By now, Austin dining scene fans have heard the news about the next addition to Paul Qui’s mysterious new restaurant. Congress’ beverage director June Rodil shocked the the local foodie scene a couple of weeks ago with the announcement that she’d be leaving Congress to help open Qui’s new concept, only this time as a general manager.
The move is a step up, indeed for Rodil, and one that didn’t come lightly. After all, she helped open Congress with longtime friends and colleagues chef/owner David Bull and restaurant partner Scott Walker in 2011. And since then, she’s been an integral part of the fine dining restaurant’s quick rise to fame with a nationally-acclaimed wine list and even a nod from Wine & Spirits magazine as Best New Sommelier for 2011. Previous to her role at Congress, she was the beverage director at both Uchi and Uchiko.
"This is his flagship restaurant... so it’s got to be about his kind of food. We think it will be called Qui’s. Well, we’re pretty sure it will be called Qui’s. But it’s not set in stone."
But while Rodil has made a name for herself as one of Austin’s ace sommeliers serving up equal parts charm, meticulous tableside dexterity and unmatched wine expertise, in her new role as general manager, not only will she still be in charge of a wine list, she’ll also have a few other management hats to wear as well.
I caught up with Rodil this week while doing one of her favorite things: shopping. Only she wasn’t shopping for shoes or a pretty dress. She was shopping for wine. Spanish wine, in particular, at a special tasting of small production wines from Patrick Matta, owner of Peninsula and Olé importers. Between small pours of everything from Rioja reds to Rias Biaxas Albariños, Rodil elaborated on a few things she’s looking forward to in her new job.
“I’m so excited about this. It’s the first time that I’ve been a part of opening a restaurant where I’ve had a hand in some of the decision making,” says Rodil. “It helps to get me away from the perception that I only work with wine. Eventually, I’d like to do something on my own. But you can’t conceptualize that in the hours that you’re working the floor of a restaurant. This will just give me a whole new experience.”
Among the many new responsibilities she’ll have on her plate as general manager, she’s looking forward to working alongside Qui and the other restaurant partners Vu Le and John Park on architectural plans, interior design decisions and even the mundane tasks of managing the restaurant’s account system and food to labor costs compared to beverage costs.
"We’re hammering on the concept. It’s still undefined, but we know it will be accessible in general with a tasting menu in place for those that want that higher-end dining experience."
“I love opening restaurants. It’s a huge logic problem because every day, something is going to go wrong, and you have to fix it or have a contingency plan,” says Rodil who is also in charge of setting the opening timeline for the much anticipated restaurant. “It’s like running a floor of tables in a restaurant. You’re always putting out little fires. There’s just a lot more on the line.”
Of course, she’s not going to completely let go of her first love: wine. At Congress, Rodil managed a substantial 500-label traditional wine list, but now she’s looking forward to the challenge of a more limited, creatively crafted list that, as she puts it, will be forever “revolving and evolving” to match whatever Qui’s menu reveals from season to season — and everywhere in between. She’ll also bring on a bar manager to craft a refined, high quality bar menu.
“Our bar menu will be small, but complete,” says Rodil, who anticipates that the hype surrounding the new restaurant will likely bring a crowded bar scene in need of a streamlined list that makes ordering easy.
“People are going to drink while they wait — and there will definitely be a wait at first — so we want a really focused program where people can make a quick decision from the menus. But we also believe in bringing our philosophy of serving quality food all the way to our cocktails. If someone wants a gin and tonic, it’s going to be made with the one gin that’s perfect with the tonic water we carry.”
And as for working with Paul Qui, the humble chef with a chipmunk-grin who recently ascended to celebrity chef status with this year’s James Beard Award and Top Chef win, Rodil’s not concerned.
“Paul and I have worked together before. I knew him when he was a line cook at Uchi,” says Rodil. “So I don’t have to gush at him and say ‘Yes, Chef Paul,’ to everything. I just tell him what I think and he’s cool with it. I’m honored that he wants my opinion and appreciates my palate, but the point is that we already know fundamentally that we believe in the same thing; to serve quality food — we want to be kind and humble, we don’t want to be too expensive, but we want people to feel they're getting the best possible service.”
Though vague at best, Rodil, did reveal a few somewhat-concrete details about the restaurant including its potential name — Qui’s — and its generally Asian-themed menu.
“This is his flagship restaurant, that’s what he’s known for, so it’s got to be about his kind of food. We think it will be called Qui’s. Well, we’re pretty sure it will be called Qui’s. But it’s not set in stone.” says Rodil, whose main concern rather than settling on an official restaurant name at the moment is to make sure they can manage everyone’s expectations, which will no doubt be high to begin with.
“As Paul has said, ‘We don’t know what we’re doing, but we’re going to do it anyway,” exclaims Rodil. “Whatever it is, there will be that uninhibited passion for good food, good wine, doing good work and being willing to fall on your face.”
And you have to admire her enthusiasm. Especially when, the team of Qui, Le, Park and Rodil are currently working with a structure on Sixth St. and Comal that barely has its studs in place.
“We’re hammering on the concept. It’s still undefined, but we know it will be accessible in general with a tasting menu in place for those that want that higher-end dining experience,” says Rodil. “We’ll even have a sectioned off space of the restaurant for those that want a more intimate experience. But it’s really still all a conversation that’s on the table.”
Though most of those conversations are happening via text, email or seated around the table at Paul’s own home, the good news is, we’re not likely to be disappointed with the finished product.
She doesn’t officially start with the restaurant-currently-named-Qui’s until Nov. 1, but Rodil’s wheels have been spinning on the little details for weeks, right down to the wines we’ve been sampling on this limited production Spanish wine tasting. In her methodical mind, she’s already narrowed down the ones she may or may not include on her first list at Qui’s.
But wine is the least of her worries; the fun part will be the hiring process, which is sure to begin soon. In her years fluttering from the Driskill to Uchi to Uchiko to Congress, Rodil has no doubt had time to size up some of Austin’s finest restaurant staff. But when it comes to making the final staff list here, she’s committed to putting professional courtesy first. While many in other towns may think nothing of it, Rodil sneers at the idea of poaching staff from places she’s previously worked.
Rodil’s commitment to this unspoken code of ethics is perhaps what sets Austin’s restaurant scene apart from other national markets. Sure, it’s competitive in creativity and flavor, but its level of professional courtesy is unmatched compared to cities such as New York.
"In this business we take care of each other like family — families don't always stay together but you always support each other,” says Congress’ David Bull. “June has been a part of our family since the Driskill, and we will always encourage her to grow. Empowering our employees and managers is not only an investment in their future, but it's an investment in the restaurant community as a whole. Austin is unique in the restaurant world because we've all worked together in some capacity and we all want to continue working together."
Rodil has a lot of work to do between now and the day the restaurant opens its doors, which is slated for February 2013. And while we’re still left with a few gaps in the overall Qui restaurant plan, its growing momentum, with additions such as Rodil, gives much to anticipate in the coming year.