Austin chef Paul Qui remembers his parents' reaction years ago when he told them he was going to be a chef. "Really?" was their response. "Having Asian parents, they sort of expect you to be a doctor or a lawyer," he said in a phone interview this afternoon. But over the years his mother and father came around and today they couldn't be more proud—not just because Paul is an accomplished chef but also because he bested 28 other contestants in this season's Top Chef: Texas. "They certainly have a lot more respect for the industry," he said. And it doesn't hurt that he is, as another reporter pointed out, the winningest chef on the series—$185,000 and a Prius. "And two trips," he happily added.
Just as he was during the season, Paul is thoughtful but to the point. What is the secret to winning on Top Chef? "The secret is to focus on the food and the challenge ahead." When did you start thinking about being in the finals? "At the finals." Who is more intimidating—Padma Lakshmi or Tom Colicchio? "Padma. Celebrity chefs are still chefs. But a supermodel..."
Coming from Austin, Paul said he was a bit daunted at the outset of the show, competing against the "big city chefs." He needn't have worried as the food spoke for itself. "Paul’s sea bass dish ... was flawless," wrote Colicchio on his blog. "The fish was perfectly cooked, and that clam broth was unreal. It was a great combination of earth and sea with the mushrooms and clams. I can’t say enough good things about it—it was a remarkable dish.... [His dessert] was really well put together, really smart, and really unexpected. That spicy chili foam with the coconut ice cream was sublime. I personally thought that the rice had just exactly the right amount of texture. This dessert showed that Paul was thinking it all out, the texture, the interplay between hot and cold, the play of flavors … utterly successful."
At the moment, Paul plans to remain in Austin as executive chef of Uchiko but still has his food truck on the side and is working on another project he intends to keep secret for now.
Speaking of "big city chefs," runner-up Sarah Grueneberg of Spiaggia in Chicago could not have been more gracious on the phone this morning. She was cheery and sang the praises of her fellow contestants—that includes Beverly Kim. (The two had their share of tense moments, with viewers taking sides—some even commenting that karma played a role in Sarah's final elimination).
The only change Sarah said she would have made in last night's challenge was to pickle the beets a bit more. But she doesn't look back "because there's nothing you can do about it." Instead, she observed, the lesson was to "learn from everything, from every experience, from every mistake. We cooked our hearts out, and it taught us a lot about ourselves."
As for the selection of sous-chefs, in which Paul and Sarah each chose four assistants to aid them based on an array of dishes to sample, Sarah specifically sought out Heather Terhune, whose restaurant she visited during the break. But she overthought which plate belonged to Heather, choosing a scallop dish made instead by Tyler Stone, who was eliminated in the first episode before the challenge was even over. (She did pick Heather's dumplings correctly on the second try.) Tyler worked at a different speed, Sarah explained, but the other three sous-chefs (Heather, Grayson Schmitz, and Nyesha Arrington) set the pace. If not, "they were going to eat him alive," said Sarah, who was sympathetic to Tyler but didn't have time for some of his suggestions.
Paul was diplomatic when I asked him about Tyler. "I could've worked with him," he said. "You don't always get who you want" when hiring for a restaurant. Paul said he would have taken Tyler under his wing and tried to motivate him. "How to inspire your people is one of those skills a chef needs."
Stay tuned next week for my interview with Top Chef head judge and co-producer Tom Colicchio, who explains how the show came about and how it has changed over these past nine seasons. He's also got a new documentary out on hunger in America, which was well received at Sundance. One minor problem, explained the chef, was that the movie's title is apparently the same as a soft-core porno.