[Photo: Nicolai McCrary/EATX]
An unmarked white building on East 6th houses Austin's most high-profile opening of 2013. From the moment the project was announced, Qui, the flagship of Top Chef winner and trailer empire builder Paul Qui, generated staggering buzz. The combination of Qui's celebrity and his success as the executive chef at Uchiko, not to mention his cultishly loved East Side King trailers, created sky-high expectations. The restaurant's willingness to take risks on everything from service to the ever-evolving menu drew national attention, and the focus on Filipino cuisine blazed new territory in Austin fine dining.
Eater spoke with Paul Qui about Qui's wild first year. Critics and diners alike have struggled to define the restaurant, and Qui explains their only defining feature is constant evolution. He intentionally opened with a "blank slate" in order to discover what would emerge through collaboration with his team.
Now, the restaurant's biggest evolution yet is underway. The main dining room switched to a tasting menu format, and Qui's ticketed tasting room is slated to finally launch this summer. Here's Qui's take on two early menus, both wildly different from what the restaurant serves now. Why so much change? Qui says he wants to build a foundation for "an institution."
When did you first know you were going to open Qui?
Before I went on Top Chef. I grew up at Uchi. I worked there for free up to running Uchi and opening Uchiko and Uchi Houston. and I love Tyson and Phil [executive chef/owner Tyson Cole and director of culinary operations Philip Speer], but I didn't want to be pigeonholed to Japanese cuisine. I wanted to find myself and start from the ground up with all the baggage that comes with it.
How different is Qui from what you originally thought it would be?
When I opened I didn't have any preconceived notions. My only goal was to bring together talented chefs from around the country to work here. I wanted Qui to be a collaboration with my team, back and front of the house, and organically grow into something special.
The restaurant didn't open with a heavy focus on Filipino cuisine, but that has evolved to become a significant aspect of Qui's menu.
When we opened, I knew way less than I do now about Filipino food. It's something I never cooked. I grew up eating my grandmother's food, but I never cooked it.
Part of my interest in Filipino food is that I wanted a cuisine that would separate us from other restaurants. I didn't want to do hill country or Southern modern or Japanese or Korean. I'm still searching for our completely identity, but I want to do something that incorporates my Texas roots, everything I learned from Tyson, and Jorge's background in Spanish cooking [chef de cuisine Jorge Hernandez].
Filipino food has all those influences. You're looking at four hundred years of trade from Spain to the Philippines, Philippines to Mexico and South America. Dishes like paella or adobo or asado or chorizo all came from that. Our ceviche is Filipino, but that dish came from the Americas. Exploring those connections is the most exciting thing we do at the restaurant.
You've said the dinuguan is based on your grandmother's recipe. What are other early food experiences that shape the menu?
I hate to say it, but a lot of my early memories are fast-food oriented. When my parents divorced, my father stayed in Philippines and my mom moved to States. My grandmother would cook, but when my father would come visit would take me to McDonald's because that was a special occasion restaurant. Jollybee, Max's, all those places. When I got older I appreciate what my grandmother was cooking, but when I was kid I hated it. I wanted to eat junk food.
Qui has gotten a staggering amount of national attention, and you have your own celebrity from Top Chef. What's been the role of that high profile in the restaurant?
I want to bring more attention to Austin, to inspire more people to come visit and eat. That's been my biggest role whenever I travel, to promote the city. You can't bring people to a city for one restaurant. The whole scene has to blow up.
Where do you see Qui fitting into the Austin dining scene?
I'm so focused on what we can try to do with food that I don't know what niche we fill. That's probably also my insecurities about the restaurant. You're responsible for people and their livelihoods, and at the same point you want to push the envelope.
It's scary. Every night, it's harder for me to sleep. My biggest stress is that we don't hit our margins or make money. But it definitely hasn't slowed me down.
So you're struggling with the tension between art and commerce in a way.
The normal model is to make your restaurant as profitable as possible to create more projects, but that doesn't fill the void of I wanted to go for. Maybe it's just me being vain. But I get excited when my crew gets excited and when they grow. When we go to a different city and they say, Hey, you're from Qui in Austin, that feels good. I started cooking in Austin at a time when it was a joke if you cooked here.
Was there any backlash due to all the expectations and attention?
Definitely. People say, Oh. I saw him on Top Chef and it wasn't as good here. I don't know what they're expecting. You want fried Brussels sprouts or fried chicken, I have that at Liberty down the street.
But there's not one negative criticism I haven't thought about. I'll email guests to ask them to come back, I'll buy them diner if they don't like it. It's weak to bash us on Yelp just to bash us. We have comment cards after you dine here. We have an email for reservations where you can send feedback.
People say we did things in an amateur way, but Qui was a canvas for me to try to do something different. It was the idea of a restaurant. My cooks run food, which makes an expensive food runner, but we do it so they can buy into the tip system.
Would you ever abolish tipping at Qui?
Maybe if we figured out the right model. The big question is, how do you change that expectation? Alice Waters has a service charge, but what if someone refuses to pay the service charge? A lot of my crew has college degrees. This is what they want to do with their life – to be in a professional hospitality industry. People should work for a professional wage.
The next big thing in the works is the launch of a ticketed tasting room. How will that change the restaurant?
I'm trying to build three experiences here at Qui. Under $20 at the patio or sitting at bar, about $60 on the fifty seat side, and then the counter, which will be in the low hundreds. Right now I'm tasting 26-28 dishes. We'll open it for two turns, sixteen seats a night.
We got definitely bashed in the beginning for doing "simple food." Because I didn't add a soil or air or tuile, even though that's simpler than the rustic cooking we were doing. I didn't want to plate everything to one side, I didn't want to put blossoms on top.
A big part of that is fighting myself. I know I could put some fluid gel, put some flower blossoms on a plate. But if we put flowers on a dish it should make sense. Dorsey [Dorsey Barger of HausBar Farms] should give the flowers to me. It can't come from a clamshell. Those clamshell flowers are so pretty, but they don't make sense for what we're doing here.
What was the most unexpected moment this year?
Probably being named 'Most Outstanding Restaurant' by GQ. I always think critics like Alan Richman would hate us right off the bat. We don't have tablecloths, we're loud, we're not fine dining. It was a pretty stressful night when Richman came in. Alison Cook and Eric Asimov also came through. I was like, What are you all doing here?
Is there a downside to the constant evolution at Qui? Do you worry you're throwing the baby out with the bathwater?
It definitely scares people off. I'm willing to roll the dice and see where we're headed. I'm looking at the restaurant not like how much money can I make in the first two years while it's hot, but how can I create a foundation for something more epic. A lot of the big restaurants I admire are institutions that continue to evolve, and that's what I'd like this place to eventually be.
What are some of those restaurants you aspire to?
I would say Saison or Meadowood, or Noma, because I figure you should shoot for the top. But we're not there yet, and it's going to have to be baby steps for Qui. A big part of those restaurants is not just the food but the attention you get, the design. I didn't pull huge investors. Qui is a big DIY project even though it's a new building. My partners are my handymen.
Austin is headed toward being a world-recognized city. We have F1, ACL, SXSW. I want to deliver an experience at that level. In order to do that, I have to stir some shit up.
· All Paul Qui Coverage [EATX]
· All Qui Coverage [EATX]