Fall from the Top

In an exclusive interview with the Statesman,
Austin 'Top Chef' winner Paul Qui talks about his troubled past,
his March arrest and his path forward

An Austin police officer slapped handcuffs on Paul Qui outside his East Austin apartment on the morning of March 19, and the popular chef knew things would never be the same.

An especially intense week of drinking and drug use had ended in a violent outburst by Qui that would lead to misdemeanor charges of assault and unlawful restraint in an ugly incident that included his girlfriend and her young son.

The news of the arrest and Qui’s drug abuse would strike many as a sudden crash for the gentle and talented chef they had come to know through his victorious appearance on Bravo’s “Top Chef” in 2012. He had gone on to achieve national fame and financial success, with popular restaurants in Austin (multiple East Side King locations, Qui in East Austin, and the exclusive Otoko at the South Congress Hotel) as well as Pao by Paul Qui at the Faena Hotel in Miami. Opportunities abounded. The public likely saw the 36-year-old as a man on top of the world.

But Qui was adrift. He had lost confidence in his cooking and listened to voices in his head leading him away from his true identity as a chef. His eponymous restaurant, Qui, should have served as his greatest culinary and business achievement, but it became unwieldy and unfocused, shifting from one direction to the other. He grew distant from the kitchen, his staff and himself. The momentum of his success did not propel him forward. It sent him reeling.

Decades of reckless behavior, personal loss and avoiding his issues had accumulated into an invisible weight that finally collapsed on Qui. Drugs compounded and amplified his troubles. That crutch turned into a bludgeon.

The violent meltdown shone a light that has forced the chef to try to reconcile with personal demons that have stalked and incited him for decades.

Now, the chef plans to close Qui in the coming weeks and reopen under a new name with a clearer vision and purpose, as he retreats to the place that has always felt like home to him — the kitchen — in search of himself and redemption. But he knows that might not be possible in some eyes.

“I’m not asking anybody to do anything,” Qui told the American-Statesman in an exclusive interview. “I feel like people should believe what they want to believe. But I guarantee this will never happen again.”

‘That’s when I found cooking’

The Philippines native, who spent his late teenage years and early 20s in Houston before moving to Austin for culinary school in 2003, ascended to national fame as the runaway winner on the ninth season of “Top Chef.”

The cooking competition’s main judge, Tom Colicchio, once called Qui the most talented chef in the show’s history. But Qui’s culinary skills explained only part of his appeal. The former Uchiko executive chef proved himself kind, brilliant and generous on the show.

This year’s headlines marred the chef’s reputation in the minds of many. But while the violence might have surprised those close to Qui, the details of substance abuse and reckless behavior did not. The public might have seen Qui as a grounded business owner and creative talent, but he said he had struggled for decades, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol for 20 years.

Qui mentioned minor dabbling in drugs on an episode of “Top Chef,” but the reality was less innocuous. He said his drug use as a teenager when he first moved to Houston included LSD and Ecstasy and eventually escalated to include pills, cocaine, crack and methamphetamine.

“I pretty much exploded there. I decided I needed to leave and change my life, and that’s when I found cooking,” Qui said. “That’s why cooking was probably so precious to me for my whole career here in Austin. That’s why it meant so much to me. I was already sort of lost at that point, and I kind of found myself again.”

He started at the frying station at Uchi in 2003 and spent about five years as founder Tyson Cole’s second in command at the sushi restaurant. He was named the opening executive chef at Uchiko in 2010.
Qui, who had a disjointed relationship with absentee parents throughout his childhood and adolescence, found a surrogate family in his kitchen crew. Cooking stabilized him, but the kitchen environment also reinforced the hard-driving mentality that can fuel addiction.

Philip Speer also rose at Uchi, eventually becoming culinary director for the group founded by Cole. Speer and Qui became running buddies, last out of the kitchen and first in the next day, with the men saying there were often hours of drinking and drugs in between. Speer said a night in the kitchen left the guys pumping with adrenaline, and they’d go out and party as a release.

“There’s a certain person that thrives on that pressure. Is that person susceptible to addiction and drug use? I don’t know. I really don’t know. However, I can tell you a lot of chefs who have been in that same situation and are,” Speer said. “That all-in personality in the kitchen has got to translate a little bit to an all-in personality in partying.”

