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"Underseasoned" is a thing, but it's not the thing you think it is: Austin's Paul Qui is finally named Top Chef

"Underseasoned" is a thing, but it's not the thing you think it is: Austin's Paul Qui is finally named Top Chef

Remember how around 2007 being in a band was like, The Thing? Seriously, don’t you remember how everyone was in a band, and it was usually an “experimental” one that totally subverted all the music that had ever come before it, ever? Well now, for every two friends you have who are just killing it in their Level 1 improv class, you’ve got three who are self-appointed foodies. And just like that kid I dated who never wrote lyrics, but only ever mumbled fuzzed-out nonsense into a mic over intentionally discordant reverb, these amateur gastronomers get an A for effort, but should lay off the loop pedal.

Hearing “underseasoned,” “overdone,” and “well-balanced” over and over again to describe food is just as cacophonous as shrill chords distorted beyond recognition.

A show that came on the crest of the “foodie” zeitgeist, Top Chef is to food what Project Runway is to fashion. Much like how you can’t get dressed with your girlfriends without hearing about how the line of a skirt draws the eye to wherever, Bravo’s cooking-cum-reality show introduced everyone to, and thereby made everyone conversant in, the discourse of food. And in the same way that few know how to sew, but all know how difficult it is to ruche, to be conversant in food is a far cry from being fluent.

A show that came on the crest of the “foodie” zeitgeist, Top Chef is to food what Project Runway is to fashion.

And so, though it was a foregone conclusion that Uchiko’s Paul Qui would be given the title of Top Chef and the $125,000 grand prize, when we were given the opportunity last night to watch Qui really do his thing, we got more than just the thrill of watching the hometown hero make good on his promise to do Austin proud.

We got schooled in food. Hard. The finale wasn’t without its share of cheap thrills and gimmicks devised for those who salt their food before they taste it; it also provided some of the best moments of food TV in recent memory.

Of course, though, we had to endure the gimmicks before we got to the food. The season’s final challenge, as always, is for the two remaining contestants to cook a four course tasting menu, and he final twist, as always, is the lineup of sous chefs. Since this is a season, let’s remember, that started out with 29 hopefuls, we’d be remiss to put it past production to go so far as to bring back those who didn’t even make it on to the “everything’s-the-same-size-if-not-smaller-in-Texas” twist of “the bubble.”

And go so far they did, bringing back, amongst others, the Doogie Howser of cooking: Stone. Chef Tyler Stone. (Emphasis his.) Also returned was Yoga chef, who provided one of the season’s silliest moments with his “namaste”-in-Texan “Much love to y’all,” after being dismissed before his food had even been tasted. Next to him stood Ashley Villaluz, the poor girl who couldn’t even open the pressure cooker.

The familiar faces weren’t all walking handicaps, with Heather, Grayson, Chris Crary and Nyesha making their way back into the Top Chef kitchen. Each has their own strengths, and will each undoubtedly serve as an asset in their own right. But when it comes to ass-ets, there’s not a face more welcome than the one with the strong-man beard belonging to frisky favorite Ty-lör Boring, except for the one with the big cheeks and salt-and-pepper beard belonging to this season’s first heartbreak, the soulful seafood chef Keith Rhodes.

There are two other faces in the crowd that are surely less familiar to the loop-pedal set, those of James Beard award winners Marco Canora and Barbara Lynch. Canora, of New York’s Hearth and Terroir Wine Bar, is the chef and cookbook author that Tom Colicchio trusted to open the famed Craft. Barbara Lynch is the bad-ass, boxing, bus-stealinggrand dame of Boston’s foodscape” for whom the term “legendary” doesn’t even begin to cut it.

There are two other faces in the crowd that are surely less familiar to the loop-pedal set, those of James Beard award winners Marco Canora and Barbara Lynch, the bad-ass, boxingbus-stealing “grand dame of Boston’s foodscape” for whom the term “legendary” doesn’t even begin to cut it.

