Top Chef Paul Qui keeps it real

Paul Qui braved the heat to serve his inspired street food straight out of an actual food truck. PHOTO World Street Food Congress 2015
Paul Qui's East Side King "food truck" at the World Street Food Congress 2015.
Paul Qui's aptly spicy rendition of the kinilaw.
The Season 9 winner and recipient at the 2012 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef loves peasant food
Published: 4:17 AM, April 23, 2015
Updated: 8:33 AM, April 23, 2015
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Singapore — Not too long ago, Chef Paul Qui used to get on his bicycle to hawk his brand of “soulful food” to the good folks of Austin, Texas. Today, the 31-year-old is doing more or less the same thing, but with bigger wheels. The Manila-born chef is the owner of East Side King, a group of three food trucks he co-owns with Moto Utsunomiya, a former colleague from his days as executive chef at Japanese restaurant Uchiko in Austin.

While he may be best known as the winner of Top Chef Season 9, Qui clearly has both a notable taste and talent for boldly flavourful street food packed with Asian flavours, from curry buns to inspired dishes such as Sapporo beer bacon miso ramen, or Thai-style steamed chicken on chicken fat rice with chicken jus. Of course, he also does top-notch renditions of traditional Filipino fare, which he serves alongside a progressive menu of globally inspired dishes at his flagship eponymous restaurant he opened in Austin in 2013 after winning the television cooking show.

Many in Singapore got a taste of his fare at the recent World Street Food Congress jamboree, where he served a spicy kinilaw (Filipino ceviche) made with snakehead and an original chicken inasal (a type of roasted chicken) taco with fried chicken skin. Most, however, might be surprised to learn that Filipino food wasn’t Qui’s first choice of cuisine.

“It was the last thing I wanted to cook because I felt every mum and grandma could cook it better,” said Qui, who trained in classic French and Japanese cuisine, adding that he is still too young to know what his cuisine is. “I’m still finding it out.”

Q: What’s the best thing about taking your food to the streets versus running a restaurant?

A: The biggest thing about running a food truck is the freedom. It allows you a little more freedom with food and it allows you to reach a broader audience. It’s more accessible to people and I feel it’s about creating really soulful food that people will understand. Being a chef and making food is about communicating to people and the way I think about a restaurant versus a food truck ... (is that) they’re just different podiums for you to speak on. Having a food truck is like having a bull horn to be able to reach more people.

Q: Can’t you reach people with a restaurant too?

A: A restaurant, for me, has, in a sense, a few more restrictions. You know, presentation and service ... where there is a certain expectation, like, it’s not necessarily always about the food — it’s about the food and service. Of course, service in a food truck or a stall is also very important, but your focus is mainly on the cooking versus wiping the plates clean (before it’s presented to the diner), making sure you serve left to right. You know there are already so many rules with a restaurant.

Q: Does having a food truck enable you to be bolder with your food?

A: A little bit. I mean the restriction with the food truck is the price point. But at the same time, there are some ideas for me that make more sense in a food truck, just because I want to be a little crazier with it. Like we serve beet home fries — fried beetroot karaage style. And for me, that’s never a dish (you can serve) at a restaurant. Or Brussel sprouts with fish sauce.

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