Top Chef Season 9 winner Paul Qui and his fiancée, Deana Saukam, are so lovely that I can’t even be jealous about their apartment, with its enviable view of downtown Austin. When I visited them recently, Deana greeted me with big hugs, their new puppy jumped on my shoes, two cats eyed me from the living room and Paul smiled his shy smile at me from the stove. Deana is outgoing and take-charge (she’s Paul’s manager), while Paul is quiet, humble and happy to go along with whatever Deana wants. But not in the kitchen.
Paul trained under Tyson Cole at Uchi for eight years, working his way up the ranks to become chef at Uchi’s offshoot, Uchiko. His rise is all about incredible dedication and the real joy he takes in cooking: When I ate at Uchiko years ago, I could see Paul behind the line, grinning the entire time. You can’t help but be happy near him, and with Deana around, the feeling is magnified.
Like many chefs, Paul works insane hours, running four kitchens (two out of food trucks) for his East Side King mini empire. And now that he’s launching another restaurant, the eponymous Qui, his life is even crazier. But even if he doesn’t get home until midnight, he cooks a real dinner to eat with Deana.
These meals make it easy to understand how Paul won Top Chef—no matter what he cooks, it tastes good. For instance, he doctors instant ramen with mushrooms, scallions, Kewpie mayonnaise and a bit of fish roe; the dish is addictive. Even sautéed spinach tastes better when Paul makes it. While I might just use garlic and oil, he adds unsweetened coconut milk and fish sauce for a sweet-savory flavor that makes me want to eat my greens every day.
Deana is tiny, so I had to ask—does she really eat such big meals so late at night? She laughed: “Paul and I are really fatties at heart.”