Paul Qui grew up thousands of miles from the Lone Star state, surrounded by the cuisine and culture of his native Philippines. Qui might have moved to Springfield, Virginia, at only 10 years old, but those early impressions were so strong he can still remember aromas of fresh baked bread from his family’s grocery store.
College brought a slightly older Qui to Texas, where those evocative memories of his youth—and the strapped collegiate budget—drove him to his first jobs in the industry. Qui spent those formative years waiting tables at several restaurants. But rather than just pocketing the money for recreational use, Qui fostered an even deeper love for cuisine, even in the menial context of basic service. That growing interest in food led him to Austin’s Texas Culinary Academy in 2003, where he put his nascent passions to practical use.
If Qui’s talents were clear early on, so were his instincts. After being introduced to the restaurant by a friend, the young would-be chef took himself to Chef Tyson Cole’s popular Uchi night after night. Deeply impressed with the quality of the cuisine, Qui applied to Cole for a stage position. Cole wasn’t just satisfied with Qui, he was rewarded. And so he rewarded the young chef in turn by hiring him, first for a job at Uchi, and ultimately as overseer of the kitchen and sushi bar at Uchiko, Cole’s second beloved Austin restaurant. And while Qui’s culinary chops are quickly becoming known to the Austin world, his recent role as “cheftestant” on “Top Chef” season nine and his 2012 StarChefs.com Rising Stars Award have secured the young chef a much-deserved national—and international—culinary audience.
Interview with Rising Star Chef Paul Qui of Uchiko – Austin, TX
Emily Bell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Paul Qui: While I was in college I worked in restaurants quite a bit, just waiting tables to make money. While I was waiting tables, the back of the house interested me a little bit more. So I switched career tracks. I started off as an art major and went into Management Information Systems and Information Systems, and really wasn’t happy.
EB: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
PQ: I think the biggest advice for young chefs is to focus on what they’re passionate about in the industry, keep their head down, and work hard.
EB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with or without a culinary background?
PQ: I base it a lot on attitude. I just look for energy in people. Desire and passion, I think, are more important to me than a culinary degree. You can teach your cook skills but you can’t teach him passion or attitude. I mean, of course a resume from different restaurants helps. But I don’t think it’s necessary, and people learn in different ways. Some people learn by having teachers; some people learn hands-on, in the kitchen.
EB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
PQ: I think the reason why I’m in the culinary industry is because part of it is the gratification. You get to see your guests; you get to see the expression on our guests from the food you make. That’s a huge part of why I do what I do. The other part is the excitement of the raw material that comes in. It’s super exciting to me, and I try to bring that excitement to the restaurant kitchen. That’s a large part of why I do what I do.
EB: What goes into creating a dish?
PQ: Inspiration comes in different forms. Sometimes it could be pictures or artwork. Sometimes it’s the raw product—the roots and stems are pretty, maybe the leaves and flowers. Or sometimes it’s a more abstract picture or a theme that I’m trying to recreate on the plate. So I guess, for me, inspiration comes from almost anything. I’m always open to whatever—that’s one big thing I’ve learned in Tyson [Cole]’s kitchen. There are always a lot of possibilities. I’m always trying to explore.
EB: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
PQ: It’s the challenge I go up against almost every day, through sous chefs, keeping the energy and excitement in the kitchen. Making sure every day every one of our guys is passionate about what they’re doing. For me it’s to be inspired every single day.
EB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
PQ: I think just going into the culinary industry as a whole. After graduating from culinary school, I got paid almost minimum wage. I did that for two or three years. I think that was probably the hardest part. But what I was doing, I didn’t really care. It was hard at the time, but it was super gratifying. And I’d do it again.
EB: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?
PQ: I don’t know. At this point in my career I don’t think I would really change anything. I’ve always felt the need or want to travel to a bigger city to learn as much as I can. But at the same time, Austin is so fulfilling for me, so I want to stay and try to represent, push the cuisine forward. Should I go to NYC or Chicago or stay and represent where I came from? That’s always a question I’m asking myself. But really I’d do everything that I did, again.
EB: What are some of your favorite food-industry charities? Why?
PQ: Right now we’re working with Urban Roots. They help educate teens in agriculture. It’s fairly close to the city. Two of my guys go out there and help them farm and pick vegetables. We’re trying to incorporate their product into the menu as much as we can, trying to give them more exposure.
EB: What’s your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
PQ: I guess being able to get recognized even though I live in a small town like Austin. Definitely getting to do “Iron Chef” with Chef Cole. Currently doing “Top Chef” now. And being able to get Anthony Bourdain at one of my trailers. I mean, those are my three favorite shows.
EB: What does success mean for you?
PQ: I think the ultimate vision of success to me would be to own and operate my own restaurant, but also to be able to find somebody like me that I can mentor and groom and make sure that they’re successful. I’m successful if they’re more successful than me.
EB: Where do you see yourself in five years?
PQ: I have no idea. I don’t know. I actually haven’t thought that far ahead. In five years I’ll definitely have my own restaurant. I’ll have my own restaurant in Austin, Texas. Who knows after that?