“It was totally an ego thing and totally being selfish,” Qui said of the lifestyle.

Speer understands the perils of addiction and the compulsion of “going hard all the time.” The four-time James Beard Award nominee was arrested in 2014 on his fourth charge of driving while intoxicated. Speer, whose latest DWI led to 10 days in jail, rehab and seven years of probation, said he has been sober since the time of his arrest and has a neighborhood restaurant, Bonhomie, slated to open in Central Austin this winter.

He said he recognized last year that Qui was on dangerous ground, and while he wasn’t shocked to hear that his friend’s drug use finally came to a head, the violence of the reported incident did not represent the man he’s known for 13 years.

“Drugs and alcohol and those crazy chemical dependencies turn you into somebody you’re not. I’m not trying to hide behind that, I really want to make that clear,” Speer said. “But it can drive you nuts.”

Paul Qui takes a smoke break outside his namesake restaurant on Aug. 10. Photo by Kelly West

‘Not forgivable’

The reported details of the events that led to Qui’s arrest in March were ugly: drug-fueled early-morning partying, evidence of a struggle, destroyed property, bloodstains — and the young son of Qui’s girlfriend had been in the apartment at the time.

With South by Southwest reaching its close, Qui said he was nearing the end of a multi-day bender. He hadn’t slept in several days and had even mentioned to his girlfriend the day before the incident that he thought he needed to go to rehab. With multiple events in both Texas and California that week, Qui said he had kept himself going on a dangerous mixture of narcotics, opioids and benzodiazepines.

By the time Friday night arrived, he was lost in a fog of drugs and alcohol.

One round of friends visited Qui’s place during a bout of partying. After they left, another group, which included several people Qui didn’t know, arrived. Qui said he felt they were flirting inappropriately with his girlfriend. He grew irritable and kicked everyone out of his apartment. Then, he said, he lost it. He smashed his phone and broke a coffee table, cutting himself in the process.

Paranoid and delusional, Qui said he reached out to friends to have them call the police. He knows it doesn’t make sense in retrospect.

“At that time, I wanted them to stop me,” Qui said about wanting to call the police. “I was looking for some kind of out, I guess. I was gone. It all sounds irrational to me now that I am sober.”

Qui said he never hit his girlfriend and never touched her child. He said he did prevent her from leaving the apartment, and in the process knocked her and her son over, though his recollection of the exact circumstances is hazy.

“I was gone. I remember bits and pieces, but I didn’t start really remembering details until I started speaking with my girlfriend and other friends,” Qui said.

Austin Police Department photo

Austin Police Department photo

Qui said the injuries visible in his mugshot were self-inflicted, the blood at the scene was his own, and that he has no history of violent behavior toward others, a claim corroborated by several people who have known the chef for more than a decade.

“I’m sorry every day of my life that this happened,” Qui said.

Qui’s girlfriend did not respond to requests for an interview.

She said in an affidavit of non-prosecution that she signed in April, which Qui’s attorneys showed to the Statesman, that Qui did not pick her up and throw her, and that she did not feel threatened by the chef with whom she said she had never previously had an incident.

Qui faces two Class A misdemeanor charges that each carry a maximum penalty of $4,000 and/or up to one year in jail, according to Travis County Attorney David Escamilla, who would not comment further on Qui’s charges because the cases are pending.

No matter the legal outcome, Qui knows that some people will have a hard time forgiving or believing him.

“That whole incident is not forgivable in their eyes, and I get that. I understand that. I own it,” Qui said. “It still showed violence in front of a kid and a woman, and it’s not OK. I wouldn’t know what to say to (the public). All I can be is be myself and do the best that I can and make sure that I can make things right and make amends to them.”

After his “Top Chef” victory, Paul Qui was able to travel the world eating and searching for inspiration.He visited Kyoto, Japan, in 2014. Contributed by Jesse Herman

‘It felt numb’

The beginning of this decade should have been a high point in Qui’s life. He helped open the critically acclaimed Uchiko in 2010 and won “Top Chef” and the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest in 2012, the same year he got engaged to his former fiancee. But his internal reality didn’t match outward appearances.

“I was already mentally and spiritually tapped even though I did have a lot of things going for me,” Qui said of the time around “Top Chef.”