In a town of legends, Lynch has taken everything she’s set her sights on and made it her own. Her newest restaurant, Menton, was just yesterday awarded the unfathomably prestigious title of Grand Chef Relais & Châteaux. It’s the only restaurant in Boston that holds the title; it is one of two IN THE WORLD that will be given the title this year; and, most awesomely, of the 19 in North America with the title, Lynch is the only female Grand Chef.

So it’s frankly a little insulting when Padma announces that Lynch and Canora will be cooking in a Quickfire against the likes of Tyler Stone for a spot as a sous chef under one of the final cooks. Then the pans start flying.

As the the never-were and former contestants shake off nervous energy with the time honored kitchen pastimes of playing grab-ass and telling dirty jokes, Lynch and Canora have their heads down. There’s little more conversation between the two than, “You ok?” and “Yeah.”

But if our indignance were to take over, we’d miss what the production has done for us by bringing back Chef Stone. He starts his performance, of course, by throwing down while talking about himself in the third person. “In the first round, nobody got the full picture of Tyler Stone… I don’t care who I’m going up against, I’m not intimidated in the slightest.”

Then, of course, we flash back to Stone with a hacksaw, butchering Grayson’s tenderloin and his own dream of being Top Chef, and we get to relive the fun of watching him being summarily dismissed by Tom Colicchio. Then Stone, the William Hung of Top Chef, who it seems may never get the joke, lets some nonsensical comment fly that underscores just how not a chef he is.

When Heather gives the heads up that something’s burning in the fryer, Stone’s response is, “There’s always something in the fryer that’s burning.” There is not! There is NOT. Maybe, probably, undoubtedly, when you’re cooking, there is, but generally speaking, you weird, attention-starved little man, no there isn’t. No. There. Isn’t.

The final two select their sous by naming their four favorite dishes of the eleven before them. Though Chris Crary says he made an Asian inspired dish to earn a spot on Paul’s team, Paul makes the inspired first choice of the cook behind the butter soup with shellfish and milk honey caviar – Barbara Lynch. Nyesha’s halibut, green lentils and pomegranate make her the first sous for Sarah, and while Nyesha may very well be an exceptional saucier, she’s no BL.

Second, Paul chooses the buckwheat noodles with local shellfish, which is Ty-lör’s! Wait – Paul, Ty-lör, and Barbara Lynch? It’s important Sarah make a good choice next, because right now her and Nyesha are up against the best ever team ever. She doesn’t.

Sarah wants Heather, and though she’s got a feeling that the dumpling dish was Terhune’s, there’s a plate of scallop with curry and golden raisins, a dish that appears on Terhune’s menu. So Sarah chooses the scallop, and, devastatingly, the scallop earns her Tyler, an outcome Grayson refers to as “unfortunate.” That doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Paul’s third choice is Chris Crary. He may have been swayed by the Asian flavors in his dish, but the quality Qui’s looking most forward to utilizing is Crary’s “delicate touch” that consistently produces “pretty food.”  Sarah uses her third round pick to nab Heather, and though Terhune was a pastry chef for a number of years, experience that will undoubtedly come in handy, it seems she was Sarah’s choice more because of her personality that anything else. Of Heather, Sarah says, “she can definitely run a kitchen,” — which is fine, she can — but it’s Sarah’s, and not Heather’s job to do so.

 The sight of Keith Rhodes with Qui, the renowned Lynch and the sassy Ty-lör is the payoff of a lifetime.

Paul’s final choice is the Dungeness crab, which belongs to the velvet-voiced teddy bear Keith Rhodes. Some of us never quite got over his dismissal so early in the season, but the heartache was worth it if it’s what led us to this moment. The sight of Keith with Qui, the renowned Lynch and the sassy Ty-lör is the payoff of a lifetime.

