Ever since his triumphant turn on Top Chef, Paul Qui has managed to wear his celebrity lightly. On the show, after all, it was his understated showmanship as much as his talent that won over fans and ultimately, judges. That nonchalance toward the spotlight always seemed admirable to me, and then, Qui opened its doors on East Sixth Street. Oh ho, what’s this? A restaurant named after yourself?
Let’s face it: celebrity is a good selling point. But aside from all that, I was curious to experience the kind of restaurant Paul would hang his culinary hat on. More upscale sushi? Downhome, Japanese street fare?
“This space is about exploration more than anything,” says Paul. “It’s not a regular restaurant. Cooks run the food out to guests, it’s an open kitchen. The menu here changes quite a bit.”
There’s not really one set cuisine here; it’s more like a chemistry lab with a bunch of mad scientists.
“A bit” as in, “almost every day.” That’s the really fun part about Qui: Paul and his staff have deliberately set up a space where they can push boundaries. There’s not really one set cuisine here; it’s more like a chemistry lab with a bunch of mad scientists. A little library sits in the back with a long wooden wall, and here, the kitchen staff clips various food ideas they dream up: “ham egg custard” reads one card. Soon, I’m eating that very thing, sighing between luscious spoonfuls.
“It’s easy to get derailed in this industry, and what keeps me focused is work,” says Paul. And I believe him: this is a man who orchestrated a SXSW food trailer extravaganza, has expanded his East Side King mini empire all over town, and quietly built this new establishment in a matter of
he obsessively searches for the perfect bite, and has cultivated a staff of similarly focused souls.
months. Still, it’s the micro-detail that I appreciate most about Paul, the fact that he obsessively searches for the perfect bite, and has cultivated a staff of similarly focused souls. I watch one in the kitchen cutting pasta on a chitarra, with the same precision one might reserve for triple bypass surgery.
The interior of Qui is breezy, modern and open, with a counter facing the open kitchen (a nod to Paul’s sushi pedigree) and wood buffed to a high shine. “We wanted this place to feel comfortable, to feel like a home, and very organic,” says Deana Saukam, Paul’s fiancé and manager. She points out wooden serving plates that were made out of an old tree trunk on the property, which was Italo’s Pizza before it was Qui.
“We wanted this place to feel comfortable, to feel like a home.”
– Deana Saukam
“Transparency is a big deal to us, and we like showing people ‘hey, this is how your food is made, these are the people making it,’” adds Deana, gesturing to the kitchen. I ask her how the menu is designed.
“We’re hyper-seasonal, but we’re not a local restaurant – we just focus on the best product we can get,” she says. “Our kitchen staff will put ideas on the inspiration board, and try things out, and if it works, it works! It’s nice because we don’t have the pressure of having to create this certain dish every day. We want people to come in here with an adventurous spirit, and be ready to experiment.”
I taste one of the experiments, the storied Rabbit 7 Ways dish that seems to make an appearance pretty consistently, if Yelp is to be believed. I bite into a round of rich sausage flecked with peppercorns, and then a fat mulberry to cut through those juices. My immense pleasure is notable considering I’m something of a cute-atarian; if it’s cute, I have a hard time eating it. Leave it to Paul to pierce my flimsy principles.
“Here, it’s more about us pushing our boundaries and trying out different ideas of food,” he says. Fortunately for us Austinites, our minds, and mouths, are open. ◊
The Qui Experience
by Chris Perez
Every aspect of qui has been well thought out – even the music playlist. Sitting down with the wing commander behind it all, general manager Bill Mann, we got some insight into the making of the eclectic and unconventional soundtrack that accompanies your rabbit 7 ways or cheddar cheese ice cream sandwich.
Just as with food, the making of a restaurant playlist involves both conceptual and technical logistics. Technically, the music needs to fit a particular sound level and resonate well in the open layout of the space. Conceptually, it’s important for the music to align with the food being served and to be as diverse as the personnel creating those dishes in the kitchen.
That’s precisely why you’ll hear everything from Japanese punk band Peelander Z to Jay-Z – the former being one of Chef Paul Qui’s favorites, the latter a nod to Mann’s Brooklyn roots.
It’s important for the music to also establish a mood. The laid-back vibe of a reggae track from Stephen Marley can ease a stressful lead up to restaurant opening, just as a track from the ‘Stones can get the evening kicking into high gear. The playlist at Qui is as eclectic as it is fun, and just like the restaurant always provides the unexpected.
Take a listen to a Spotify playlist Bill Mann crafted especially for Citygram Readers. Stream it at home during your next meal and enjoy a touch of the Qui experience – even if you’re salmon isn’t oil-poached.