Why He's Amazing: After taking over the city streets with East Side King, his chain of Asian food trucks, he's opened an ambitious restaurant with outstanding dishes that balance his expert Japanese cooking skills, his love for France and his Filipino heritage.
Quintessential Dish: Dinuguan (Filipino pork blood stew with crisp gnocchi).
Culinary School: Le Cordon Bleu, Austin.
Restaurant CV: Uchiko, Uchi, Austin.
Tenacity: Qui worked at Austin's acclaimed sushi restaurant Uchi for seven years, starting as an unpaid intern and working his way up to chef de cuisine.
Brainstorming: Qui restaurant features an inspiration wall, where the chef and his crew figure out new dishes and drinks by grouping together old-fashioned labels with ingredients written on them.
Building a Community: Qui hired locals to work on nearly every aspect of his restaurant's interior: the architectural design, the wall art, the hand-shaped ceramic dishes—even his kitchen crew's aprons, which were designed by his fiancée, Deana Saukam, and produced by Mr. and Mrs. Sew It All.
Street Food: Diners can find a less-refined version of Qui's cooking (beet fries, steamed pork belly buns) at his two East Side King food trucks and his two brick-and-mortar East Side King locations, all near the University of Texas at Austin.
Restaurants: Qui, East Side King food trucks (Austin)
Experience: Uchi, Uchiko (Austin)
Education: Le Cordon Bleu (Austin)
Where else have you run the kitchen?
I was chef de cuisine at Uchi and at Uchiko.
Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
The first person who got me interested in cooking was my grandmother. I spent a lot of time with her when I was younger, living in the Philippines. She taught me about patience. When I would hang out with her in the kitchen, she would cook a lot of things with pork. She’d render back fat and cook vegetables with it. My favorite snacks were the chicharrónes, the rendered pork rinds. She showed me how it pays to take time with food.
As far as my professional career, Tyson [Cole, the chef and owner of Uchi and Uchiko] taught me flavors. And because he’s a sushi chef, most of what I know about sushi I learned from him. He taught me about not having any boundaries in cooking. He gave me very open guidelines for me to be able to develop my own style and technique.
What was the first dish you ever cooked by yourself?
Adobo. I got the recipe from my grandmother when I was going away to college in Houston.
What is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
Maybe adobo. It might seem complicated, but it was pretty easy. A braise is a good thing to learn—when I was in college with limited budgets I could still make a decent batch and keep it in the freezer to eat over several weeks. Eggs are also good, too. I cooked a lot of eggs in college. I boiled them, put them in soy sauce, fried them, made omelets, put them in ramen. At first I was just trying to cook them to get them cooked. But it takes a lot of finesse and practice to cook them well.
What’s the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Patience and perseverance.
What is one technique everyone should know?
How to season, how to salt. How to show restraint. For me the flavor and the salinity of a dish are two totally different things. A well-seasoned dish should taste like the food, not like salt.
What dish are you best known for?
My chilled sunchoke dashi soup.
What is the best-bang-for-the-buck ingredient, and how would you use it?
Fish sauce or dried shrimp. Because of the drying or fermenting process, they’ve both had months to develop flavor and tons of umami. I love to season a simple salad with a little fish sauce and lemon juice. I like to grind up dried shrimp as a seasoning or a base for sauces.
What is your secret-weapon ingredient?
Red Boat Fish Sauce’s new fish sauce salt. (redboatfishsauce.com) I don’t know if they’re selling it yet. I learned about it on a trip with them to Vietnam. After the fish sauce has been pressed, they scrape off this material that crystallizes around the barrels. It looks like brown sugar, although it’s savory, not sweet. It smells kind of funky. But I’ve been seasoning vegetables like turnips and radishes with it. That salt, a touch of butter and a touch of stock and it’s just amazing. It’s like umami in a bag.
What is your favorite new store-bought ingredient?
All of my favorite store-bought ingredients involve some kind of salt or acid or fat—like vinegars and olive oils, grapeseed oils, almond oils. I love Murray River Sea Salt for seafood. It has a nice minerality and depth of flavor. I also love Blis’s barrel-aged fish sauce.
What restaurants are you dying to go to in the next year, and why?
El Celler de Con Roca, since he just got the number one spot [on the San Pellegrino list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants].
Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana. I got to see him talk at last year’s MAD (food symposium). He was inspiring and his food is beautiful.
I’d like to go back to Nihonryori RyuGin in the spring or fall. I got to experience his food in the late summer. But it’s kaiseki, so it changes every season.
Narisawa, because I’ve heard amazing things about that place. It’s French, but it’s also in Tokyo.