Sarah squees and jumps when she makes her final pick of Grayson, and again, it seems that Sarah’s choosing her sous based on their personalities and not their qualifications. When Qui starts revealing his menu, which will focus on seafood, eggs and fruit, his choices of Lynch’s beurre monte with shellfish and milk honey caviar, Ty’s noodles with local shellfish and Keith’s Dungeness crab move from inspired to intelligent.

Sarah’s intention is to fuse her German and Italian roots in her menu, something that requires she take a lot of chances. It makes sense, then, that she’d want her girls backing her up as she starts off condifently in the direction of the title of Top Chef.  No matter her intent, it’s real hard to see her faring well if she missed Canora and ended up with Tyler Stone.

We couldn’t be any more on Team Qui — but when the Uchiko chef resists Barbara Lynch’s suggestions, it stings a little. The Qui that says, “I’m completely honored to cook with Chef Barbara Lynch, but there’s no way I would allow a chef to get in the way of what I set out to accomplish,” is a completely unfamiliar one. He’s worked his way into our hearts not just by making killer food all season, but also with his unprecedented humility and respect for master chefs.

The Sarah that says, “I cannot believe the balls on Tyler,” on the other hand, is a very familiar one. Granted, he is saying things like, “If you sous vide it, you can never overcook it,” which is a thing so patently untrue it creates a new strata of falsehood, but they haven’t even started cooking and she’s ready to set her potential loss on his shoulders.

Though Paul disregards another suggestion from Lynch (deciding, against her advice to “be confident” and “stick to the plan,” to buy spot prawns to have on hand, in the case of a last minute substitution) it not long for Qui we’ve been rooting for all along to come through. “I started cooking late in the game, after I failed out of college. My parents were really disappointed in me, but winning this will prove that I can follow through and actually succeed in something.” He’s showing a brand-new, razor-sharp determination, but his goal remains the same — he wants to honor his family by winning Top Chef.

His menu will reflect his style of Japanese with Asian influences, a style that none of his sous chefs are familiar with. This concerns Qui, but he is demonstrating leadership qualities that we’ve not seen from him yet. He was afraid to step on anyone’s toes and name himself the expo in the Restaurant Wars challenge, but after that rollicking disaster,  and with so much on the line, he isn’t shy about taking the lead. That’s another thing to love about Qui. He never makes the same mistake twice.

His plan is to serve first chawanmushi, a Japanese egg custard, with crab, pea shoots, and edamame. Second will be grilled lu de mer with hon shimeji mushrooms; the third, a congee with slow scrambled eggs with fresh uni and fried kale; followed, finally, by a dessert of coconut ice cream with puffed wild rice and kumquat confit.

 He was afraid to step on anyone’s toes and name himself the expo in the Restaurant Wars challenge, but after that rollicking disaster,  and with so much on the line, he isn’t shy about taking the lead. That’s another thing to love about Qui. He never makes the same mistake twice.

Sarah’s making a squid ink tagliatelle topped with a spot prawn tartare, a rye bread-crusted steel head trout, braised veal cheeks with crispy sweet breads and, for dessert, a hazelnut cake with candied kumquat and a roasted white chocolate ganache.

Things aren’t going as smoothly in Sarah’s kitchen as they are in Paul’s, primarily because whatever leadership she is capable of is all being funneled into and wasted on Tyler, who’s still trying to get Sarah to sous vide something, anything. And, in true Chef Stone fashion, he’s doing it with all the craft and wit of a six-year-old, after a while suggesting instead she use the “circulating bath.”

On the day of service, Qui comes into the kitchen like gangbusters with three hours to go. He’s all, “You here, and you, here, and you, here, and you, Chef Barbara Lynch, on desert.” Lynch is very impressed with Qui. He’s “amazing,” she says, displaying “passion, drive, and wisdom.” Put simply, he means business, and that means trouble for Sarah. But maybe not so so much trouble, because while Paul means business, Tyler’s dressed for it, in trousers and dress shoes. Seriously.

