Paul Qui on Foams, Fast Food and the Future of Qui

By Carolyn Alburger  |  June 23, 2014
Credit: Galdones Photography/FOOD & WINE

It's been a huge year for Paul Qui. After winning Top Chef Texas in 2012, the chef went on to open his eponymous Austin restaurant on June 20 of last year. Since then the accolades kept rolling in from the likes of GQ, Bon Appetit and Food & Wine, which celebrated Qui as one of 12 Best New Chefs at this past weekend's epicurean bash, Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. After sitting in on this very lively Son of a Gun demo, we caught up with Qui to talk about the future of his restaurant, cereal on dessert and why five stars on Yelp wouldn't fulfill him.

Your first anniversary celebration at Qui is coming up in a matter of days! What are you excited about in year 2?
My tasting room has to open. I was supposed to open that 6 months ago but I decided to invest more money into that space to make it nicer.

What will it be like? Are you still doing the ticketing system? 
Yes we're doing tickets. At first I thought I was going to have a chef’s counter that would be more integrated into the 50-seat side of the restaurant. But then the more I think about it, you know, I want to really create an institution in Austin that will last a while but at the same time be a foundation for my culinary ideas and a place for my chefs to be able to really really flex what they can do. I’m in the process of trying to create that.

Can you get into the details of the tasting room a bit? It’s right next to Qui so you can see one from the other. It started out as 20 seats and I’ve reduced it to 8 seats now. It’s an evolution. The ticket price will be in the low one hundreds for about twenty or so bites. The price will vary a bit depending what kind of seasonal ingredients we're getting in.

You mention evolution. What will happen with the rest of the restaurant? 
I'm possibly going to change up the menu formats. The way it’s working in my brain at least is that you can get three experiences from Qui. You know whether it’s a ticket to an extensive tasting, a regular sit-down dinner or an easy bar stop for some comforting Filipino food with friends and some cocktails on the patio. For the 50 seat side, for me to really take the next step in my cuisine, I need to be able to control the sequence of service more and how my guests see the place. That’s definitely a big confusion right now because you can't control an a la carte menu very well. I want to keep it a lower price point and I want people to get the experience they’re hoping to get. I'm pushing my management and chefs to think about this not so much like a regular restaurant but to think about each day like we’re at a  supper club — to create the best dining experience we can. My menu is not the most approachable. There’s a lot of foreign words and unusual ingredients we use so it’s important for our staff to make people comfortable.

Definitely not easy. Do you have any other projects in the works?
I have East Side King that I’m seriously expanding. I don’t think I’ll start another project because I’m looking to keep evolving Qui.

Would you ever open in another city? 
Yes, I’d love to open in a different city. I don’t know what that concept is. I like connecting the dots. Meeting people in different cities and sharing experiences with different people.

So while most chefs do their fine dining spot first, you went from food trucks to fancy. What was the reasoning behind that? 
I like making pretty plates that require a little more planning and more adventurous eaters. I was always planing on opening this restaurant when I was at Uchi. The trailer started while I was there. For me the truck is about familiar flavors, bold flavors, the spices are in your face. But Qui is more like a blank canvas for me to do what I want. Whatever I’m inspired by. I love working in restaurants and it's not necessarily because of just feeding people. The journey as a team is really important to me. That’s why I try to have no pretense about what the menu is going to be.

So how many do you have on staff at Qui? 
Twenty plus. I listed all of them on the thank you letter for the guests we invited for our one year anniversary. They’re so important to what we do. I’ve had a decent amount of the same people on staff since day one. A lot have been with me since my days at Uchi and Uchiko. A lot of my sous chefs and my chef de partie I’ve worked with for over six years. They know my style and they follow me to whatever spots I”m at for the most part. They’ll take leaps with me when I want to try new food, you know.

How do you find new staff?
I look for somebody that’s excited. I can’t afford to have someone there who’s not. I hire on personality and experience. I don’t want to hear about what other restaurants are doing in town and get into some kind of rat race. To me, it’s about being positive and tackling whatever needs to be taken on.

What do you think Qui provides for Austin? Or what hole does it fill? 
I don’t know if Qui is necessary in Austin at this point. There’s a few restaurants in our price point but as far as style — there’s no one else like us. I’m not trying to necessarily give the city what it needs. In one sense it is because we bring in talent from other states and other larger markets. For me that’s huge.