What is the most cherished souvenir you’ve brought back from a trip?
The knife I got from the Nenohi store in Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. It’s one of their hybrid designs. It’s like a sashimi knife, a yanagi, but it’s a little bit thicker or wider to where it’s almost like a deba, or even a Western chef’s knife. I haven’t even gotten a chance to use it, but I’ve been sharpening it for a while now. With a lot of traditional Japanese knives, it takes a little while to break in the blade.
And my signed RyuGin cookbook. Although it’s in Japanese, so I’ll have to get my friends to translate it for me.
What is the best-bang-for-the-buck food trip?
Mexico City. The flights are relatively cheap, at least from here in Austin. We took a weekend trip earlier this year. We went to Tacos El Chupacabras and ordered like 30 tacos. We also went to Pujol, which wasn’t cheap but an amazing experience. I really dug hitting all the street food stalls.
What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
Michel Bras’s Essential Cuisine. His food was ahead of its time. Many of the dishes in that book are still copied by chefs today, both in aesthetic and in essence.
If you could invent an imaginary restaurant project, what would it be?
An even smaller restaurant than what I’m working on right now, which is a 60-seater. I just got the chance to eat at Josh Skenes’s restaurant, Saison, in San Francisco. That’s just a gorgeous space. The next restaurant I’d want to open, I’d put live tanks, definitely a wood-burning setup, like a hearth, and then go down the list of my dream equipment from there, like a Molteni suite, a couple of combis would be nice, a Gastrovac. I just want a ton of equipment to explore the possibilities! With Qui I’ve designed it the way I wanted to, but it’s my first restaurant. So maybe I wouldn’t do another restaurant, I’d just do a remodel of my current one.
If you could get one item off your dream list of kitchen equipment, what would you get first?
The one thing that I might get before the year is out, I just learned about from the Modernist Kitchen: A rotor-stator. It’s like a drill bit connected to an arm. It kind of looks like a telescope. It runs about 10 grand. It’s basically a very expensive burr mixer that runs at extremely high RPMs. It can emulsify anything. At the Modernist Kitchen, I had the best roast chicken I’ve ever had in my life. Nathan [Myhrvold] made the gravy out of the rendered chicken fat and stock, which he basically just pureed with the rotor-stator. I asked him, "What are the two things that will give the purest and the most flavor, that you couldn’t live without?" He said the rotor-stator and the centrifuge were the two things they used most in the kitchen.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Tony Bourdain or Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be and why?
Anthony Bourdain. Deana and I are huge fans. We’d have to go have some kind of street food. Probably Southeast Asian, but it would be a tie between Singapore and Thailand. Probably Thai because I love it and it’s one of Deana’s favorite foods.
If you were facing an emergency, and could take only one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make and why?
Rice. It will hold for a long time, and it will make me full!
What’s your favorite food letter of the alphabet? What do you love about that food?
F for fish. I like preparing all kinds of shellfish and fin fish. You can have such a range of textures, you have the fat and the natural umami from seawater, you have everything.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years? Why?
They’re already prevalent in Asian cooking, but I think fermented products. Like I said, it’s instant flavor. If you had some fermented soybeans or XO sauce laying around, you can buy whatever you want at the supermarket: cabbage, string beans, okra. Sauté it in XO sauce and it’s done. It doesn’t take a lot of work to ferment something like that. It only takes time.
What is your current food obsession?
Every kind of fermented food from fish sauce to miso to aged meats to pickles: kimchi, sauerkraut, nukazuke—the pickles that are buried in wheat bran and fermented overnight. It’s amazing how much natural flavor nature can give you without you having to cook anything.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Ice cream. My favorite brand is Jeni’s. I like their ice cream sandwiches, especially the salty caramel with smoked almonds between two macarons. Of the ice creams, whiskey-and-pecans is probably my favorite flavor. I also love banana–dulce de leche.
Name some people to follow on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest or Facebook.
I like following @ulteriorepicure, @chuckeats and @lifewortheating. I like watching their blogs, too, because they seem to travel and to eat out quite a bit; @ideasinfood is also awesome.
Name two or three dishes that define who you are.
One of them would be a simple piece of sushi. From working in a Japanese restaurant, I’m always in pursuit of trying to create that perfect bite. That’s the big focus on the 10-seat side of my restaurant. So nigiri would be a huge influence. At Uchiko I also got to explore ways to make nigiri with ingredients other than fish. Even at Uchi we ran specials where we’d swap in gnocchi for the rice ball, and top it with cured duck breast or liver mousse or confit instead of sushi. It’s all about shaping it into that one bite.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.