Top Chef's Paul Qui on How to Run a Successful Food Truck
Paul Qui (right) standing in front of his original food trailer, with his partner,
Motoyasu Utsunomiya. © Jay B Sauceda
Organizers for Austin’s massive annual music, film and technology festival, South by Southwest (which kicks off Friday), tapped Top Chef: Texas winner and former Uchiko executive chef Paul Qui to curate a selection of 16 food trucks for SouthBites, the event’s first official food court. Qui currently operates three East Side King trucks, and last December he parlayed their success into a brick-and-mortar restaurant. When choosing businesses for the project, he looked for diversity beyond hot dogs and burgers, such as the famous Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams and South African local favorite Cazamance. Here, Qui reveals the secrets to operating a fantastic food truck and his picks for the best food at SouthBites.
PAUL QUI's 5 TIPS FOR RUNNING A FOOD TRUCK
Pretend it’s a real restaurant. “If you’re working in a truck, you should treat it like you’re working it a kitchen,” says Qui. “I traveled to Japan last year, and they have hundreds of restaurants in these little streets around the train stations. They’re pretty much the size of a food truck. All these restaurateurs are cooking out of tiny kitchens, with one area that’s all yakitori, or one that’s all tempura. In a lot of ways, I feel like good food trucks are kind of like that.”
Do as little work as possible (during service). Food truck offerings have to be easy to eat, somewhat accessible, and quickly prepared. “Barbecue is perfect because after you’ve put in the work brining and smoking the brisket, all you’re doing is slicing and serving.” Another ideal menu item? Fried food, which cooks superfast.
After creating the menu, take one thing off. For SouthBites, much of Qui’s work involves advising food truck owners. “A lot of the guys have never done a huge event like SXSW. I’m helping them simplify their menus.” He’s speaking from experience. “The East Side King at the Grackle has a specials board that changes every week. For SXSW, we limit the specials to our biggest hits. We’re trying to figure out a strategy for how to put out enough items without sacrificing quality.”
Remember that drunk customers are still paying customers. “I think my worst food truck experiences weren’t necessarily because of the food, but because the people working the trucks were grumpy. The food truck game is late-night, so I get it—there are times when workers have to deal with a lot of a drunk people. But what I tell my staff is, ‘At the end of the day, these guys are paying the bills, so it should be about the guest.’ Food trucks need to be a little more like sit-down restaurants in terms of hospitality because you’re still cooking for people. It’s not fast food, as quick as it might seem.”
Hire help. “Most food trucks are mom-and-pop shops, so usually they people working there are the ones who own it. I understand that sometimes you just can’t afford to hire that many people, but I think a lot of the biggest food trucks in Austin would be a lot busier if they just hired more people. I ran into that problem at the East Side King at the Liberty Bar. At one point, we had 40-minute ticket times, and eventually I had to put more people in the truck.”
PAUL QUI'S MUST-TRY FOODS AT SOUTHBITES
1. Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams: “It’s pretty tough to beat the quality of ingredients they use in their ice cream. Columbus, Ohio, represent!”
Can’t-miss: Salty Caramel with Smoked Almonds ice cream macaroon sandwich, Whiskey & Pecans ice cream
2. Cazamance: “I love showcasing the diversity of Austin’s food scene, and I don’t know where else in town you can get South African street food.”
Insider tip: Get anything “bunny chow,” a type of South African bread pocket made from a hollowed-out loaf.
3. The DUK (Dady’s Underground Kitchen) Truck: “My good friend Jason Dady is bringing his truck from San Antonio and his street food is amazing.”
Can’t-miss: beef tongue pastrami, duck confit steamed buns and green curry blue crab.
Follow writer Jasmin Sun on Twitter @jasminsun.