I first became acquainted with Paul Qui’s talents when he worked under Tyson Cole at Uchi. There was a passion about him and a drive to make each dish he created an ultimate flavor experience.
So when he became executive chef at Uchiko I was one of the first in the door. I was not disappointed. This was more than brilliance: this was transcendence. Qui’s work and vision were literally breathtaking.
Then of course came the stunning victory on Top Chef and the financial and brand rewards that accompanied it. He embarked on a whirlwind tour of the world’s best restaurants as he searched for the next culinary inspiration. The result was the eponymous Qui, an initially amazing E 6th experiment in Pan Asian and European presentations. One thing stood out to me though: the building had no sign or identification. A bit of my hubris perhaps? A harbinger of things to come?
After several years of success at Qui and an opening of the intimate Otoko (only 12 at one seating at the site of the South Congress Hotel) featuring a ritualistic Kaiseki multi-course offering and another opening in South Beach I wondered to a friend how stressful this must be on the 36-year old Filipino wunderkind.
And that’s when the bubble burst. Qui fans were shocked after a violent meltdown last March left the chef staring into the lens of a police mug shot camera. Without question, drugs were involved along with an inordinate amount of self-doubt characteristic of talented people who have trouble with all accolades thrust upon them. He checked in to a rehab program and emerged ostensibly chastened and rededicated.
Then came the recent announcement that Qui would close in several weeks and reopen later this year as Kuheno (translates to “rabbit” in Filipino).
The one thing is this entire saga that needs to be mentioned is the unrelenting pressure put on all chefs. It’s a brutal business with ridiculous hours along with constant need for perfection in each dish: hell, in each bite.
Paul will not be the last nice guy who was overwhelmed by the demands of his profession and his own high standards. The work cannot be adequately explained to anyone who has not worked on a line at a crowded restaurant on a Saturday night. When all is finally done it is not uncommon for chefs to hit some late-night spot to wind down. The substances that accompany the winding down process may vary but for many those substances take on a strong degree of dependency. Apparently Paul fit into that category.
Please understand this is not an apologia for Qui. He let down his staff and his customers, not to mention those closest to him. And I would imagine he feels that he let himself down. He has reparations to make and in the words of Robert Frost, promises to keep.
I have had several interesting chats with Paul over the years and one stands out. My wife and I were at Jack Allen’s in Oak Hill and Paul and his girlfriend were sitting across from us. I asked him about the grand opening of Qui. He implied that he didn’t enjoy the experience and that his investors had put pressure on him to have it. He would have rather had a long soft opening to give the front and back of the house to get in sync.
There’s that pressure word again. In his next challenge it will be there, perhaps in light of recent events, even more so. But I also believe in 2nd chances and the inherent tolerance of people. And I think one of Austin’s brightest culinary lights deserves both.