How do you handle the disconnect between diners who want perceived value and a kitchen that values quality ingredients above all?
It’s difficult. In Texas people want larger portions. They don’t realize how much a carrot costs at the farmers market and they get pissed because they’re like this is just a plate of vegetables form the farmer’s market and it costs so much. I think we’re slowly changing that perspective. We get bashed for our price point at Qui but every thing we use is sourced responsibly and it’s the highest level of ingredient I can get. Take the salts: we use all Jacobsen salts. The only reason I have Morton’s is to do large-scale curing or brines. And we cook with all grape seed oil or olive oil. Most people don’t consider the elements they can’t see that go on the plate. They understand an expensive protein but they don’t understand that high quality seasonings that go into things. Maybe lobster, maybe sea urchin, they get. But not salt.

Do you go to a lot of events like this?
I go to my fair share. Two or three a year.

Are they important for your career?
More than that, I feel like it’s important to the culinary scene in Austin. There’s a chef’s mentality that’s like you know I’ve got to be in my restaurant and take care of that first and be there all the time. In a city like Austin I also have the responsibility of going out there and promoting the city and making sure that people come visit us and realize it’s a great place to eat.

How important is social media to your restaurant?
I think it’s really important. I actually need to learn more about it. Mostly it’s important so guests know they can reach you. For me I like it as a way to get ideas out there. To see what people respond to. Not menu ideas but philosophies in food and dining. Recently I tweeted asking “What’s boring food to you?” A lot of times people will over-analyze a meal that’s high end and say it’s boring or say something is boring because ‘I can make it at home.’  Those are two different sides of the scale for me and I want to know what people think. For me a hamburger is not boring. I want to know how the bun is made, what’s the ratio, what cheese. It’s actually really complicated — or as complicated as you want it to be.

What were some of the answers to that tweet?
Sometimes it’s random. Like they don’t like cereal for dessert. I think people like textures. But at the same time I ask why does everything have to have a texture? I see a lot of modern plates. I used to do a lot of plates that had layers of purees. It would be like gel, fluid gel, a soil a cracker, dust or whatever you know. But recently I’m editing dishes and thinking of what I can do without — how I can find that complexity without all the bells and whistles.

Anything else?
I’ve had people say they are over foam, “Foams are so 2000,” they say. Which is crazy because foams are actually early 90s. If you think about it a foam is very similar to an emulsion and most people don’t necessarily know that. Those techniques aren’t there just to be showy. There’s actually a purpose. It’s to make a lighter sauce that still imparts flavor. People don’t think about that.

That’s why I also hate the question what’s in right now. For me I think everything is "in" all the time. It’s a matter of what you want to articulate on the plate. For me techniques aren’t necessarily dated. You need to fully understand a technique before you knock it.

Well there are some new techniques people are using more now. People are fermenting everything, for example.
Yeah but Nobu was putting cod in miso in the 90s. People have historically just never paid attention to it all this like they are now. You cure things in miso — that’s fermenting. Kimchi is everywhere now but Worcestershire sauce comes from fermenting fish and that’s been around forever. Now people are just trying to label it differently.

What about Yelp. Do you read it?
I read it all the time actually. When people write bad things I feel bad and depressed about it but you know at the same time I try to reach out to as many people as I can to make sure they have a good experience at my restaurant. Sometimes I respond to very thoughtful reviews. I ignore the people that just want to talk smack. I explore things that are meaningful. And I read these myself. I want to know why people don’t like things if they don’t like things.

That’s a good attitude to have.
I can put together a restaurant where I could probably get 5 stars every single time on Yelp — a restaurant that most people can agree with. But it wouldn’t fulfill me and it wouldn’t make me happy all the time.

Do you travel to get inspired? Everything inspires me. If you look at ketchup’s ingredients you’ll find three or four things that are also in a modernist kitchen. I like cooking systems. I like fast food restaurants. I like learning from those systems because those systems are efficient. I don’t want to grow old and be a bitter chef that says he’s seen everything. I always want to learn from things no matter how simple they might seem from the outside.