On the heels of taking a little vacation to Mexico, CultureMap caught up with Paul Qui following news of hiring Chef de Cuisine Tim Dornon from Uchiko. As always, Qui was his upbeat, high-energy self with magnetic excitement for just how well things are all coming together as the plans for QUI Restaurant fall into place.
CultureMap: The last time we checked in on QUI, June Rodil had just joined the team and you were all working on narrowing down your concept. How are things coming together?
Paul Qui: It’s really been an exciting time. We’re at the point where we’re hiring people and hopefully we’ll get finished with our building soon. The concept of the restaurant has changed a few times, which has to do with a lot of things like how the size of the restaurant [has changed] since we first drew up our plans.
Things are a little smaller than we initially planned. But I’m gunning for quality versus quantity when it comes to the overall experience, so I’m okay with that. There are still two facets to the restaurant. The tasting room is now [a] 10-seat room instead of 12. And there will still be a main dining room for about 50 seats that will be open for lunch and dinner.
CM: How are things on the menu shaping up?
PQ: We’re still playing with the menu a lot. But it will be seasonal. We’ll try to be as local as we can with most things, but I’m not going to say that everything will be sourced locally. It’s going to be about quality first. And I’m still inspired by ingredients like sea urchin and scallops. So it will be about the best of what I can get depending on the time of year. But we’re currently developing what we’d want to be serving in March. We’re refining it specifically to what we know we can source then.
And regarding seasonal, we’re going beyond just food, but drinks as well. That encompasses things like coffee and tea and certain wine varietals for the time of year and what spirits work in different months. It’s not going to just be about a seasonal cocktail based on the mixers, but based on the spirit as well.
CM: So what will the tasting room be like compared to the dining room?
PQ: That’s going to be a separate, more private spot that will be reservation only. We’ll have it on a ticketing system similar to what you see at Alinea in Chicago. But I’m going to start out slow. We’ll open the main dining room for 50 people first and once we feel ready, we’ll open it up for lunch. Then we’ll work on opening up the tasting room, but only when we’re ready. And we’ll probably only do one seating a night. And just take it from there.
CM: That sounds like a good way to ease into things. Any reason for that?
PQ: I’m very nervous about the project because I’ve not worked in a restaurant like this and it scares me a little bit to rely on bits and pieces of ideas I’ve gathered over time. So it’s all new for me.
CM: What have your priorities been over past few month? Nailing down your team or your concept?
PQ: It’s all of the above. Part of the focus that I want to give the restaurant are the details on all levels. I want the guests to see everything that’s been thought about. I’ve worked with Keith Kreeger, a local potter, to design some of our plates. Things like glassware, teapots, menu design, the lighting and things that don’t even involve cooking have been chosen.
There are different connotations to what a great kitchen can be. I like to work with people and I like to cultivate inspirations and talents based on the input I’m getting from the people I’m working with. And a big focus to the restaurant is blurring the lines between the front and back of the house. I want everyone to be excited about what we’re doing.
CM: Your team seems to be coming together nicely with people you’ve worked with before at Uchi like June Rodil and Tim Dornon.
PQ: That’s been a really important team for me. I work with a team and the more insight I can get from different people, I feel the better the product will be. June has been a close part of that decision making process and it’s been great to have her to bounce ideas off of. And now we have Tim Dornon and he’s very involved with that as well. There are a number of chefs who have moved here from out of state to come work with us. And we have a couple more people that we’re hoping to come and join us.
CM: Are these out-of-towners people you met through your Top Chef experience or through your travels?
PQ: A little bit of both, but I’m not wanting to reveal any names yet. I don’t want to jinx anything. I’m really excited because a big part of it is trying to get more exposure for Austin. For the longest time, everyone who cooked in Austin wanted to go and cook in NYC, but now there are people cooking in NYC that want to come cook in Austin. Everyone I’ve worked with in town is fantastic, but it’s also nice to get fresh blood in and people who have all these other experiences. It only helps the city in the end.
CM: You're transitioning from being a cook to being a full-scale restaurateur. What have been some of the challenges in taking the reins for this role?
PQ: It’s a definite learning curve for me to run a business in this sense. I’m not just hiring and training cooks for the kitchen system anymore. But I’ve really tried to recognize the things I’m weak at and bring people on who are better at those things than I am. I have a tendency to bite of a whole lot and that’s my nature. I’m a risk taker.
Everything is new to me. But to design the restaurant from the ground up is really exciting. I helped do that with Uchiko, but there were specific guidelines to stick to that identity. But this is different. We have Asian elements to the food and design, but it’s not constrained by that, so trying to build something that’s special in Austin but also reflects the flavor and identity of this town has probably been the biggest challenge to identify and pinpoint. I really want that to be what this restaurant reflects.
CM: So, what about timing? When we spoke with June Rodil in October, she revealed an expected open date of February 2013. Looks like that may have been pushed back?
PQ: We’re still shooting to open by SXSW. There have been a lot of changes since I initially conceptualized the restaurant, which has had a lot to do with with me being able to travel and see the world last year. Plus, it’s taken a little longer to complete the build out. But it’s given us the time we need to think things through.
We’re hoping the open date is in March, but I won’t say for certain. The principle we’re all on as a team is that we’re not going to move if we’re not ready.