For me, it’s watching reality TV cooking shows online and indulging in food porn. I was an avid viewer of “Top Chef” season 9.
But while the culinary expertise of the contending chefs was impressive, I was more amused by how their true personalities surface, sooner or later. Rude and arrogant chefs turn me off.
Fortunately, one mild-mannered chef quietly competed throughout the season and made it to the finale, winning for himself the title of Top Chef, US$185,000 in prize money, a trip to Costa Rica and a Toyota Prius.
It turns out other people were also rooting for this guy. BravoTV.com’s senior editor Monica Reyhani admitted that Paul Qui, 31, was her favorite all season. In her eyes, Paul was “a silent killer” and “adorable.”
But it was the judges who had the last word. The unassuming chef wowed “Top Chef” judges Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, Gail Simmons, Emeril Lagasse and Hugh Acheson. Even celebrity guest judge Charlize Theron couldn’t help but utter, “Wow!” when she sampled his Enchanted Forest, Qui’s splendid execution of random ingredients: beets, cherries, candied jalapeño and bacon.
Judge Hugh Acheson also had glowing reviews of Paul Qui on the show: “You can take something so simple and make it revelatory—that’s an amazing gift!”
In the finale, Paul tapped on this special gift to come up with a phenomenal seafood menu comprised of Chawanmushi, Steamed Egg Custard, Prawns and Pea Shoots; Grilled Sea Bass with Clam Dashi, Pickled Radishes and Mushrooms; Congee with Scrambled Eggs, Uni and Kale, and for dessert: Coconut Ice Cream with Puffed Wild Rice, Mangosteen and Thai Chili Foam. It takes sheer genius to do something impressive with the humble congee, and Paul Qui did just that.
On the show, head judge Tom Colicchio explained their decision to choose Paul over his rival Sarah Grueneberg as Top Chef: “It was as difficult a decision as we’ve ever made, because Sarah went out of her comfort zone. But Paul gave us a near flawless meal.”
Paul’s journey to becoming a chef was not that easy. He openly admitted on the show his past struggles to get to this point. “I started cooking later than most people start.” Adds the winning chef: “Between the ages of 15 and 22, I’d sell weed for my friends to have extra money. Then I woke up one morning and my apartment’s been trashed. I decided I needed to do something with my life. That’s when I started to pursue my culinary career. It’s helped shape me to be a stronger person.”
Paul studied at The Texas Culinary Academy in 2003. He was a diner at Uchi who was so impressed with the meal that he offered to work there for free. It didn’t take long for Uchi chef and owner Tyson Cole to offer him a job. The neophyte chef quickly rose through the ranks to become Chef de Cuisine and eventually, the executive chef of Uchiko.
Not only did this Filipino-American chef win “Top Chef,” he was also recently awarded the James Beard Award 2012 for Best Chef Southwest, winning over chefs from Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas and Wisconsin.
I managed to connect with Chef Paul despite his busy schedule and got to know him better:
I hear you left Manila at 10. Is that right?
Yes, I moved to Virginia when I was 10. I lived in San Juan, Metro Manila at the time and attended Xavier School.
Please tell me more about your memories of pan de sal in your family’s bakery.
My family owns a grocery store in Camiling, Tarlac. I believe the name of the store was Quising Commercial. I ate fresh pan de sal there all the time. Fresh bread gives the best smells. I grew up eating it at the shop every time my Dad and I visited the province. But the bakery in the store has since closed.
How did this experience shape you?
Waking up to the smell of fresh bread is an unforgettable experience. I loved playing in the bakery with my cousins. My family’s dedication and hard work ethic helped shape me. I was too young to work or realize it at the time, but those were great experiences that I wish I could relive.
What distinct scents and tastes do your recall from Manila and remember with fondness?
I love the smell of pan de sal, lechon manok off the streets, even fish balls and dirty ice cream. These are my memories from grade school. I don’t know if I still have the stomach to eat off the streets, but these times were very precious to me.
Did you always want to be a chef?
I started late and I wasn’t the most studious college student. I had an appetite for trouble. But there was a point when I realized that I wasn’t going to go anywhere with that lifestyle. I decided that I needed a change, something that can inspire me. My fondest memories of families and friends always had to do with food, so I followed my gut and went to culinary school.
Who are your role models? Are there other Filipino chefs you look up to?
