Surreal, sublime and sensual: the definition of the food at Uchi. We all agree that Tyson Cole is a master, and we are lucky he brought us Uchi. Thursday night he gave us one more gift - Paul Qui. You may know him as the Executive Chef at Uchiko in Austin, but most Texans know him as the winner of Top Chef Texas.
Paul visited the Houston Uchi and prepared three of the dishes he made on Top Chef. Paul was there Wednesday and Thursday evenings, and the place was sold out the day his arrival was announced. The doors opened at 5 p.m., and there was a line halfway around the building at 4:45 p.m.
Paul Qui was born in the Philippines, and that is where his culinary passions began. His parents owned a small grocery store, and Paul found he loved the "sweet smells of freshly baked breads in the mornings and the diverse culture of the Philippines." By the age of 10, Paul had moved to Virginia and then to Houston to attend college.
Like many college students, Paul waited tables, but he was soaking in more than tips. He was feeding his curiosity about the restaurant business, and his passion and excitement for food grew exponentially. Knowing his life was going to be about food, he headed to Austin to attend the Texas Culinary Academy in 2003. While there, he visited Uchi as a customer.
"I was introduced to Uchi by a friend," Qui says. "I was so impressed with my meal there that I asked if I could work in the kitchen for free." When Tyson Cole offered Paul a job, everything just seemed to fall into place. "I've worked for him going on three-and-a-half years now, and I have gained a tremendous amount of knowledge both in the kitchen and the sushi bar," Paul says.
After starting as a stage, Paul worked his way up the ranks of Uchi to Chef de Cuisine and eventually Executive Chef at Uchiko. While training under Tyson, he learned to adapt traditional Japanese dishes with an eye toward local flavor, all while incorporating influences from southeast Asian and European cuisines.
Since winning Top Chef, Paul has been doing a lot of traveling and gathering many honors. He received the key to the city of Austin, which declared a Paul Qui Day, he got to cook for the White House Easter celebration, and he's done a cooking demonstration at NASCAR in Dallas with one of his Top Chef mates, Sarah. He will be cooking with Ed from Top Chef at the derby. Life is a whirlwind for him these days, and Houston is lucky he stopped in to give us a taste of his culinary mastery.
Paul first prepared his Sunchoke Dashi. This is the dish he won the Mentor Challenge with on Top Chef. It was an artful array of sunchoke, baby carrot, watermelon radish, dried uni and crème fraiche. The sunchoke dashi is poured around the vegetables at the table. It is a beautiful spring green that is pure velvet on the palate. The dish was smoky, briny, fresh and light. The dried uni added that subtle but integral hint of brininess. One of the diners at the table said, "Tastes like a champion!"
When Paul served this dish on Top Chef, Tyson said, "This is it. This is everything that had been preached to Paul over the years -- balance of flavors." At the judges' table, Tom Colicchio gave Qui one of the best compliments a chef can get: "It takes a truly mature chef to know when too much is too much." This characteristic restraint was evident in that velvety, heady dashi. The recipe is provided below.
Our second dish was Uni Crab. It consisted of peeky toe crab, dried and fresh uni, trumpet royal mushrooms, Yukon gold potato crisps and cipollini onions. The mushrooms were cut to look like scallops and grilled to perfection.
There were voluptuous hunks of crab with wonderfully softened cipolinis and shatteringly crisp potatoes on top. The crab and uni bisque was poured, at the table, around the other components. The server warned us that there was a little heat from chilies in the bisque. That bisque was damn near a sexual experience! It had a sensually silky texture, deep umami flavor and sharp licks of heat that, when combined, made this probably the best dish I have ever had at Uchi Austin or Uchi Houston. I would bathe in that bisque.
The last dish Paul made was Truffles Congee. He combined koshi hikari, black truffles, lemon, collard greens and shiro dashi. He used sushi rice and essentially made a risotto with flighty little bonito flakes, fried collard greens and shaved truffles. It was an umami explosion. It was complex, hearty, and comforting with strong flavors that neither overwhelmed nor underwhelmed the others. Tyson and Tom were right on when they said Paul knows how to use strong flavors in very subtle ways.
Paul is an interesting character. The wait staff at Uchi seemed to treat him very reverently. Every patron was there to see him, yet you'd never know that to talk to him. At no time did he seem rushed to get to the next table or like he just didn't have a lot of time to mingle in the dining room. Many tables got pictures with him and he didn't hesitate to answer questions or accept congratulations graciously. He is one of the most humble chefs I have ever met, and it was quite refreshing.
In addition to being executive chef at Uchiko, he is also partners at Eastside Kings in Austin. He and his partner, Moto, have three trucks and have been featured on No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain. When asked where he sees himself in five to ten years, he immediately talks about Eastside Kings. He wants to expand and open a brick-and-mortar place soon. If he's not traveling, you can catch Moto and Paul cooking in the truck after he finishes the night at Uchiko. He closes the restaurant down and then often closes the trucks down by 3 a.m. Ah, the stamina of youth and passion.
He doesn't seem to have much ego invested in the restaurants being "Paul's food." He wants to gather a team of people who share the same passion and excitement that he does, train them well and put them in the restaurants. Asked about being away from Uchiko and whether the staff is able to handle his absence, he says, "Absolutely, I think a big part of creating a great restaurant is having the right crew. It took me about a year, a year and a half before we were hitting our stride at the restaurant. I'm extremely proud of my guys."
Paul is so inventive with his flavors and combinations that the diner is left wondering where he could possibly get his inspirations. He says he gets them from failure. "A lot of what I have learned is from failing. You can't be scared to try." He also looks to the seasons and what farmers bring him to put together his latest flavor explosions. I told him about a book I had recently read, Last Supper, and asked him to tell us what his last meal would be. I gave him the example of Morimoto wanting to hand-polish rice and pick out matching grains with tweezers. Paul laughed and said, "Are you kidding? Give me a bucket of fried chicken and ice cream."
When in Houston, Paul likes to eat at Jolene's and a couple places in Bellaire, but he forgets the names. One is a pho place that serves the broth separate from the meat and veggies; he thinks it is outside the Loop. The other is a banh mi place that he says is fantastic. Paul said he used to go to Girval's but the quality really went down the last time he was there. When in Austin he loves The Liberty, Deck Hands, Hole in the Wall and Le Soleil. At Le Soleil he gets the whole catfish with curry and at Deck Hands he gets the oysters with Thai sauce.
It was announced that Paul was going to be at Uchi last Wednesday and Thursday, but he told me that he will actually be here till tomorrow, and he's going behind the sushi bar to hone his sushi skills.
Paul Qui is the epitome of Austin's motto, "Keep Austin Weird," and at the same time the utter refinement and subtlety of Uchi. He's the guy you want to reverently learn from and then hang out with and have banh mi and beer. Paul doesn't bring his ego to the game, just his passion and excitement and his willingness and joy to teach. I left wanting to know what he knows and thinking it would be cool to be his foodie buddy.