compare the two experiences. I didn’t expect to win on a first-time nomination. I was just soaking up the moment of being around chefs that I admire.”

A very diplomatic response, but rest assured, the James Beard Award provides our hometown sushi phenom with enough street cred to ensure that he will be around for years to come. Just ask the 2011 Southwest James Beard Award winner, Tyson Cole. Yep. Qui’s sensei in the sushi realm was the winner last year. Two James Beard winners out of Cole’s Uchi Kitchen? Beyond impressive. So what’s next?

I pressured the jet-lagged Qui for the scoop on the rumors of the a new restaurant, hoping he would crack under the lack of sleep. Unfortunately he did not. My gut instincts tells me to be on the lookout for the following:

1. We are not losing him to Dallas or Houston.

2. A bricks-and-mortar establishment to follow along the same menu as Qui’s very popular East Side Kings. If you’ve never enjoyed a couple of cold beers at Liberty Bar on the Eastside then wandered to the back of the beer garden to the ESK food trailer and ordered Tongue Buns—roasted beef tongue in steamed buns, homemade peanut-butter curry, fresh basil, cilantro, mint, onion and jalapeño—well darlin’, you have not experienced the joy that $7 can bring you in Austin.

A lower-cost establishment. Uchiko is great, but the price point surpasses what many Austin residents can afford. I’m betting on a lower-cost option still showcasing Qui’s talents. My advice would be to grab a date and start camping out now for a reservation. Want to splurge on a night out and see just why Qui won both Top Chef and the 2012 James Beard Award? Head over to Uchiko for the chef ’s omakase (literally translated from Japanese, it means “I’ll leave it to you.”) Sample everything without prejudice and enjoy. A recent trip yielded the following results:

Kusshi oysters with green strawberry sorbet: The absolute flavor of the ocean with just the perfect amount of sweetness. I imagine this is what a peck on the cheek from a mermaid would feel like.

Mada nigiri: Japanese sea bream, shiso, Meyer lemon zest, olive oil. Japanese sea bream has the perfect consistency and mild flavor. It’s a favorite go-to staple for Qui. If you are new to sushi, please allow this to be your entry drug.

Hama chili: yellowtail, Thai chili, orange supremes. Admittedly, I’ve eaten enough yellowtail in my life to make Nemo cringe. I was already looking forward to the next dishes.

Sakana mushi: steamed loup de mer, galangal, kaffir lime, hon shimeji, tomato. Imagine the best Thai dish you’ve ever had: spicy, with a broth that warms you through your lungs and in to your sinuses.

Nasu nigiri: Japanese eggplant with lemon miso. I had no idea that it was actually eggplant. Vegans, here you go.

Brussels sprouts: crispy Brussels sprouts with lemon chili. The Brussels sprouts at Uchiko are second to none. I loathed eating this vegetable as a child. Now in my mid 30s, I am 87 percent sure that I would kill a man for a bowl of Uchiko’s lemon chili Brussels as I type this.

Saba sashimi: Norwegian mackerel, tomato, cucumber, myoga. Leave this one to the professionals. Strong. Bold flavor.

Pork jowl: Brussels-sprouts kimchee, preserved- lemon crème fraiche, romaine. Add the most delicate cut of pork to the vegetable that the restaurant knows best. Perhaps one of the best dishes of the tasting, and I guarantee that this is the direction Qui’s new restaurant will go. Sample now. Believe later.

Gyutan toro: grilled beef tongue toro with fish caramel. If you are a sushi lover, then you know that toro is the king of the menu. If you brave the market price, then you know that this cut of tuna really does melt in your mouth. Sample the gyutan toro and know the same feeling, only this time you’re on land. I guarantee you will never be afraid of this cut of meat again.

Hungry yet? Between each course, cleanse your palate with a cold, crisp white wine or unfiltered sake. The variations of texture and flavor make the experience worth every penny. Take your time. Talk to your date. Converse. Criticize. Critique. Keep in mind you are walking through an art gallery. Each creation is a small work of art that the chef has prepared for you using the freshest ingredients. There will be some work that you are immediately drawn to, perhaps a love of yellowtail or Brussels sprouts. It’s OK not to like certain things. Recently, a friend noted the strong taste of the Norwegian mackerel. Invariably, this is a very oily fish that comes across with a bold flavor. The next course? Pork jowl with kimchee, the perfect punch of savory saltiness to whisk her away from her mackerel experience.

Safe travels on your victory tour, Chef Qui. Hurry on back to Austin. We have no problem loaning you temporarily to the rest of the world, but much like the next course, we are eagerly waiting to see what you dish up next.



  1. Quinn Brady on

    I wasn’t fan of sushi until I started eating at Uchi and Uchiko. I am officially in love now. Great article Russell!