| This past Friday, April 6th was Paul Qui Day here in Austin, Texas, in recognition of the Uchiko executive chef's recent win on Bravo's Top Chef Texas, the season-long culinary contest. The celebration was much deserved, as Qui was the only Texan to make the regular season (24 Diner chef Andrew Curren failed to make it through the qualifying rounds), and proceeded to practically run the table on his opponents. On Thursday at the Austin City Council meeting, Council Member Mike Martinez read a proclamation in honor of Qui, and Friday, during a reception on the Mayor's balcony, Qui was presented with a key to the city and a proclamation from the State of Texas in honor of his victory. Guests were treated to an amazing summery fruity drink, the best segment of a beet I've ever eaten in or around a government building, and a miraculous duo of sashimi, courtesy of Uchi, the culinary "parent" of Uchiko.
Martinez watched the show -- along with what seemed like 95% of my Twitter feed -- and once Qui won, immediately vowed to issue a proclamation and celebrate the win at City Hall on behalf of the city Qui calls home. During the ceremony, the characteristically humble Qui made a few remarks. For all of his success and accolades, Qui is remarkably genuine and laid back. He's probably the platonic ideal of an Austin "celebrity chef," in that he's a down-to-earth guy doing really amazing things, yet carries himself in a decidedly low-key manner. Here's a photo from the ceremony Friday:
This most recent Top Chef season filmed in San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas -- deliberately snubbing Houston -- before jetting off to Vancouver for the finale. The producers touched on some of the easier -- dare I say "lazier" -- elements of Texas culinary history and culture, including a chili cook-off, a rodeo, the Cattle Baron's ball, and Pee Wee Herman at the Alamo -- and some of the inexplicable, such as cooking rattlesnake. There was also a strange "cook in a field with what you have in your backpack" interlude between San Antonio and Dallas that was like no trip up I-35 that I've ever experienced, thank God.
Much like his food, Qui was the most interesting and complex representation of Texas on the show. Other than a challenge to cater a quinceañera, there wasn't much to really illustrate the diversity of Texas, and our culinary traditions that span more than just big steaks and all other things bovine. (Even the tequila quickfire challenge was more like a weekend in South Padre than a recognition of the Mexican influence on much of Texas eating and drinking.) Qui immigrated with his family from the Philippines to Virginia at age 10, attended college in Houston, and found his calling in the kitchen, eventually studying at Austin's Texas Culinary Academy. Qui's training in Asian and European cuisines and experience with Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Thai cooking gave him a broad range of flavors and techniques to draw on throughout the season, and always seemed to be cooking food that was uniquely his own. There is a great diversity of experience in Qui, and perhaps that's not only what makes him such a great chef, but also made him the Texas contestant of choice. That the finale came down to Qui and another former Houstonian was fitting given the Texas theme of the season, but it was Qui who most Texas Top Chef fans I knew seemed to be rooting for.
The Qui key celebration was a fun and fitting denouement for those of us who watched Top Chef weekly, breathless with anticipation to see if Qui's precision and subtlety would prevail over the cuisine of his opponents. Each week, my best friend and I watched the show together, cooking elaborate-for-us meals while cheering on Paul, booing the meaner contestants (cough, Heather, cough), and critiquing the food based solely on its appearance. (Can someone invent taste-o-vision already?) We were elated when he would tweet back at us as he watched the show from an undisclosed location, contractually forbidden from joining the watch parties at Uchiko or East Side Kings.
Oh, how we fretted whether or not he would win. When we saw the promotional materials for the upcoming Austin Food & Wine Festival, several friends and I became intensely concerned that runner-up Sarah Grueneberg (a graduate of the Art Institute of Houston, now a chef in Chicago) would win, since she was featured more prominently on the promotional materials than Austin-based Qui. Yet as he won challenge after challenge, our confidence in the Texan contestant only increased. Paul's confidence seemed to remain self-contained and steady throughout, as he won a cool $20K for a coconut soup with ghost chile peppers, prevailed in a snooty Highland Park dinner party with brussels sprouts, enchanted Charlize Theron with his beat salad, and made a transformative sunchoke dashi soup for his mentor and Uchi chef Tyson Cole. He even won the Salt Lick challenge with an Asian-inspired barbecue, which was no small feat given how Texans are about their BBQ.
And then he won! And my Twitter feed roared with approval.
For those of us who are extremely fortunate to have eaten at Uchiko, it's no surprise that Qui won. His food is a transformative experience -- it makes you recognize all of the amazing new and nuanced ways he's prepared and combined his ingredients. The two times I have been lucky enough to eat there, the food was simply astonishing. When in Austin, you can also taste his food at one of the three East Side Kings trailers, which feed hungry hipsters and bar crawlers east of I-35 at Shangri-La, The Liberty, and The Grackle. The outpost at The Grackle is perhaps my favorite, with another remarkable brussels sprouts dish and a pork belly entree that will have you, too, wiping a faux tear from the corner of your eye. Amazing food can be accessible and affordable to all, and based on simple ingredients that leave you asking, "why aren't my sprouts this good?"
The answer is that we are not Paul Qui, winner of Top Chef Texas and excellent Austinite who is helping to put the modern culinary scene in our state on the map. So congrats to Paul on your key to the city, in honor of your great success on Top Chef this past season. We could not have asked for a finer representative of Texas in the show.