Note: First Looks give previews of new dishes, drinks, and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots and interviews with restaurants, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
Austin's Paul Qui has been on a winning streak. After snagging the Top Chef title on Season 9, he was presented with the coveted James Beard Award for Best Southwest Chef last year. Most recently, he won Young Chef of the Year 2013 at the S. Pellegrino Cooking Cup in Venice. After spending eight years under Tyson Cole's mentorship at Uchi/ Uchiko, Qui is finally opening his own signature restaurant today. Not surprisingly, qui (the restaurant, which, yes, is lowercase) is located in the heart of East Austin, near Qui's Eastside King food trailers.
Qui invited me over to chat in the restaurant's tasting room, which is divided from the rest of the space by wood slat sliding doors. He had his laptop out and was surrounded by notebooks and cookbooks. The area, furnished with a horizontal bookshelf, also serves as the office, library, and think tank. "We have our laptops out when working at the kitchen, looking up techniques, taking photos... the more open the space, the less there is to hide," Qui explained.
Seats in the tasting room are reserved through a ticketing system. Guests will begin their prix fixe meal at the bar seats that surround the open kitchen, then transition into the more intimate room. The rest of the restaurant is walk-in only and guests get an equally good view of the kitchen. "I wanted open space. It makes 14 hours in the kitchen easy. The old model of a restaurant is when you hide the kitchen because it's a dirty place. It's not necessary here—these guys are professionals at what they do," Qui says.
He then led me to a wall filled with tags with ingredients written on them. The team conceptualizes dishes and drinks by grouping different tags together. "The menu to me is the easiest part of the restaurant. I'm cooking catfish, Gulf shrimp, corn, onions. It's inspired by Austin but I'm not a farm to table restaurant," says Qui. "I get the best of what I can get so if it happens to be from Austin, it is."
When I asked him about his challenges or pressures, especially since his newfound fame, Qui responded genuinely and nonchalantly. "I'm whatever about it. I'm not about the hype. I'm about delivering good product, so as long as the food that comes in from the back door is amazing and my guys are motivated and inspired, that's what I focus my energy on," he says.
Before heading back into the kitchen, Qui added, "the best part of winning Top Chef is that it's allowed me to serve whatever I want to my guests and know that they'll try it."