Every bit a chinito — complete with a Chinese-sounding surname — the 31-year-old specializes in Japanese cuisine and speaks with an American slang that he acquired since moving to the United States at age 10.
However, when he sat for a round-table interview with members of the press in Manila last week, Qui jumpstarted the interview by saying: “Actually, I can still speak Tagalog pretty well. Well… konti! Medyo choppy na ‘yung Tagalog ko, pero nakakaintindi pa ako.”
Qui, the first Filipino “Top Chef,” then went on to talk about his parents and their Filipino ways, his confused “party” days in college, and the growing up he had to do in and out of the kitchen.
Oh, and he talked about food, of course.
Born in Manila, Qui credits his introduction to food to the “smells of freshly baked breads” in the bakery of his grandparents’ grocery store in Camiling, Tarlac. He also had fond memories of his grandmother’s adobo and of the Filipino tradition of “celebrating around a lot of food, especially during the holidays.”
His solo immersion to the kitchen, however, came later in life, when Qui, who moved with his father in Texas and grew up to be “a little punk,” “exhausted all possibility of college” because he “partied way too much.”
“I was waiting tables at the time to help pay for my education… or I guess to party some more!” he said, laughing. “I liked what the guys in the kitchen were doing, so for me, it was an easy choice.”
Down the line, Qui would meet his mentor Tyson Cole, the “totally American” owner of the Austin-based Japanese restaurant Uchi, who made him “this dish that had tuna sashimi and goat cheese” — a heady combination that prompted Qui to say “I gotta work for you.”
“My plan was to work for free since I was still in school… and get as much experience as I could and then leave the city and go to New York,” he said. “But I never got away because they kept on opening doors for me.”
THE BIG BREAK
With perseverance and a supportive kitchen, Qui — who ended up in Texas Culinary Academy — worked his way up until he became executive chef of the second restaurant called Uchiko.
The road then eventually led him to his biggest break, the ninth season of “Top Chef.”
The Fil-Am chef candidly claimed that he was clueless as to why he joined the show. He joked: “I’m such a bad personality for TV!”
While his reason was unclear, his intention to win definitely wasn’t.
Qui, who said “I just kept my head down and cooked,” was dubbed one of the most consistent “chef-testants” in the Texas-centered installment of the show.
“The whole competition was intense and for me, it was just another challenge like any other,” he said. “I felt like I was playing a video game — next level, next level, next level. You can only focus on the current level.”
Qui said he owes this “hard work ethic” to his family, especially his grandparents who “slaved nonstop to get the family to where it is here in Manila today.”
This, he added, was coupled by his love for food and the fact that he “had to mature and grow up [and] learn what it means to make a dollar.”
“It’s not the cleanest job — you’re gonna take out the trash, you’re gonna mop floors, you’re gonna have fish heads, fish guts [all over you],” he said. “It’s not the most flattering, I guess, of industries. [But if] you really wanna do that, then… just jump into it and get your hands dirty.”
In the interview, Qui — who was shortlisted for the Best New Chef category of the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards — shared that life “is the same so far” since winning “Top Chef: Texas.”
Asked for concrete plans, he said he’s “not quite sure yet because it happened so fast,” but he noted that he currently does “multiple things” and that he intends to keep on with East Side King, the food trailer business he shares with a Japanese friend in Austin.
He also said one of the important things in his future is putting Filipino cuisine forward in the mainstream.
“I think, Filipino [cuisine] is in its infancy stage compared to the rest of [cuisines of other] Asian parts of the world,” he said. “We’re still trying to find our ground because we have so much inspiration from different cultures.”
Qui admitted that he finds the prospect “exciting” since “Filipino food in general exposes you to a lot of different [animal] parts.” Filipino chefs, he said, “really [have] a knowledge of food” plus “a little bit of fire” and passion.
The other important thing he’s driven to accomplish post-winning is giving back to his parents, who he said gave him “a free ride” in college, which he confessed he “screwed up.”
“I messed up a lot! I didn’t graduate from college, I was not probably the most grateful son… I just definitely want to make them proud, you know,” he said. “My dad’s getting old and my mom’s getting old and I gotta make sure that I’ll be able to support them the way they supported me.”
This profile was first published in GMA News Online in 2012. The round-table interview for this was one of the author’s favorites from the said year.
Paul Qui is… well, still a restaurant owner (qui & Eastside King), except he’s got more awards under his belt. Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio dubbed him the ‘most talented’ chef in the TV show’s run.
He’s now engaged to Deana Saukam, the lovely girl who has been by his side, even during his Manila visit. She asked me about balut while we were waiting for the interview to start. She posts a lot about food on Instagram.