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Qui Inspiration

Award-winning chef Paul Qui rolls up his sleeves and demonstrates his culinary talent and creative vision with the opening of his highly anticipated restaurant in East Austin.

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On a recent Friday night, a buzz of activity and anticipation circulates through the dining room, kitchen and bar of the newly opened Qui, located on the corner of East Sixth Street and Comal. The rhythms of Bob Marley pulse on the overhead sound system. Flutes of Prosecco and glasses of water are distributed to guests after a short wait out in the Texas sun. A minimal interior of white, natural woods and stainless steel provides a neutral palette for the delicate interplay of early-evening light and shadows.

Chef Paul Qui, 32, dressed in a traditional white chef coat, tattoos decorating his forearms, is busy, overseeing multiple preparations in the open kitchen adjacent to the 50-seat dining area. A grilled onion is quartered and then peeled with elongated metal tweezers and used as delicate accents for a Japanese garlic soup, or dashi, with other assorted local vegetables (called the Ode to Michel Bras, one of France’s most celebrated chefs). A three-pound piece of beef cooks in a large cast-iron skillet, basted with spoonfuls of melted butter. A cut of Ora King salmon (shipped in from New Zealand) is poached in herb garlic oil in a steel Dutch oven. On a nearby grill, halves of fresh corn are grilled and then sprinkled with dehydrated butter, corn nuts and uni bottarga.

Amid all of this culinary precision and artistry, a playful spirit presides over the bustling restaurant. Qui greets guests at the blond-wood counter, and then weaves back into the kitchen to assist with the dramatic plating of the Côte de Boeuf onto an enormous wood slab that is presented to a table of two. As the evening marches forward, the patio and bar area become more crowded with waiting diners, an informal audience of sorts to the culinary choreography occurring in the nearby dining room and kitchen.

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On June 20, Qui was opened by its namesake, Paul Qui, former executive chef of Uchiko, chef/owner of East Side King trailers and restaurant, and winner of Bravo’s Top Chef season nine and the 2012 James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Southwest Award. “I was already planning to open the restaurant before the awards happened,” explains Qui, “but what the James Beard and Top Chef have allowed me to do is to be able to explore my food a little bit more because I think because of the recognition, people are more apt to try things that they normally wouldn’t try.”

A variety of confluences merged to create the realization of the chef’s flagship restaurant. Qui attended the University of Houston before moving to Austin and beginning his cooking career. In 2004, he was hired at Uchi as a free intern and then later hired by Tyson Cole. In 2010, Qui opened Uchiko on North Lamar with June Rodil, who now serves as director of operations for Qui and East Side King. “His eyes were just wide open and ready to take everything that came his way,” remembers Rodil of her days of working with Qui at Uchi and Uchiko. Also, about ten years ago, when he was working at Uchi, Paul met his fiancée, Deana Saukam, who was dining at the restaurant and was introduced by mutual friends. Later, Saukam became the marketing, public relations, social media, and events director for East Side King and now for his new restaurant in East Austin.

Rodil, who also worked at the Driskill Hotel, Second Bar + Kitchen and Congress, says that the idea of the eastside restaurant emerged during a casual conversation. “One day, Paul, Deana, and I went to have coffee and we mentioned that we missed working with each other,” she remembers. “That energy, that symbiosis of front of house and back of house.” Talk quickly translated into inspiration and then concrete concepts for a high-end restaurant, just down the street from where the first East Side King trailer was opened behind the Liberty Bar on East Sixth.

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While the synchronicity of the cooking staff and waitstaff is certainly evident in the dining experience, the food remains the star of Qui. Several items on the compact menu certainly speak to the chef’s originality and risk-taking. For example, guests can order rabbit seven ways, including consommé, mousse, confit, loin and betel-wrapped sausage. For dessert, an aged cheddar cheese ice cream sandwich is already making itself known in the culinary world with multiple glowing mentions in the Twittersphere and food-related blogs.

“I think the menu’s going to change all of the time,” says Qui. “There are certain things that we have kept so far for the season. For example, with the Texas season, during the summer, it’s very limited as far as ingredients and what we can get. I’m utilizing as much as I can.” For example, corn can be found in three items on the current menu: the Gulf Shrimp Charwanmushi, which includes a Texas corn sofrito; Street Urchin (the Mexican-style street corn); and the corn milk found in the dessert, Masi Con Yelo.

The serving and cooking staff includes individuals from both Austin and all over the country. Résumés were collected, references called, and interviews conducted on Skype. Colin Smith moved from San Francisco to work as a cook. And bar manager Michael Simon moved from Chicago after working for the Graham Elliot restaurant group and the Carriage House. “The deciding factor was once I spoke with Paul and June,” says Simon. “I knew right away that nothing else mattered, that I had to come to Austin and work for this man. Three or four weeks later, I was here.”

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Not surprisingly, Simon’s expertise and years of experience is discernible in the abbreviated cocktail menu (“We didn’t want to inundate guests with a forty-page cocktail menu,” says Simon). Dunham’s Super Nightlife Mule pays homage to the Moscow Mule, but kicks up the flavor a few notches with celery, lemongrass, and ginger beer (made in batches by Simon during the day). One of Simon’s favorites is the Gold Price, a classic Algonquin cocktail made with rye. A reduction of roasted pineapple is substituted for the juice to make for a Texas rendition of the classic drink. “We take old cocktails,” says Simon, “and really renovate them and add a fun twist.”

Only having been open for two weeks, Qui is already generating up to a two-hour wait for a table. The kitchen is producing about 130 to 140 covers per night, according to Rodil. “It’s very astonishing and humbling, too, because there is a lot of work to be done to make sure that people are very comfortable,” she says. “Those are people who are willing to adjust their timeline and diet of when they normally eat to come in and see us. It’s amazing.” Rodil continues about the opening of Qui: “Every day has been a better day than the previous. There’s really not much more that you can ask for than that.”

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What I Wore

We follow Deana for three big nights at Qui to find out what she wore, where she shops in Austin (By George, Girl Next Door and Etcetera, etc.) and the key to her modern chic look (long boho maxi dresses).

  • A Bonitas Sunshine Dress from Free People for Fourth of July at Qui. "I love the way this dress drapes, and how fun it is with the blue and white tie dye pattern and coral beading detail around the neckline," she says.
  • A Mara Hoffman Lattice Waist Dress for the opening night of Qui. "I love Mara Hoffman's use of pattern and color combinations," she says. "The cutout waist, full skirt and pockets also make this dress amazing!"
  • A San Jose Maxi Dress by Bless'ed Are the Meek for Qui's media dinner. "This dress has beautiful crochet detailing along the front, shoulders and back, and the empire waist makes it really comfortable," she says. "I can throw this on minutes before I need to be out the door without having to think about it."

Credits

Photography by Michael Thad Carter

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