Things, it seems, won’t go off exactly without a hitch for Qui, though, as the crab he has intended to top the chawanmushi has turned overnight. When Keith Rhodes holds it up to his nose and declares “it’s a little bit funky,” who didn’t think, “of course it’s funky, chef, everything you touch turns straight to funk!”? Well Paul probably didn’t, for one, but since he, against the advisement of Chef Barbara, bought the spot prawns, he’s got another protein ready to go.

Meanwhile, in Sarah’s kitchen, Tyler is just… Tyler-ing it up. When Sarah tells him to do, well, anything really, he fights like a petulant child, convinced that his way is best. He’s “moving at his own pace,” which Grayson finds “really inappropriate.” Her plan is for her and the rest of the ladies to “jam out with their clams out,” which, given that there isn’t any actual clam on the menu, is also really inappropriate; but this clam-jamming may be Sarah’s only hope.

The time for conversation is over, however, as the judges sit down at Paul’s restaurant for the first of two rounds of service. The restaurant is called “Qi,” a play on Qui’s last name — the name handed down to him by the father and grandfather he wants so badly to make proud — and an alternate spelling of “chi,” a word meaning “life force” or “life energy.” Given how much of himself Paul has poured into this service, the name is not just uncannily appropriate, it is an excellent indicator of the thought and attention Qui has put into every detail.

 Her plan is for her and the rest of the ladies to “jam out with their clams out,” which, given that there isn’t any actual clam on the menu, is also really inappropriate; but this clam-jamming may be Sarah’s only hope.

Even before any plates have been put down, the judges are effusive about the “clean” meatless menu, that features the “unusual” choice of two egg courses bookending a fish course. Once the plates hit the table, forget about it.

According to the judges, the texture of the chawanmushi was right on, with “really, really pleasant flavor profile,” one that demonstrates that Qui “really seems to know his ingredients,” pulling them all together to create a dish with “such a delicious saltiness to it.”

Sarah’s first course goes over just as well. The judges immediately recognize her risk-taking; they are intrigued and surprised to see words like “dashi” on her menu for Monte Verde. Her first course of squid ink pasta with spot prawns and coconut surprised the judges with how well it was pulled together, and how well it presented with the dark pasta and light sauce. Her fish course is less successful. The rye crust goes over well, but her beets are nearly raw. If she had, ahem, sous vide them, it would have been a total success.

Paul’s fish course of grilled lu de mer with clam dashi with pickled radishes and hon shiimeji mushrooms is a smash. It is a study in contrast; showcasing, for starters, “his great aesthetic eye,” with the scores of the mushroom stems expertly juxtaposed against the pink of the pickled radishes. But of course, it’s his innate culinary skill shines most brightly. The judges seem floored by how the aromatic dashi broth contrasted with the smokiness and saltiness of the clams, “lifting both,” according to Emeril, “to the moon.”

The progression falters for some during the third course of congee with uni, albacore and slow-scrambled eggs. Some judges feel that though the flavors are great, the dish lacks the textural contrast that made the other two dishes so successful. Hugh Acheson, however, feels the smoked albacore had an “inherent richness” that cleverly evokes the meat course that Qui has decided against serving. 

Sarah’s third course of veal cheeks doesn’t go that well either, as she is forced to send out a polenta she knows is chunky. The judges are pleased with the “luscious” veal cheek and crispy sweet bread, but it’s hard for them to get past the texture of the polenta. Her fouth and final plate, the hazelnut cake with roasted white chocolate ganache, is a “brilliant” and “incredible” course that pushes her meal “over the top.” By roasting the white chocolate it’s flavor turned more toward caramel, a surprise the judges will “have fun ripping off over the next few years.”