His celebrated romp through the televised competition delivered fame, money and the chance to travel the world eating and searching for inspiration, but the success left him cold.

“It felt numb. I felt like I was never present during those times to really embrace those blessings. Those were supposed to be amazing years, but it wasn’t,” Qui said. “It was pretty miserable for a long while.”

The arrest in March might have represented the public hitting of bottom for Qui, but the years leading up to it featured a lot of brushing against personal nadirs.

“I don’t know what a bottom is. I hit multiple bottoms all my life.”

Paul Qui

During his rise through the ranks at Uchi, he experienced several losses. His grandfather who helped raise him died in 2008, and the uncle to whom he was closest committed suicide two years later. His stepmother died on Thanksgiving Day during his “Top Chef” season, and the following year the mother of his then-fiancee died.

“It was just a lot of funerals. I didn’t think it affected me a ton. I never really show my emotions a ton. I usually hold a lot of things to myself, and I didn’t recognize the impact it was taking. It took a toll on me,” Qui said through tears.

An even greater loss predated those. In 1996, Qui’s son died after a premature birth. The date of his child’s death is tattooed on the chef’s forearm.

His drug and alcohol abuse caused him to miss his grandfather’s funeral in the Philippines. When his stepmom died, his dad called him 40 times, but Qui didn’t pick up because he had been up all night. As the tragedies piled on, he hid from his family and friends and kept his shame and pain to himself.

“I don’t know what a bottom is,” Qui said. “I hit multiple bottoms all my life.”

Paul Qui in 2012, the year he won “Top Chef.” Photo by Laura Skelding

‘I started losing myself’

Opening his own restaurant didn’t provide any answers or solace for Qui.

Qui brought in world-class talent and attempted to chase ideas he had encountered on his travels. Chef Jorge Hernandez is one of the chefs Qui hired to help guide his first restaurant. The Texas native, who worked for celebrity chef Jose Andres for seven years in Washington, said Qui’s tremendous talent, vision and desire to experiment excited him.

“He made us all believe in the best possible way what he saw was the potential for that project,” Hernandez said. “He wanted to be unique and be the best. When you hear him talk about his belief in his team, it’s hard not to love him as a chef.”

But Qui’s explorations had sent him down winding paths that led him further from himself. Visits to some of the world’s best restaurants left him confused, not inspired.

“I started losing myself more and more. I didn’t know what or who I was supposed to be in a way. For a long time I associated myself with what my food was and working and cooking and being a chef,” Qui said. “I started resenting because I felt like I didn’t like what I was producing. It wasn’t good enough, or I thought I wanted a certain thing at Qui but it was things I didn’t understand.”

You could see Qui’s indecisiveness in the restaurant. The menu bounced from elevated a la carte dining with nods to his Filipino heritage to a fixed menu, then back to more casual offerings. One month there was an elaborate tasting menu with dozens of offerings; the next would see an emphasis on happy-hour snacks. Qui’s confusion and struggle were apparent to Hernandez.

“He almost didn’t believe how good he was. I know that sounds weird. But ultimately I know he had a lot of self-doubt,” Hernandez said. “We weren’t able to find our true voice because he wasn’t able to find his true voice.”

Instead of staying in the kitchen cooking food with personal meaning, Qui spent much of his time performing the expected duties of a celebrity chef and taking on more and more projects as his insecurities grew. He drifted further away from his staff and his restaurant. Hernandez said he eventually felt like he was simply working at Qui’s restaurant, not working with him. That’s when it was time to leave.

June Rodil joined the Qui team in 2012 and served for two years as the director of operations at Qui and East Side King. She said she saw the strain all of the obligations were putting on Qui. The changes were jarring, and the staff had difficulty staying motivated and believing in Qui’s vision.

“I felt like he was pushing so hard to be able to do everything and still be regular Paul,” Rodil said. “With the onset of everybody knowing who he was from winning ‘Top Chef,’ he had to be Paul that was on all the time, no matter what.”

Rodil, who also worked with Qui at Uchi from 2007 to 2010, describes Qui at that time as eager and a hard worker who took criticism well. She said she noticed signs of trouble earlier in his career — “I would say yellow lights, not red lights. He kept it separate from his work.” But things progressively got worse as Qui was opening his restaurant. The chef followed 18-hour workdays by going out at night.