Tyson Cole, Philip Speer, Shawn Cirkiel, Michel Bras, Ferran Adria, Jose Andres, Rene Redzepi, David Chang, Susur Lee and many more. My grandma Rita, from the Qui side of the family and my Lola Ofelia, who I call “Mommy” from the Cruz side of my family. I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t know much about professional Filipino chefs.
What inspired you to join “Top Chef”?
I’m a fan of the show and it was a good time in my career to join, so I did.
What was the most challenging aspect of “Top Chef”?
The most challenging thing was being away from my girlfriend, Deana, and my family, friends and kittens.
You are very good with your use of Asian ingredients and flavors. Do you think that worked to your advantage?
To be frank, I can’t say that I’m an expert in using Asian ingredients, but I have an understanding of flavor. I can build flavor from salt, acid and fat.
What do you think sealed your win?
I think what did it for the judges was the way my menu (was) orchestrated. They’ve never had anything like it. It wasn’t a classic meal where there is a meat course.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from “Top Chef”?
Anything is possible. Kindness, humility and generosity pay off.
How do you keep cool and calm despite the pressure and all the drama around you in the “Top Chef” kitchen?
It’s not about the drama; it’s about the cooking.
Which was your most difficult challenge at “Top Chef”?
Filipino food doesn’t have the same appeal in the US as Thai or Vietnamese food. Why is that? Do you think Filipino food will have its time to shine soon?
I feel that Filipino food is still getting its bearings. It’s still trying to find its own identity. I’m going to get in trouble, but I feel that most Filipinos don’t know what great Filipino food is. I’m going to get into more trouble because I’m going to elaborate and dip into political topics.
Food in the Philippines for so many isn’t about enjoying cuisine, but about survival. Yes, I understand that this is not the case for maybe 5 percent of the population and I’m being generous. I’m pretty sure that the last two presidents and the previous chief justice are an exception to this as well. Corruption, education and economics play a great role in the development of Filipino food. The standards for food are so low that food producers take advantage of the economic state of the people.
To illustrate: I recently cooked for my family and bought vegetable oil from a reputable grocery store. Vegetable oil is something I’m very familiar with. I quickly realized that the product labeled “vegetable oil” was actually something that I couldn’t identify. I also tried to make a sauce from some longganisa, so I simmered it in some beer, and almost instantly all the food coloring from the meat bled into the beer. I ended up with some grey meat. Needless to say, I didn’t use either.
As Filipinos, we need to say that this is not acceptable and that we need integrity in our products. It makes me sad to visit the restaurants my family and I used to visit when I was younger—Max’s Fried Chicken, Kamayan, Barrio Fiesta, Saisaki, Alex III, Gloria Maris, even Jollibee. What happened to the quality? We’ve made it too easy for these big establishments to give us sub-quality food. I understand I was a 10 year-old-boy when I left, but something delicious doesn’t leave your memory that quickly.
Filipino food has to take some steps to make a more global impact. Think about how your family cooks and how good the raw ingredients are that your grandmother cooked with, especially if they are from the province. The best Filipino food I’ve had has been cooked in people’s homes. We need to translate that into restaurants. It’s not about creating a fine dining Filipino restaurant; it’s about cooking with fine ingredients. Once we can do this, I feel that Filipino food can take its place under the sun.
What Filipino dish do you enjoy cooking for yourself and for guests who have not tasted Filipino food before?
My go-to is chicken adobo, tinola with garlic and ginger rice.
I know you returned to Manila shortly after your win. What do you think of the food scene in Manila now?
It’s so refreshing for me to see the Night Market in The Fort. I really appreciate that people are pushing for local products and are proud of serving their fare. I had a great experience with Nomama Ramen and Pino. The chefs here genuinely care about local ingredients and what they are serving. I also had a great meal at Café Juanita. I’m still dreaming of the angel hair pasta with aligue. Seeing this kind of scene really inspires me.
With so many culinary schools here, what would be your advice to aspiring Filipino chefs?
Cook with your soul, push your purveyors for better quality, cook local and be proud to be Filipino. Forget about the gimmick. Just make good food.
For more golden delicious moments in food and travel, join the author’s journey at Facebook/MaidasTouch, follow her on twitter/themaidastouch, read Maida’s blog, www.themaidastouch.blogspot.com or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org Maida Pineda is also the author of “Six Degrees of Expatriation: Uncovering Lives of Expats in Singapore” and “Do’s and Don’ts in the Philippines.” Maida has a Master of Arts in Gastronomy from Le Cordon Bleu and the University of Adelaide.