Every king needs his queen, and for Paul Qui – chef/owner of East Side King and winner of Top Chef Texas – that queen is Deana Saukam. Deana, better known for her alter ego the East Side Queen, has been by Paul’s side ever since his whirlwind rise to fame. After Paul’s win on Top Chef Texas, the couple has been traveling the world, planning new restaurant projects, and soaking up nothing but love from the Austin culinary community.
Not only has this been a great year for Qui; it has also been a banner year for Deana, who got engaged to Paul in New York earlier this year. The stylish, bubbly Deana talks with TEXAS MONTHLY about her year of traveling and eating, working in fashion, and what’s to come in 2013.
This has been a big year for both you and Paul. Tell me about your world travels and what you two have been up to recently.
We had a great year of travel. It was a whirlwind, beginning with the Top Chef Texas finale in Vancouver, British Columbia, with non-stop travel from February through November. The first set of trips – Louisville to London – was taken without any stops back to Austin in between cities. We went to Louisville, Kentucky for the Kentucky Derby and to visit Ed Lee, a contestant on Top Chef, and his wife, Diane; New York for the James Beard Awards. Paul won this year in his category, so that was a definite bonus; Paris to wine, dine, and shop; London for more delicious food, shopping, and to see the Snow White and the Huntsman premiere. We also had dinner from Heston Blumenthal, St. John, and Hakkasan; then, we went to Tokyo for more R&R. Highlights from that trip included Jiro, Tsukiji Fish Market, Ramen Inoue (a ramen stand in Tsukiji), the Tsukemen ramen in Tokyo Station, shopping in Ginza, and all the little izakayas next to the train stations. I also fell in love with MOS Burger, since I have a soft spot for really good burger chains, like In-n-Out. We went to Copenhagen for the MAD2 food symposium, hosted by Renee Redzepi. The whole conference was an incredible experience, and I have it on my list to go back every year. Copenhagen is so beautiful, and everyone is so friendly and fashionable, and the weather was amazing while we were there. We celebrated both our birthdays in Spain, starting in Madrid, on to Marques de Riscal, then San Sebastian, with a day trip to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. During this trip, we did so much and had such a great time. We ate such amazing food in all the places we went. We went to Manila, Philippines to see where Paul grew up and experience all the cuisine and culture that really influence him. The food was delicious, and Paul’s family is really great. Paul had to make an appearance to promote the Emmys, so we hung out in LA for a bit. Other trips we took included Chicago; New York City; Las Vegas; Kansas City; Seattle; Vancouver; Portland; Aspen; Washington, DC; Columbus, Ohio; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I hope I haven’t forgotten any places we visited this year!
Since returning from our last trip, we’ve been working on opening East Side King at Hole in the Wall and Paul’s upcoming flagship restaurant, Qui, which is planned to open in spring 2013. Also in development is a fifth East Side King location on South Lamar. We are taking a break from traveling so we can focus on East Side King and Qui, among other side projects.
What was the most interesting or surprising culinary experience you had on your trips? Any crazy foods or restaurants you were exposed to?
I would have to say that my top places to eat this year were Copenhagen, San Sebastian, and Tokyo. Every place we go to is surprising and interesting in its own way. I am a pretty adventurous eater. I eat pretty much anything and everything, so there wasn’t anything that was too shocking. They did serve us live tiny shrimp that jumped out of mason jars at Noma and larvae and ants during the MAD2 Food Symposium, provided by the Nordic Food Lab. The ants have the same chemical make up as lemongrass, so they were demonstrating how these naturally found proteins can be substituted for certain flavors. The “craziest” restaurant I ate at this year would have to be the meal we had with Nathan Myhrvold in his Cooking Lab. It wasn’t “crazy” per se, and it’s not an actual restaurant, but the entire meal was definitely extremely interesting, and the food was pretty much perfect. I was in awe during the entire meal. I am a bit of a nerd, so being around so much sophisticated laboratory equipment while eating an amazing scientifically prepared meal with a genius was pretty intense. Also, since it is not an actual restaurant, the experience felt even more special.
From what I understand you, like Paul, had quite an interesting culinary upbringing.
My mother is a really great cook, and my dad can eat a lot of food. Like a lot of food. It is pretty amazing. We’re Cambodian, so she would cook a lot at home. Cambodian food is very similar to Vietnamese food, but with influences from Thai, Chinese, and French cuisine. My family loves food, so we’re always eating and talking about food. We also have family in France, so we would travel there in the summers when I was growing up and, of course, eat everything.
How have you been involved in the development of Paul’s new restaurants?
I have been sitting in and giving input on the design development meetings for Qui, and I’ll also be handling all of their PR and Marketing. We are working with a tailor to custom some aspects of the server uniforms, and since I graduated with a degree in fashion design, I’m pretty excited to be a part of the design process. I have been working closely with Paul and June Rodil, Qui’s general manager, to develop the look and feel of Qui. For the East Side Kings, I handle their PR, marketing, social media, catering, and events. I also help out in other ways when I can. I stay out of the kitchen, but I am a great taste-tester.
