Earlier this year, I went to Venice (the one in Italy) to see 10 chefs from 10 countries, all under 30, compete in the 14th annual S.Pellegrino Cooking Cup competition. Each dish, judged by an international jury of chefs — including the legendary Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio and last year’s Cooking Cup winner, 34-year-old Austin-based Paul Qui — was evaluated in terms of its presentation, difficulty, taste, and proper pairing with wine and (yes, that’s right) water.
The S.Pellegrino Cooking Cup is a two-day event, opening with a tasting dinner attended and judged by international journalists, and culminating with a Saturday afternoon regatta, during which each chef prepared a meal in the galley of a sailboat that was simultaneously being raced through the Venice Lagoon, from the Lido to the island of San Giorgio. The winner of this competition was young Russian chef Sergey Berezutsky of Kak Est' (As Eat Is) in Moscow, who presented what he called “Two Ways” of langostines (purchased that morning at Venice’s famed Rialto Market), one smoked in birch bark, the other served with local zucchini and tomatoes, one atop the other in stacked Chinese steamer baskets.
This whimsical presentation, which to me was reminiscent of Russian nesting dolls, epitomized what Paul Qui believes it takes to win a competition like this: “A chef having fun and thinking outside the box.” The Russian’s dish, Qui explained, “was cleverly presented, but it also made sense.” That assessment might well apply to Qui's own cooking.
Qui is the chef/owner of Austin's qui restaurant, a series of East Side King food trucks, and, most recently, a restaurant within a restaurant, the Tasting Room at qui, where he serves an always sold out 26-course tasting menu to 16 people a night. One of the reasons he has become the media darling — being named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs in 2014, and, most recently being crowned Esquire’s Chef of the Year — has to do with his own idea of having fun and thinking outside the box. With offerings like tacos stuffed with Japanese ingredients, steamed “poor qui” buns, Filipino pork blood stew, and other things your mother never made. he embodies the current generation of chefs, combining multiple cultural influences — in his case, his ancestral Filipino cuisine, which in itself includes Spanish and Chinese influences, along with Japanese (he worked seven years at Uchiko) and Texan, since that’s where he resides — with farmers market ingredients and elements not many other American chefs think of. Pig’s head, banana ketchup, coconut vinegar, and grilled peanut butter all have a place on Paul Qui’s menus.
I caught up with Qui in October to discuss the Venetian competition and to learn something of what’s inside the mind of this playful, irreverent, and extremely talented chef du jour.
You won last year's S.Pellegrino Cooking Cup. What, if anything, did this mean to your career?
First of all, it was a huge honor to be asked to participate, to represent the United States in this international competition. I’m always interested in the chefs that are on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list. The year I won, Massimo Bottura was the head judge. [Bottura's Osteria Francescana in Modena currently holds the #3 spot on the 50 Best list.] He’s one of my heroes. The minute I heard that name, I was like: Sign me up! Whatever I have to do to go, I’ll do it! Once I was there, it was really cool to see what chefs were doing all over the world and to see a reflection of how my style resonated with an international audience. This year, I got to be a judge with a lot of people I admire, such as Gastón Acurio. That was a really great experience. So, yeah, for me, the Cooking Cup has been a very big deal.
How did judging the event compare with competing in it?
I was a lot more relaxed this year. It was a lot easier to be a judge! Last year I was so nervous. I had never cooked on a boat. I had no idea that the stove moved to keep stuff from sliding off. That was really cool. Still, it was crazy. There were pots of water sloshing all over the place. It was really difficult. This year I just sat on the judges’ boat and the dishes came to us. That was fun.
What’s your favorite thing about being a chef?
My favorite thing about being a chef is the ability to make something with my hands. I have confidence issues; I can be insecure. This goes back to ever since I was a kid. When I was growing up and I realized that I could make something with my hands, it meant a lot to me. It gave me confidence I didn’t have before. I also really like the camaraderie — being close to a bunch of people, like a family. Working in kitchens is always compared to being on the battlefield or being on a sports team. And it’s true. You feel that with the people you work with every day: that you’re all in it together. I also like that with cooking — and eating — it’s instant gratification. You either succeeded that day or you failed. All of these things make me love being a chef.