Curious as to what made him stand out, I called Chef Paul Qui for an interview.
Paul Qui, represents the new breed of Filipino chefs in America today. He was the “Top Chef –Season 9” winner. The popular TV reality show paved the way to opening his restaurants. Qui won a prestigious James Beard award as Best Chef: Southwest 2012.
Born in the Philippines, but raised in the USA since he was ten, Paul said, “I did not miss bistik, kare-kare, sinigang, and adobo till we moved to the States.”
In college, Paul worked part-time at a restaurant, and that’s when he realized he loved being in the industry.
Paul Qui’s first real cooking stint was at Japanese restaurants Uchi and Uchiko, where he worked for 10 years until he became executive chef.
“Dinuguan!” Paul said was what he loved to cook. It was his grandmother’s sweet sauce he remembers. Dinuguan is a Filipino stew, with pork chunks sautéed in garlic, ginger, flavored with vinegar, and simmered in pork blood. A bowl yields the tart tanginess of vinegar in the robust, thick gravy. The garlic, ginger and the kick of fiery chilies round up the dish.
My friends who dined at Qui, raved about how he used dinuguan, kare-kare (ox tail peanut stew), kinilaw (Filipino ceviche) as cooking techniques. Paul Qui’s specialty: He uses the traditional techniques to get edgy with his dishes.
“Take the way he uses Dinuguan sauce in different ways. He served the tart, dark-colored sauce with beets and roasted vegetables. Another time, he paired dinuguan with gnocchi,” a customer said.
“He mines his childhood memories of lutong bahay (homecooked meals) plus Pinoy street food and takes his iced drop cocktails served in plastic bags and uses all these as inspirations for his dishes.”
The result: His flavors are unabashedly Pinoy.
Paul has 4 restaurants in Austin – Qui (now closed), Otoko, a sushi bar; Thaiun, a Thai restaurant, and the East Side King food truck. He also owns Pao, a Filipino restaurant in Miami. “They’re all my favorites,” Paul said.
Qui recently closed in September. Paul will re-open a new restaurant “Kuneho” at the same location in Austin.
“Being a chef and owning a restaurant is not just about cooking, “ Paul said. “You’re always working on other things.”
His advice to new chefs: “Know what you want to do. Then find a mentor who will guide you.”
No matter which restaurant he opens next, Paul Qui’s popularity can be attributed to how he honors his heritage by using traditional dishes as cooking techniques. It is Qui’s transformation of old dishes to modernist cuisines that is the identity he has carved for himself. But no matter how many modern ways are applied to tried and true dishes, the pendulum will swing back to the authentic Filipino flavors he grew up with.
Elizabeth Ann Quirino, based in New Jersey, is a journalist, food writer and member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP). She blogs about Filipino home cooking and culinary travels to the Philippines on her site AsianInAmericamag.com.
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