What do you think are some of the nuances or details that make Paul’s restaurants successful?
Besides the food, which is obviously the key element, the nuances or details that make Paul’s restaurants successful is hard to pin down exactly. I think it mainly comes down to personality. Although we are all serious about the food, we still want to have fun and don’t take ourselves too seriously. For example, we’ve incorporated yellow from Peelander-Z to paint a few of our locations, which I love. I feel as though that comes across in the food and the whole East Side King look and feel. Kind of like a pirate ship. For Qui, we’ve got a few surprises that will keep the vibe alive. Another element is the service. For East Side King, although we’re serving from a food trailer, we always try to stress the service aspect as much as we can. We want to be able to take care of our guests and make sure that they’re happy, while maintaining the East Side King atmosphere.
What are some of your favorite Austin restaurants, eateries, or bars to hit up? Any dish recommendations I should know about?
I’m still a fan of the East Side dive bars, and I could eat Asian food every day. I’ve been taste-testing so much ramen and other East Side King dishes these past few weeks that my brain is foggy for recommendations right now. I do really like going to Ramen Tatsu-Ya, Titaya’s Thai Cuisine, Tam Deli & Cafe, Uchiko, Second Bar + Kitchen, and Hopdoddy’s, to name a few places.
Are there any chefs or restaurateurs that you really admire in Austin?
I think Bryce Gilmore and Jack Gilmore are great. I love the father and son aspect. I love what Aaron Franklin is doing, and what a nice and humble guy he is despite his launch to barbecue fame. Tyson Cole, of course. Paul Qui isn’t bad either.
What are some dishes you like to make at home? Do you have any staple or go-to dishes?
To be honest, I do not do too much home cooking. Since we’ve been traveling so much this year, neither one of us has really cooked too much at home, except for the one time we hosted a dinner party and the time we threw a holiday party. One of my goals for 2013 is to cook more at home.
You have a strong knowledge of fashion. I know you’ve got your hands quite full, but do you ever think of doing a business or concept with that?
I actually just started as the fashion stylist for a new magazine, DAM – Downtown Austin Magazine – and the first issue debuts in January 2013. We just wrapped our first shoot yesterday, the same day that East Side King at Hole in the Wall opened. It was a little hectic juggling both projects, but in the end, I’m extremely proud of what both East Side King and the DAM team accomplished in the same day. I love that I am able to break away from the restaurant scene for a bit when I’m working on styling for the magazine. It’s nice and therapeutic. I would also love to own my own store one day or do something with design, but I don’t have any immediate plans for that yet.
What about a food concept? It only seems appropriate that the East Side Queen would have her own project.
I would love to do something with food as well, particularly baking or desserts, but for right now, I do not plan on opening any restaurants of my own. I am no chef and am much more useful when I stay out of the kitchen. I like cooking and baking, but just as a hobby. Maybe one day!
In the midst of all the madness of this year, you got engaged. Congratulations! Would you be willing to tell me about the proposal?
Thanks! It’s kind of a long story, but basically, the ring arrived while we were in New York for Paul’s City Grit Pop-up Restaurant. The hotel delivered the FedEx box with the ring in it to me in our hotel room, and I knew something was up. I called my best friend, Betsy Granger, to tell her that I was pretty sure this box had the ring in it, and she pretended not to know that it was actually the ring, although she had been helping Paul with the ring the whole time. When I called Paul to tell him a package had arrived for him at the hotel, he sounded really nervous and told me not to open it. He called me back five minutes later and asked me to bring him the package to the kitchen, saying it was an ingredient he needed. It was all really strange. Later that evening after service, Paul proposed to me in our hotel room. We left for Spain from New York a few days later to celebrate our birthdays, and it was the best trip!
How long did it take you, after you and Paul started dating, to realize that he was gifted? Did you ever envision anything like what you guys have created?
I met Paul nine years ago at Uchi through mutual friends, so I had seen his rise in the ranks at the restaurant. I never really paid much attention to it though and considered him to be “an acquaintance who was a chef from Uchi.” I always knew he was talented, but after we started dating, I realized how driven he was. When they were opening Uchiko, I knew that Paul had crafted some really remarkable dishes. Maybe I was blinded by love, but I really felt like Paul was really on to something, to put it simply. I have always wanted to build something with my significant other, but I never knew that it would be what it is today. I feel really blessed and proud of what we’ve got going on. Of course, there’s still more to do and always things to work on, but I’m pretty happy with what’s going on right now.
What’s next for you guys? What are you looking forward to in 2013?
Up next is Qui Restaurant on East Sixth Street, a fifth East Side King on South Lamar – both in spring 2013 – more work on East Side King at Hole in the Wall, and hopefully more projects that are currently in the idea/discussion phase right now. We also need to maintain and continue to develop the current East Side Kings. Oh, and planning a wedding, possibly in Iceland! I am very excited to see what will happen next. I look forward to being home more so we can get things done, but I also hope we can squeeze a few trips in 2013.
(For more on Qui and Saukum, read today’s TM Daily Post piece about East Side King and the Hole in the Wall.)