Wednesday night, Austin’s own Paul Qui proved to the world that not only is he a culinary force to be reckoned with, but that nice guys don’t always finish last. Qui, who is currently the executive chef at Uchiko, took home the $125,000 grand prize on Bravo’s Top Chef: Texas. He was also recently named a semifinalist for the 2012 James Beard Foundation Awards, in the Best Chef: Southwest category.
Indeed, it’s been a hectic month for Qui. And yes, he may be a badass in the kitchen, but let’s not forget that behind the tattoos and sharp knives, Qui is just a humble man with a penchant for colorful socks and YouTube videos of cute kittens.
Still riding high on the previous night's win, Top Chef Paul Qui called me from New York City on Thursday to talk about the show and why Austin, Texas holds a special place in his heart.
CultureMap: Thanks to Top Chef, the whole nation has been exposed to your culinary talent. How do you think this exposure with impact your career?
Paul Qui: Hopefully in a positive way. I definitely wanted to shine a light on Texas and show that there’s more to Texas than just barbeque and TexMex.
CM: Now that you’ve completed the show, what are your next steps?
CM: You’re an incredibly creative chef, whether it's curating a seven-course meal for your Food + Wine Project or whipping up a delectable meal on a whim while on Top Chef — where does your creativity and inspiration come from?
PQ: I think a lot of it has to do with the ingredient. Inspiration can come from anything.
"At a certain point, it just clicked in my head that I wanted to represent Texas and, if we shine enough light on what we do in Texas, we can hopefully draw more chefs and cultivate more talent in this city." - Paul Qui
CM: At all the Uchiko Top Chef viewing parties, I would notice Tyson taking a break from the kitchen to proudly watch you on TV, along with all your fans. Now, having seen the episode where you had to cook for your mentor and you became emotional, it’s apparent that you have a close relationship with Tyson. Can you expound on why he means so much to you as a mentor?
PQ: We’re boys. I’ve worked for him since I was 23, so it’s been about eight years now. I just kind of grew up in his restaurant, while he was growing in his own restaurant. He’s also the only chef I’ve worked for. I consider him, Philip Speer and even Shawn Cirkiel (of Parkside, Backspace and Olive & June), to be my mentors. But I have probably spent more time with Tyson than with anyone in my family, and even my own girlfriend.
CM: I actually heard that after trying Uchi for the first time, you offered to work in their kitchen for free.
PQ: Yeah, it’s true. At that stage in my life, I thought I was going to get some free experience at Uchi, to compliment my culinary education, and then possibly move to New York. Tyson gave me so much opportunity and so much potential for growth that I ended up staying. But every year I had plans to move to New York.
CM: On the show, what was the most challenging competition you were faced with?
PQ: I think the Fire and Ice competition was pretty tricky [The final three cheftestants had to create a dish and cocktail that embodied the concept of fire and ice into one cohesive dish]. We had to do it on our own and it was a more complicated plate. There was also no real kitchen and [the dish had to be served] to a lot of people.
CM: It wasn’t the Culinary Olympics and being afraid of heights?
PQ: That one was pretty tricky, and I didn’t enjoy it very much. But it was an elimination round, so once I got in the gondola, I just told myself it wasn’t going to kill me.
CM: On the show, you said you decided to move to Texas for a lifestyle change. You could have studied in NYC or California, yet what made you settle here in Texas?
PQ: Austin is just a cool town. There are always things going on. The people are so nice and amazing. I have friends that I went to culinary school with in Texas and they ended up moving to New York and other places to gain more experience, and they kept trying to get me to move. At a certain point it just clicked in my head that I wanted to represent Texas and, if we shine enough light on what we do in Texas, we can hopefully draw more chefs and cultivate more talent in this city.
CM: The last time I saw your girlfriend, Deana, she joked about how you only make her ramen when you are home, but what is the typical meal at the Qui household? Do you get to bring ingredients from Uchiko home with experiment with?
PQ: I wish I could cook for her more, but we have such opposite schedules. I barely have time to cook. If I do cook, I’ll make it at the restaurant and bring it home to her.
CM: I heard you get a ton of gifts and fan mail. What’s the coolest gift you received thus far?
PQ: The socks I wore last night, while I was on Watch What Happens Live, one of my fans gave me those socks.
CM: If you were on death row, what would be your last meal?
PQ: Probably fried chicken. Not Popeyes, but the best fried chicken I’ve ever had is BonChon (Koren fried chicken). We don’t have one in Austin, but they have them in New York.