Fil-Am Top Chef Winner, Paul Qui, On His Arrest And Rebuilding His Career
He was the next best thing to Texan barbecue. He was well-loved, sought-after and considered to be a culinary treasure. After an easy win in the cooking competition show Top Chef, Paul Qui quickly rose to fame and bagged not just national adulation but industry accolades as well, including a prestigious Best Chef (Southwest) recognition by the James Beard Foundation. These were backed up by his own restaurants all over Austin and Miami. The then 36-year-old mild-mannered Filipino-American was on top of the world. Until he reached a conflict in his narrative.
On the morning of March 19, a dazed and confused Qui was handcuffed outside his east Austin apartment, brought to the local precinct and charged with assault and unlawful restraint that involved his then-girlfriend and her young son.
It was a cry for help. His. In hindsight, it was a downfall that was a long time coming.
Qui was born in the Philippines and raised in the US by divorced parents. His initial exposure to food was limited to Costco, junk food (“I ate a lot of instant noodles”) and hotdogs, specifically those from Orange Julius where he worked making smoothies at age 15. It was around the same time he discovered and depended on drugs. “In a manner of ways, it was a coping mechanism for me to fit in and subsidise my use.” It got him through some of the most dismal stages of his life, including the passing of his baby.
“When I was about to turn 16, I got my high school girlfriend pregnant and our child was born prematurely. He did not survive,” he says. “It’s a very painful memory considering that he lived for two hours and we got to hold him in our arms.” His name was Angelo.
The rest of his high school years didn’t get any better. His grades dropped, drug use became even more habitual, his morale was defeated and Catholic faith crushed. He also had troubles at home and, as a consequence, was sent back and forth between Houston with his dad and Virginia with his mum. By the time he was 18, he moved to Houston permanently to pursue college.
Cooking was exactly what he needed to get him on the straight and narrow. Qui first worked as free labour in Uchi, Cole’s Japanese restaurant, and then was eventually paid US$7.25 an hour. He spent his hard-earned money on cookbooks, kitchen essentials and World of Warcraft. In time, he proved his worth and rose through the ranks, from chef de cuisine at Uchi to executive chef at sister restaurant Uchiko. Right after work, he would head to his food truck, East Side King, and cook until three in the morning. Sleep wasn’t an option then.
In the process of building his résumé and rebuilding his life, fate threw him a streak of unfortunate events. Daddy Liberato, the grandfather who helped raise him, died in 2008. Two years later, his favourite uncle whom he was very close to committed suicide. Those were followed by the untimely demise of his grandmother Rita, his stepmother as well as the mother of his then-fiancée.
“I poured everything into my restaurant education and gave Uchi and Tyson everything I had,” he said. “I’ve never been good with grief, even after burying Angelo in 1996. I couldn’t grieve until a couple of years later. My relationship with death was very toxic since I internalised it all. I abused myself for not being able to understand or talk about grief. I missed most of their funerals with the excuse of work. Reflecting on it now, I could probably have taken the time off, but in a lot of ways, there were only three things I did to cope with pain—work, drugs and alcohol.”
The tragedies piled on and caused cracks in his mental and spiritual state. Food was the only thing giving him purpose. An invitation to join Top Chef: Texas came at the right time as it made for a much-needed escape.
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His celebrated win granted esteem, money and elusive career opportunities, yet life outside the reality show’s bubble proved to be his least proud moments. “Everything was a haze. It was all moving too fast and I wasn’t able to adapt to fame.”
Successive work commitments, countless sleepless nights and an intoxicating lifestyle finally took their toll on Qui and led to the plot he regrets the most. “My girlfriend and I had gotten into a fight regarding kicking our guests out. It escalated quickly, items were being thrown at me—my phone, my laptop, my chef’s knife. I was scared that it was going to get worse, so I called my closest friends and asked them to call the police. My girlfriend at the time was trying to leave the apartment and I thought it was a bad idea for her to go since her son was there. She tried to push her way out and she stumbled into her son. A good friend of mine showed up and tried to take me away. Being messed up, I still went back to my apartment to get my phone and wallet; then the cops arrived and arrested me. I was fairly incoherent at this point and wasn’t making sense.”
He was in jail for three days. His girlfriend and her family picked him up and told him everything that went down. Though it required Qui a week to sober up, it took a few years for him to piece everything together based on conversations with his ex-girlfriend, her family including her son and his friends.
“I felt a big pain of regret for letting everyone that I cared about and who believed in me down,” he says. “I can’t say I cared about my career at that point. I just felt low and disgusted with myself.” He was ready and willing to just give everything up. But those standing by him wouldn’t allow that to happen.
After detoxing, Qui voluntarily entered a Texas rehab centre. He has undergone a 30-day programme and has been in therapy. “I’m still in the process of healing and understanding myself. I’ve relapsed a few times but worked twice as hard to recover. I’m living a much healthier lifestyle and I’ve gotten rid of a lot of toxic elements in my life. Toxic people, too.”
He can bravely admit that he hasn’t fully recovered yet but can face himself in the mirror and, without any bit of shame, ask God for help. “I don’t expect people to forgive and forget,” he says. “I like to believe in the best in people in hopes that they would do the same. I believe there’s a lot of nuances in life that shape your story and for me, this is something I need to embrace, let go and give back.”
I felt a big pain of regret for letting everyone that I cared about and who believed in me down. I can’t say I cared about my career at that point. I just felt low and disgusted with myself
— Chef Paul Qui
These days, he retreats to the same safe space he had back in 2004—the kitchen, where the routine of cooking provides a sense of security and comfort.
“Work itself helps in my recovery. Being there for people is also a big part of my motivation. I wasn’t successful because of my cooking skills. I was successful because of the city of Austin, because of my family, friends and people that I work with.”
Apart from Pao in the Faena Hotel in Miami, East Side King at The Liberty and Thai Kun, Qui also started Soy Pinoy, a nod to his Chinese-Filipino roots. “I’ve always dreamt about starting a Filipino chain type of restaurant to be able to spread Filipino culture. The plan for Soy Pinoy is to create a footprint that I can scale in any market. I would love to have restaurants in the Philippines one day.”
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He has a couple of food halls on the horizon (under his own hospitality group called FAM Hospitality), a project in Houston that’s due in March, and other promising endeavours coming fairly soon.
Qui’s narrative continues to write itself and a section on redemption may not be on the current line-up. It doesn’t bother him a single bit though as the ambition of reaching the same success he relished before is hardly a dream, a wish even. “I’m old news,” he says. “I just want to focus on giving back to everyone who’s ever believed in me—my mum, my dad, my business partners and my staff.”
That chapter is reading pretty well.