“A normal body does not go that far. I could definitely see the stress,” Rodil said.

Rodil, who recently opened her own eponymous restaurant on South Congress Avenue with the McGuire Moorman Hospitality group, knows the strains of the industry and said outside forces combined with Qui’s own expectations to create intense pressure on her friend.

“A lot of Paul’s personality is that he wants to be appreciated and he wants to be loved and do well but he doesn’t think that he can actually make people happy,” Rodil said. “If you don’t have the inherent knowledge that you have the ability to do that, you are not going to be happy, and you are going to continue to push, push, push.”

Paul Qui says the camaraderie of the kitchen gives him comfort and that the physical act of cooking soothes him, from chopping onions to the Zen-like repetition of basting a piece of meat. Photo by Kelly West

‘I feel like there is salvation’

After a couple of days detoxing in jail in March and a few days of rest, Qui entered a Texas rehab center for 30 days.

He said he thought he could control his drug use, an illusion that followed him into his first few days in rehab. But treatment and therapy have shown him that addiction is not a question of willpower.

“I knew I had a problem, but I didn’t understand what addiction was, per se,” Qui said. “I didn’t realize there are definitely things that I can’t control about myself that I have to be able to embrace and not necessarily control but be able to handle. I can’t ever partake in any of that stuff. I can’t dabble. I always thought I could control the situation, and for years I was trying to control the situation because that’s what I do at work.”

Qui, who said he attempted therapy and medication briefly in 2014, now sees a therapist weekly, attends regular meetings with others living with addiction and communicates with a sponsor. He acknowledges jealousy and anger issues that have plagued him in the past and is working to understand and control them. He also is setting boundaries for himself in his work and professional lives.

“Try to be present. Try to live in the moment. Basically talk to my family as much as I can. Talk to my therapist. Be open,” Qui said of recovery.

Paul Qui meets with friend and business partner Thai Changthong at Sa-Ten, an East Austin restaurant. Photo by Kelly West

Paul Qui meets with friend and business partner Thai Changthong at Sa-Ten, an East Austin restaurant. Photo by Kelly West

A return to regular restaurant life means a reintroduction to a workplace in which alcohol and stress are constant. Qui, who said he has not used drugs or alcohol in more than 150 days, understands the temptations of the environment but also sees the restaurant as a supportive place.

“I feel like there is salvation, but it needs to be present in the restaurant. In order for that to happen, culturally it needs to change a little bit, too. It can’t be this hard-ass kitchen where you want to do the most of everything every single time,” Qui said.

Qui’s battle with addiction is a familiar story in an industry plagued with issues surrounding drugs and alcohol. According to a 2015 report by the U.S. government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, employees in the accommodation and food services industries have the highest rates of illicit drug use by industry and the third-highest rate of heavy alcohol consumption.

"When you hear him talk about his belief in his team, it’s hard not to love him as a chef.”

Chef Jorge Hernandez

Kat Kinsman, the senior food and drinks editor at food and culture website Extra Crispy, started the website Chefs With Issues earlier this year in an attempt to start an open dialogue about mental health and addiction issues in the industry.

While media and popular culture have reported on and at times glamorized the image of chefs as “tremendous hedonists,” Kinsman believes the “tide is starting to turn.”

“People have been keeping up this image, and it’s killing them,” Kinsman said recently.

The key to continued change, according to Kinsman?

“People need to talk about what they’re going through, and they need keep each other in check.”

Being back in the kitchen is “like a reset button for me,” Paul Qui says. “Being around my boys again feels good. I lost it for a little while.” Photo by Kelly West

‘Get back to having fun’

The kitchen helped save Qui in 2004, and the chef returns to it now as a safe harbor. While most of his staff left Qui’s eponymous restaurant following the arrest, Qui’s partners stayed with him, a fact for which he tearfully expresses gratitude.

The camaraderie and familial nature of the kitchen give Qui a sense of comfort, he said, and the physical act of cooking soothes him, from chopping onions to the Zen-like repetition of basting a piece of meat.

“It’s like a reset button for me. Being around my boys again feels good. I lost it for a little while,” Qui said.

