Paul Qui is man of contrasts. Although you might recognize him from his victorious run on season 9 of Top Chef, Qui is no reality-show diva; rather, he’s soft-spoken and straightforward, letting his food do most of the talking. And on that front, there’s plenty to say—Qui’s cuisine involves an inventive mix of Japanese and French technique, peppered with the Southeast Asian flavors of his youth.
Qui spent the first decade of his life in the Philippines, where his family owned a grocery store and bakery, before relocating to the suburbs of D.C. at age 10. His kitchen career started in Austin, Texas, under the tutelage of Uchi chef Tyson Cole, who eventually promoted Qui to executive chef at his second Japanese restaurant, Uchiko.
In addition to pushing the envelope at Uchiko—last year he took home a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest—Qui recently opened the first brick-and-mortar outlet of his ragingly popular East Side King food truck, where he’s serving a greatest-hits menu culled from his tenure with Cole.
“I love the mix of very deep flavors with something fresh and raw,” says Qui of his cooking style. “That’s definitely a format that resonates with me—even with something as simple as chips and salsa.” Here, Qui breaks down the ten dishes—from his grandmother’s hearty adobo to delicate nigiri at Uchiko—that have defined his journey in food thus far.
1. Pork Adobo
[I grew up] in the Philippines, and adobo is probably the most iconic Filipino dish. My grandmother use to make it quite frequently and it's a favorite of mine. Her version is simpler than most and only consists of pork, black peppercorn, bay leaf, garlic, vinegar, and salt. I always had to eat it with a kind of Filipino pico that had tomatoes, cilantro, onion, shrimp paste, and fish sauce. This is also one of the first dishes I learned to cook. I didn’t really start cooking until college, and this was one of the dishes I asked my grandma, who still lives in the Philippines, to teach me how to make.
2. Love Boat
Growing up in the '80s in Manila, Japanese restaurants at the time served this combination dish called the "Love Boat." It's comprised of some shrimp tempura, with some yakitori, sushi, rolls, and sashimi—it’s kind of like a pupu platter, but Japanese. Going to a Japanese restaurant was always an extra-special thing for my family, because it was more expensive than other cuisines. This was my first exposure to Japanese food, which eventually became a passion of mine.
This dish was my first exposure to Vietnamese food, and it was the gateway for my discovery of and love for Southeast Asian cuisine. I first experienced pho in Springfield, Virginia. I had a lot of Vietnamese friends growing up and we ate pho all the time. There's just something refreshing about Vietnamese food to me—the mix of fresh vegetables and herbs combined with deep flavors of the broth and meat. This dish also eventually led me to the discovery of nuoc mam, a.k.a. fish sauce, which has influenced my cooking style in many ways.
4. Tuna and Goat's Cheese
This is my mentor Tyson Coles' signature dish. I first ate it in 2003, right when I started culinary school and the same year that I eventually started working for Uchi. I remember sitting at the sushi bar, amazed at the sashimi creations he was coming up with. This dish was influenced by [Australian chef] Tatsuya Wakuda, and in those early Uchi years, we explored so many chefs—Nobu, Morimoto, Michel Bras, Thomas Keller, Ferran Adrià—while we tried to distill what Uchi and Uchiko would eventually become.
5. Sake Kama
During my tenure at Uchi, I've put hundreds of dishes on the menu both as a chef and a cook. This was the first dish I got on the menu, circa 2005. In order to learn to cut fish, one of my first tasks was to scrub salmon with salt and to cut off the head. I was also in charge of cooking family meal, so I would frequently save the salmon heads and butcher chops out of them for family meal. For me that was the best meat on the fish, and eating it for family meal was a huge treat, especially for a broke cook. I always believed that family meal was a great platform for a cook to exercise some creative freedom, so I experimented a lot during family meal sessions. One dish that is a staple in almost every Japanese restaurant, that Nobu made popular, was Gindara or Sake Kasu—marinating fish in a miso or sake lees mixture with mirin, sugar, soy, and vinegar. I eventually started marinating the salmon collar in a miso mixture, and it was a hit with the staff and eventually made its way to the specials menu at Uchi.
6. Beet Home Fries
This started out during family meal at Uchi. I was annoyed that the walk-in wasn't clean and organized; it was my partner Moto's turn to cook family meal, so I gave him whatever random stuff was edible from the fridge. He asked me what to do with the roasted beets, and I suggested he fry them karaage-style and serve them with Kewpie [mayo], togarashi, and green onion, which is standard for a lot of Japanese junk food. That’s how the Beet Home Fries were born, and now they’re one of our signature dishes at East Side King.
7. Fried Brussels Sprouts
I don't think I can ever escape this dish, since I did it on Top Chef. While I was sous chef at Uchi around 2005, we used to fry Brussels sprouts, then glaze them with a gastrique and serve [them] as a component [of a larger dish]. I staged with Tien Ho, then the chef at Momofuku Ssäm Bar, and he was frying bowls of sprouts and serving them with nuoc mam. That's when I learned that sprouts could stand alone, and I eventually adapted the dish into my East Side King menu as the Sprout Sprout salad, and at Uchiko as a bowl of sprouts with fish caramel and sweet-chili sauce.
While at Uchi, I loved to explore nigiri. Being both a sushi chef and a kitchen chef, I started really getting into the definition of nigiri, which means “the perfect bite.” The more I learned about sushi, the less traditional the definition became to me. Tyson showed me a menu from a place called Oya in Boston and I was amazed by what they did with nigiri. It definitely prompted me to try all sorts of crazy things—since then I've experimented with saba [mackerel] with truffles, tomato and basil, sous-vide short rib, duck livers, beef tongue, pork jowl, chicken skin, and more. The idea of the "perfect bite" still rings true to me.
9. Sunchoke Dashi
I developed a variation of this dish when we opened Uchiko, and I eventually made a version of it on Top Chef, where it won me a Prius. It's definitely influenced by Michel Bras. It’s successful because it’s both simple and so complex at the same time. As with nigiri, I was trying to explore the extent of dashi and how I can [adapt it] to my style.
10. Jar Jar Duck
I developed this dish while trying to utilize my friend Sebastian's duck. His ducks are huge, and the style of cuisine that we do at Uchiko won't fit a large-format dish. I wanted to be able to use every part of the duck, cooked different ways, but I also wanted it to look like a terrarium. So the end product is a duck in a jar, smoked with rosemary. This dish was one of the last dishes I put on Uchiko's menu, and it was a keeper—it was named one of the best 10 dishes of 2011 by Food & Wine.
2. Tommy's Chili Tamale at Tommy's Hamburgers (Los Angeles, CA)
[My dad] loved that place. He came to America in 1963 when there weren't that many Asians here. They didn't pass the Immigration [and Nationality] Act until '65. The only way you could get here was in small groups, [with] student visas in most cases. He loved [Tommy's] and started bringing me there when I was three or four. It represents who I am and what my L.A. was as a child. The actual food itself is a tamale that's covered in this gloopy, gloopy chili, and it has cheese, onions, tomatoes, and pickles. There's a lot of shit that goes down [there]. A lot of energy. It's very blue collar. You order your tamale, wait in line, and walk over to the counter. They got the paper towels on the wall. You usually go mid-afternoon, sometimes you go late night, but you always eat on the hood of your car.