Qui, the flagship east side restaurant from Austin's Top Chef winner Paul Qui, is set to open in late spring, which means things are coming together quickly for his team, which includes Chicago import Michael Simon, formerly of Graham Elliot and the Carriage House.
Eater Austin sat down for a couple of drinks—ciders, actually—with Simon recently on a sunny afternoon at the White Horse, when Simon was just eleven days into his new life in Austin, where he says he's excited about building a "quality over quantity" beverage program at Qui.
So how are you finding Austin?
It's been incredibly cathartic to not be in the little bubble of the Midwest. I'm like a seven year old with enthusiasm. I walk outside and it's hills and other cool stuff.
To me, granted my 11-day experience here, but I found it, maybe it's just Austin too, but it's very genuine in a different way from Chicago was. I found even with friends and colleagues back there, they were great people and you'd go out and meet cool people but there's that interval of meeting period where you haven't been accepted. Here there's not that buffer zone. I don't mind being a part of the Qui entourage. He's going to Vietnam with Deena, who is like the coolest person ever. They are going to Vietnam and I was like, "Let me be your bodyguard slash bag carrier guy," but that fell through. [laughs]
How did you get into the industry?
In terms of beverage stuff, I got interested in wine first when I was at Graham Elliot. I was also doing a lot independent writing and I did the Second City writing program and attempting to do some acting—which it would be a funny TMZ story of my shitty student or independent films back then. I wasn't a good actor. I was too self-absorbed to play other people. It was very organic transition of like, "You know I actually love this industry and if I applied myself I could do really well," so it was a good convergence. This was circa 2009, and I was really falling in love with wine so I busted my ass and found a few fantastic mentors, now master sommeliers, in Chicago and studied my ass off. I worked my way up to sommelier, passed that and then eventually got promoted to GM and Beverage Director at Graham Elliot, so it was first wine, but it was hardcore.
In terms of training my palate, or being able to compartmentalize flavors or really taste stuff and be able to think about it like that, I really dug it. My wine list was like world-class cult vendors but it was written in categories of music. It was really cheeky.
How does that inform the way you create beverage programs now, in terms of cocktails?
I really liked the creative process and I go from that. I still love wine, but I personally found more joy and more open avenues going into the bar side. I found myself at the bar and the more I pushed it the more I found a niche that was rewarding for me on a creative basis. It was constantly new and I was constantly working on stuff and I still find it's such a deep well, but I can work with my hands more and things like that. That was really it. When I researched Paul, in a lot of eerie ways we're very similar in terms of we're very ambitious but really humble.
Somebody, maybe after Top Chef or James Beard, asked if fame has changed Paul Qui, and he said, 'No, I don't think I know enough to teach people.' And I'm 33, he's 31 or 32, and he's not gonna front like he's the wise man sitting on the rock. It's the same thing, I can look at myself now and say I've learned this much, but it's a deep, deep, deep well. I look at it, where that fire is under your ass and it's an upward trajectory, and you just want to go, go, go. Put your head down and work. And that's where I'm at now. I want to keep pushing with that. It's really in line with Paul's mentality, and June [Rodil] and everyone there, it's really exciting. That kind of geeky, creative collective is really where my sensibilities are at.
What did you know about Austin before you moved here?
I had had friends in Austin, and I heard about Uchi and Uchiko. I'm generally mindful of what's going on in New York, San Francisco and LA, in terms of culinary endeavors. In terms of hours in the day I couldn't see researching so much of Austin, but I did hear that. And after Top Chef, I was really, really intrigued.
And when I was at Graham Elliot, we did a lot of work with Lollapalooza, which they're still doing, and got really close with C3 Productions and Charlie Jones, we were interfacing with. He's awesome, I'm excited to see him again. He's such a fantastic guy and they're such wonderful people. So I got into Austin that way. But the real catalyst was Paul, in terms of being here. That being said, I'm in love with the city. This city's perfect for me, in tandem with work.
What's the plan for cocktails at Qui?
They made me wear a wire, so I can't divulge concrete details or my GM will come shoot a dart in my neck. But the way the restaurant will be laid out: you'll walk in and there's the bar, basically eight seats. Then there's the dining room and the ten-seat tasting menu table, which will roll out after. Bar-wise, I'm very quality over quantity. My program at Carriage House in terms of the spirit inventory was so opulent and huge, like, I had to go out of my way to keep spending money. Which was awesome. I love researching and geeking out until three in the morning, but I had to go out of my way to blow all their money.
The space is very small, but I like small. Quality over quantity. In terms of the spirit inventory, it'll be mostly boutique in the way of quality. But still things that are accessible. A tight inventory, and we'll rotate some things. Because there's only so much space. Drink-wise, we'll have six or seven special cocktails. And I'll author a list of probably fifty classic drinks off the menu, that I'll keep a little bible behind the bar. So if I'm behind the bar or another one of my colleagues, if you have a Vieux Carre or a Mai Thai or anything, it's reciped out. So that way we have, knock on wood, repeat clientele who see we can make tons of stuff for them.
In terms of special drinks, we'll be based off the classics. A really fun evolution of flavors that involve a culinary influence, a modern influence, taking flavor profiles and classic drinks. We know this is the core, how can we exploit that and make it better? And by exploit, I just mean that it's fun, it's hedonistic, it's booze. I want someone to take a sip and punch their fist in the air and just be like, "Yeah!" and be really happy. I could have the longest, stress-filled day and be prepping all day, but if someone's happy on their first sip, it washes all away.
The mis-en-place, the prep, for the special drinks will be really involved, but the fun part is, that all happens during the day. The cool part is, it doesn't matter how long it takes me or how involved it is, the guest asks about it and I can say yeah, here's how we do it. There's no secrets. I can geek out about it, but the other part is, if they don't want to know about it, I'm not going to pontificate about it. But lastly, they don't have to see the long, laborious part. I'm really, really big on being really approachable and fun but also fast and efficient when I'm making drinks. So they get to enjoy all the good things and none of the behind-the-scenes shit they don't want to see.
We'll engender a culture that'll be extraordinarily fast, and very fun, and extraordinarily friendly and genuinely in an exciting way. It's fun cocktails. It's an awesome program. It should be fun.
So you're not the mysterious, mustachioed bartender who gets lost in his specialty booze program?
I never bought in, it's not my personality, the stoic know-it-all bartender thing. The guy, anybody, man, woman, the stoic no-eye-contact, laconic, mysterious, knows everything and isn't impressed by anything thing. That's not me. I don't mean be zany and wacky, but you want to go out and have cocktails and have fun. If two people are at the bar having an intimate conversation, I leave them alone. But if they want to talk, it's a fun environment. That's absolutely the culture that will be standard at the Qui bar. And from my limited experience in Austin, I think it'll go over really well. I look forward to that.
I'll make absolutely all the syrups. I think we're going to use Maine Root in terms of the natural stuff, and once we're open we'll start making some house bitters. I want to give the team baby steps. We'll make the core things perfect, and then we'll start making everything else. I love bitters. I put bitters in everything. I put bitters in my cereal. But I'm not going to front that we have to do this by the day we open. Because I want the drinks, the operations, to be spot-on, and then we'll go elsewhere. I want to make bitters that we're actually retailing a year from now. I have high expectations for that, with syrups too.
Michael Simon. [Photo: Eric Morales]