The fourth and final course of Paul’s first service is his dessert of coconut ice cream with puffed wild rice, kumquats, mangosteen, Thai chili foam and jasmine gelée. The spiced foam is “no joke,” but does display a certain sense of humor, given how central a role spice has played in the last several challenges. His “beautiful” dessert reinforces his knack for contrast: it’s bold, yet delicate; the “power punch” of the foam is followed instantly by the palate-cooling, crispy puffed rice. It was an exceptional ending to what the judges all agreed was a “sexy meal.”

Sarah takes the time between seatings to correct the texture of the polenta, and her second service starts with a push. She was able “to infuse the coconut” into her tagliatelle “in a way that was really an accomplishment,” serving a dish with a “very successful richness.” And when she’s told that there were some bones in a guest’s trout, she’s able to pull them out before serving the trout to the judges.

She’s gaining momentum as Paul suffers a misstep. When it’s time for the second seating he realizes the chawanmushi is overcooked. Without more eggs to correct the problem, he sends them out. It’s surprising how the mistake sets off a cascade of criticisms for the dish — from the “tangle of chives” sitting atop the egg custard to the overcooked prawns, the second round of judges are eating a completely different dish than the first.

This back and forth continues to a certain degree over the course of the second seating, as the judges seem consistently impressed by Sarah’s flavors, but left hoping for more textural contrast. This is the contrast that Qui is nailing at nearly every turn. He’s performing at so high a level that the last thing we hear before Judges’ Table is David Myer saying he’d “never tasted anything that has approached what [the lu de mer] is before.” He means like ever.

 Tom says that the “exciting” meals served by both chefs were the “best food [he’d] ever seen in a finale.” He continues simply: “So, thanks.”

At Judges’ Table the tense music starts, but the accolades continue. Tom says that the “exciting” meals served by both chefs were the “best food [he’d] ever seen in a finale.” He continues simply: “So, thanks.”

It would seem that the last ten or so minutes would be stuffed with filler, given the outcome we all know is coming, but just as our attention starts to wane, something great happens. Paul says, “I feel really good standing up here – for the first time, actually.” For those of us who have spent an entire season willing Qui to believe in his own talent, it’s not hard to see that if was going to happen at all, this was the best, and only moment for it to.

Then, Gail describes the experience of eating Sarah’s squid ink tagliatelle with an excitement and eloquence that offers final insight into how difficult it is to make amazing food, and how magical it is when you do. “There are moments when you’re eating a meal, and you come across a dish that is so out of the blue yet somehow feels like you can’t believe it wasn’t thought of before. Your pasta dish, Sarah, was exactly that.”

In the end, the judges positioned the choice as one between the “confident” and “exceptional” food that “Paul makes every day,” or the risk-taking that turned into breakthroughs for Sarah at Monte Verde. The winner was clear, and Qui accepted his title with the pride and deference of someone being knighted.

(Props, btw, to Qui’s girlfriend, for looking totally killer at Judges’ Table. I need that spiked bracelet.)

As the credits roll a teary Sarah says she “really thought it was going to be [her] for a second,” but, she squeaks out, “it wasn’t.”

Sarah’s got game, she took some big risks, and she made some great food. But Paul Qui is the full package: He is both innately skilled and expertly trained. As a result, his food is referential and theoretical; it not only has an historical context, it pushes boundaries.

It’s not an issue of texture, presentation or flavor alone; great food — sexy food — is all of these things. And it’s all of these things effortlessly. If Qui did nothing else, last night he made it an incontrovertible fact that cooking — real cooking — is an art.

So the next time you get your hands on a pork bun from East Side King, realize it’s the closest you’ll come to sinking your teeth into the Mona Lisa. Just please don’t refer to it as “underseasoned.”

Austin Photo Set: News_Bonnie_paul qui_top chef winner_march 2012_paul
Paul Qui Top Chef Texas winner Courtesy of Bravo
Austin Photo Set: News_Top Chef Texas_Episode 3_Nov 2011_cheftestants
Courtesy of Bravo