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Paul Qui: Bringing Filipino flavors to Top Chef

/ 07:04 PM January 19, 2012

The new season of reality TV series Top Chef brought the famous cooking show to Texas for the first time. And since, as they say, ‘Everything is bigger in Texas’, the show brought in the largest number of competing chefs. The show premiered last November and gathered 29 chefs from around the country to search for the ninth Top Chef winner.
Week after week, the cheftestants were whittled one by one. Two Seattle-based chefs – Nina Vicente, a Filipina sous chef and Ashley Villaluz, an American married to a Filipino and Jonathan Baltazar, a private chef from Long Beach, California – were among those eliminated in the early parts of the highly competitive show.

Vicente was eliminated on the spot when she failed to put the main component of her dish on her plate. Villaluz wasn’t as lucky as well, she tried to make her version of braised oxtail kare-kare, a dish she learned from her mother-in-law. Baltazar suffered the same fate as the judges eliminated him for not cooking Brussels sprouts according to their standards.

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Paul Qui, executive chef at Uchiko Restaurant in Austin, sailed to the semi-finals as he impressed the judges with his grilled trout. He is the remaining Filipino-American in the competition, alongside two other Asian-Americans – Edward Lee and Beverly Kim, who are both Koreans.

He has impressed the judges with some of the dishes he has served, and won two Quickfire Challenges and three Elimination Challenges. Some of his wins had corresponding cash prizes and as of the January 4 episode where his team won the Barbecue Challenge, Paul has won a total of $35,000.

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“It feels really good to win the challenges and they definitely boosted my confidence. I just need to keep my eye on the prize and do the best that I can,” Paul told the Asian Journal in an interview.

Top Chef was not on his plan when he decided to draw his career path. Now, the accidental reality show cheftestant is making the most out of it.

“All I know is I love being in the kitchen, I love cooking,” he said.

Adobo on Top Chef

A few days before Christmas, many Filipinos watching Top Chef were given a pleasant surprise when Paul cooked the national Filipino dish adobo.

Immediately, there were many blog posts about the episode from many Filipinos.

One such blogger, Tanikalang Ginto wrote, “This week’s elimination challenge was about ‘tribute’ – cook a dish in homage to the person who inspired them to be a chef. When it was Paul’s turn to talk about his homage, it was a dish he said that his grandmother cooked and that he had this dish almost three times a week growing up. And the dish was… the Filipino adobo!

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I immediately went to the BravoTV site and looked at his bio. He was born in Manila and is currently based in Austin. Imagine that! A Pinoy in the running for the top honors. And he is such a cool guy, too!”

On the website, pigpartsandbeer, there was also a similar comment. “My ears perked up when I heard adobo. Chef Paul Qui described the dish he’d be preparing for the judges and when I heard adobo, my mouth started watering. The challenge: the dish had to be indicative of the persons who’ve influenced their passion to cook. Paul’s greatest culinary influence was his grandmother aka lola.”

“I was born in Manila and our family moved to Virginia when I was young,” Paul said.  “I’m very familiar with Filipino food because that’s what I ate growing up. I’m not a very good cook of Filipino dishes though,” he added with a laugh.

“I distinctly remember that in the Philippines, we cooked a lot of food with lard, my lola would cook chicharon and use the oil from the pork to cook other dishes. My lola from my dad’s side cooks my favorite, dinuguan and we always eat it with puto,” Paul said.

Like many traditional Filipino families, Paul’s family wasn’t too happy about his decision to pursue a career in the culinary field.

“I guess it’s a Filipino thing, they wanted me to become a doctor or a lawyer,” he said.

“I have grown up a bit, I’m no longer that mischievous brat that I was when I was younger. My mom is prouder of me now and I am happy that I make my parents proud because for a time I know that I was a disappointment to them,” he added.

Top Chef takes Texas

Top Chef is an American reality competition show that airs on the cable television network Bravo, in which chefs compete against each other in culinary challenges. They are judged by a panel of professional chefs and other notables from the food and wine industry with one or more contestants eliminated in each episode.

Now on its 9th season, Top Chef has had 61 judges so far. Of these, 20 have won the Food and Wine Best New Chef award, including Head Judge Tom Colicchio. Of these 61 guests, 12 have appeared multiple times. Anthony Bourdain and Rocco DiSpirito lead with 5 appearances.

The earlier seasons were held in different places like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York, Washington DC and Florida. Filmed in Texas, Top Chef Season 9 began airing last November 2011.

In what will prove to be the most challenging season yet, some of the biggest names in food, music, and entertainment including Charlize Theron, Pee-wee Herman, Cat Cora, John Besh, Tim Love, Patti LaBelle will be featured this season on Top Chef: Texas.

Returning to the Judges’ Table is host Padma Lakshmi and head judge, chef Tom Colicchio, alongside judges Gail Simmons and new this season, famed chef and restaurateur Emeril Lagasse and critically-acclaimed chef Hugh Acheson.

Now down to seven cheftestants, Paul is one of those leading, being in the 3rd spot as Fan Favorite.

Paul’s love of food began as a child with the “sweet smells of freshly-baked breads in the mornings and the diverse culture of the Philippines” that he found in the bustling bakery of his family’s grocery store. He moved to Springfield, Virginia at the age of ten and then on to Houston to attend college. Qui spent his collegiate years waiting tables at several restaurants, igniting his passion for food and his curiosity about the restaurant business.
This growing enchantment with cuisine led Paul to Austin’s Texas Culinary Academy in 2003 and ultimately to Uchi…as a customer.

“I was introduced to Uchi by a friend—I was so impressed with my meal there that I asked if I could work in the kitchen for free,” recalled Paul. When Uchi Chef and Owner Tyson Cole offered him a job, everything just seemed to fall into place. “I’ve worked for him going on three and a half years now, and I have gained a tremendous amount of knowledge both in the kitchen and the sushi bar,” he added.

Paul worked his way up the ranks of Uchi to Chef de Cuisine and eventually Executive Chef at Uchiko. While training under Cole, Paul learned to adapt traditional Japanese dishes with an eye towards local flavor, all while incorporating influences from South East Asian and European cuisine.

Both he and his restaurant were named finalists in Austin Eater’s 2011 awards.

Paul being Filipino blends Southeast Asian ingredients seamlessly into modern Japanese cuisine.  He also runs three food trucks in Austin called the East Side King.

Grateful for the opportunities he has had, Paul is eager to extend them to others, so he has already taken on students from the Culinary Academy at Uchiko.

With his outstanding talents as a chef, the future will surely be bright for Paul, who may yet be the Top Chef for 2012.  For now, he is truly just grateful that his plate is full. With reports from Cynthia de Castro

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TAGS: Cooking, Filipino, Food, Television, Top Chef
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