Just when it didn’t seem things could get any better for Paul Qui and his compatriots of Uchiko and Uchi, the Top Chef: Texas winner —who also has an official day named in his honor in the city of Austin — now has a James Beard medal to add to his growing collection of accolades.
(For those who haven’t heard the news, Monday night Uchiko’s executive chef Paul Qui took home the award for Best Chef: Southwest at the 2012 James Beard Awards. The equivalent of a culinary Oscar is a repeat victory for Austin after Qui’s boss, mentor and longtime friend, Tyson Cole won the same honor last year.)
What does it feel like for the young chef whose manner is often described as unbelievably humble? I caught up with Qui yesterday as he was about to board a plane for Paris to kick off a semi-world tour for a little R&D — and hopefully some R&R as well.
As usual, the amiable chef tried to downplay the enormity of the experience, but was plainly excited nonetheless.
“It’s really surreal,” says Qui, who managed to exude an amazing amount of energy after a full night of celebratory after-partying with his fellow winners at Gramercy Tavern and 11 Madison Park. “It’s such an amazing thing. I honestly wasn’t expecting to win. Usually chefs are nominated a number of times from year to year before they actually win.”
“I like to spread rumors. It keeps people guessing.”
Since his big win with Top Chef: Texas, catching a glimpse of him behind the scenes at Uchiko — or anywhere in Austin for that matter — has been a rare occasion. He managed to spend a week in town leading up to the Austin Food & Wine Festival and easily settled into a familiar, albeit brief, rhythm at Uchiko, and even for a short visit to Uchi Houston.
“I’m so proud of my guys at Uchiko because they’re holding it down and doing a great job and Uchi Houston is doing so great for as young as they are,” says Qui who admitted that all of the recent attention was initially a little overwhelming.
“At first, it was just so hard to comprehend and it just took me away from my kitchen, but at the same time, all of this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I’m trying to just learn what I can as a chef so that I can bring it back to the plate.”
Qui credits a lot of his laid-back approach to his escalated fame to having people in his life that consistently ground him, namely his girlfriend Deana Saukam, his parents, and of course friends like Tyson Cole, Philip Speer and his crews at Uchiko and East Side King. But it doesn’t mean he hasn’t let an ambitious streak take root.
There have been a number of recent rumblings as to future plans for a new restaurant concept from Qui, something he gives a sheepish chuckle to when asked. “I like to spread rumors,” says Qui. “It keeps people guessing.”
Though he wouldn’t expound on details, the rumors are indeed true that before the end of 2012, Austin will have a new restaurant created by Paul Qui. We’ll also see East Side King make a move to its own brick and mortar location. As for whether or not he’ll be leaving Uchiko, the topic is still off the record, but it’s possible to deduce the answer if you take a look at the history of previous Texas-based Top Chef contestants who made it far in the game. To date, each of them has left the restaurant that brought them to the popular reality show in pursuit of their own concepts.
The good news is, Qui’s sticking with Austin. “I have no plans to leave Austin. It’s my home,” says Qui. “A lot of people in New York were asking me this week if I was going to open something in Brooklyn. They had seen a picture of me at a friend’s new restaurant there and automatically assumed I was making the jump. It was crazy. My place is in Austin.”
“I have no plans to leave Austin. It’s my home."
Qui’s semi-world tour is what he refers to as a traveling “stage,” or apprenticeship, and will include a few days in Paris, where he intends to visit some of the French world classics including Restaurant Garnier, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, and Chateaubriand. He’ll then head to London and make his way to Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck and Fergus Henderson’s St. John. And then, it’s off to Tokyo for a longer stay, taking the time to visit the fish markets and myriad sushi restaurants throughout the city.
“I’ve never been to Japan,” says Qui. “I want to spend time there and freshen up my arsenal and take things in that I can bring back home. I haven’t really been in the kitchen in a while and I don’t know when I last sharpened my knives, but going away and coming back, I always feel like I’m bringing something new to the table and that’s part of growing as a chef.”
As the second James Beard Award holder in Austin, Qui feels a palpable momentum to the direction that the food scene both here, and throughout Texas, is taking. He’s also happy to place bets on a three-peat Uchi/Uchiko win from Pastry Chef Philip Speer, who Qui feels will eventually nab a Beard award as well.
“He absolutely deserves one and needs to be on that ballot until he does,” says Qui who added that for as much attention as Austin is getting, there needs to be more interaction from Austin chefs outside of the Texas sphere.
“We need more representation to a lot of events in big cities like New York. I know restaurants are busy, but what I noticed during the Beard award festivities both this year and last year is that there is a lot of camaraderie among chefs in New York and other big cities. And we need Austin and Texas chefs doing the same thing to promote what we’re about.”
Qui also adds that now is the perfect time to take advantage of that.
“For a long time, Texas chefs would get nominated in the Southwest Region for a James Beard but we always had this defeated attitude because we didn’t think we could compete with Las Vegas, which is also in our region. But now we’ve had two Texans win back to back and we had three Texans on the ballot in this category, not to mention others. It’s a really big deal.”
Among the many things in common from the restaurants Qui plans to visit in Europe, the most distinguished among them is that they all have a Michelin star rating. Something Qui — as well as a number of other restaurant industry professionals — think Texas is severely lacking.
“We have the talent right now in this state, and we seem to have all eyes on us,” says Qui. Currently in the U.S., Michelin only reviews in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. “It’s time that Texas had Michelin recognize what we’re doing here, and I’d like to know what that’s going to happen.”
Good question, chef. With culinary momentum like this, it’s surely just a matter of time.