He said he wants to “get back to having fun in the kitchen” and abandon the rules he had created in his mind of what his food was “supposed to be.”

Chef Paul Qui at the Austin Food and Wine Festival in 2013. Photo by Jenni Jones

Chef Paul Qui at the Austin Food and Wine Festival in 2013. Photo by Jenni Jones

“That is very much who he is,” Speer said. “I understand his point of view in needing to get back to what makes him feel whole. His first love is food and the kitchen, and that’s going to be what helps him embrace his future and his stability.”

The public humiliation and outrage following the arrest have taken a toll on the financial health of his restaurants, but Qui has confidence in his team.

“I feel like we can do something special, and I owe it to them to give it my all,” Qui said.

Qui plans to close his eponymous restaurant in the first week of September and reopen later this year as Kuneho. The name means “rabbit” in Qui’s native Tagalog, and those familiar with Qui will remember the Rabbit Seven Ways dish that appeared on the opening menu.

He is no longer worried about replicating what other people think great food should look or taste like. The process of creation has re-energized Qui, he said, and made him think about food in a way he hasn’t in a long time.

“I’m truly trying to think about what makes me happy when I cook,” Qui said.

Qui has always been comfortable with Japanese technique, and he said Kuneho will essentially be a Japanese kitchen with a sushi bar. The restaurant will mark Qui’s return to the quest that defined his drive at Uchi and Uchiko: creating the perfect bite.

Diners at Kuneho should expect Japanese technique with global influences and, a Qui hallmark, major flavor. That could mean catfish unagi, sea urchin, foie gras, aged beef tongue, chilled sunchoke dashi, raw ora king salmon, lamb larb, savory cupcakes, oyster with nam jim or tuna poke.

In many ways, the restaurant will look like the one so many fans expected from the former Uchiko chef four years ago. And the one from which Qui has been running.

“That whole incident is not forgivable in their eyes, and I get that,” Qui says of fans he may have lost since his arrest. “I understand that. I own it.” Photo by Kelly West

‘I need to earn it’

Qui said he knows that none of the plans for his restaurant or other future endeavors can be realized unless he maintains his sobriety. While he knows temptations lurk, he is “absolutely optimistic” about staying clean.

“It’s a lot easier to manage that than to manage the next fix,” Qui said. “I treasure my serenity at this point. Being able to go to sleep, being able to wake up, those are the two biggest things I was always chasing when I got high.”

Speer understands the road ahead for his friend and offers personal insight into what it takes to walk the path.

“I think that’s the most important thing for Paul, and anyone going through this, is staying in the moment and staying humble,” Speer said. “Humility is the hard part, and Paul’s a humble dude. But it’s easy for us to get wrapped up and feel untouchable. I’m proud of Paul, and I will always support him, and I will always be in his corner.”

Paul Qui and Philip Speer at the StarChefs.com awards at the Driskill Hotel in 2010. Photo provided by Philip Speer

Paul Qui and Philip Speer at the StarChefs.com awards at the Driskill Hotel in 2010. Photo provided by Philip Speer

Others take a more cautious approach. Rodil, who expresses disappointment in how Qui let down a staff that trusted him, remains apprehensive.

“Because he hasn’t made good choices and it takes a very long time to get out of a bad habit,” Rodil said. “Would I ever trust Paul again? Right now, the answer is no. I don’t know. And when you don’t know, the answer is no.”

Could that change?

“Yes, I do believe in people earning back trust,” Rodil said.

Qui understands that there will be skepticism and that redemption will not come easily.

“I need to earn it. I need to make amends in all parts of my life. There’s no question about that, and I’ll do whatever it takes to express that to people,” Qui said. “I don’t expect anything out of it, I just want them to know that this is who I am.”

“I’m truly trying to think about what makes me happy when I cook,” Qui says. Photo by Kelly West

Resources for help

This story discusses moments of violence and drug abuse. For information about counseling services or resources, call the Safe Place hotline at 512-267-7233 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233. Both lines are staffed 24/7 and have bilingual English- and Spanish-speaking operators.

For alcohol and drug abuse resources: Austin Travis County Integral Care (512-472-4357, integralcare.org) and Travis County Counseling and Education Services (512-854-9540, traviscountytx.gov).

In cases of emergency, always call 911 first.