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When Is the Right Time for a Paul Qui Redemption Story?

The celebrity chef is the subject of a 4,000-word profile by the Austin American-Statesman. He says all the right things, but is it quite the right time?

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(Photo by Rick Kern/Getty Images for Jack Daniel's Single Barrel)

Last March, Paul Qui was arrested after an incident with his girlfriend and her young son in which—according to the woman’s statements in a police affidavit—he “picked her up and started throwing her up against the walls and doors and told her she wasn’t going to leave.” The officer who responded to the emergency call said that he “could see a fresh cut on her right forearm and bruising on her upper arms from Qui grabbing on her and throwing her around the apartment,” and that he “also observed that the right side of [her] jaw was slightly puffy and swollen.”

In last week’s profile of Qui for the Austin American-Statesman, “Fall from the Top,” the paper tells the story of the fallout from the celebrity chef’s arrest. It opens: “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.” The subsequent 4,000 words read as a sympathetic portrait. The message, essentially, is that Paul Qui and the businesses that he’s built are trying very hard to recover from the trauma of having been accused of beating up his girlfriend (who later signed an affidavit of non-prosecution). Oh, and he’s rebranding his restaurant.

It’s easy to go after the Statesman for that frame, but the blame isn’t solely on them—if they hadn’t written it, someone else would have. As a culture, we like redemption stories, and Qui certainly needed to get this one in the works. It was also inevitable that someone who typically writes about food would be in charge of the story. Texas Monthly published a post explaining the inherent problems with covering this from a cultural standpoint just after Qui was arrested. At the time, commenters on food sites questioned whether it was appropriate to report on a “personal matter,” but five months later, the next phase—where Qui presents his redemption narrative—is well underway.

It makes sense why he’d want to do that, of course. There’s a lot of money tied up in the business of Paul Qui, and—as the profile notes—his investors didn’t jump ship after the arrest, even if many of his employees did. Within six weeks of his arrest, Qui was on Twitter explaining his need to “make amends” by creating a new menu for the restaurant that bore his name.

The idea that doing what he’s best at could be at the center of his redemption story fits into the kind of narrative we create for famous, talented men. Ben Roethlisberger was granted his arc after multiple rape accusations with big wins while leading the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Super Bowl; Chris Brown’s began with recording a song called “Changed Man.” It’s easy to see why Qui would think that he’d be able to cook his way out of this one.

Outside of the kitchen, however, Qui’s push for absolution seems to deflect blame. The story spends a lot of time talking about addiction, quoting Qui’s friend Phillip Speer who says that, while he’s not making excuses, “Drugs and alcohol and those crazy chemical dependencies turn you into somebody you’re not.” Qui himself talks the talk of accountability—he says things like “I own it” and “I need to earn it” and “I need to make amends in all parts of my life”—but he says things that aren’t consistent with someone taking responsibility. He claims that he never hit his girlfriend, even as he says things such as “I was gone” and “I remember bits and pieces” of the night he was arrested. It’s unclear where his certainty about his behavior comes from—and the Statesman lets this go unchallenged in the narrative, never addressing where the cuts, bruises, or swollen jaw the police officer noted on Qui’s girlfriend came from. When Texas Monthly asked to speak to Qui for this piece, he declined to answer questions.

The woman involved in the incident didn’t talk to the Statesman, but she does appear as a legal anecdote. Qui’s attorneys showed the paper an affidavit of non-prosecution that she signed in April, in which she declares 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.” But there are problems with that too. Domestic violence is a complicated issue; by its nature, it involves victims and perpetrators with complex relationships and deep emotional ties. The phenomenon of victims recanting their story is common enough that legal experts have studied it and found that, in cases that reach the court system, 80 percent involve a victim who will recant at some point. Prosecutors in Texas publish articles in their own trade publications about why an affidavit of non-prosecution shouldn’t deter them from pursuing charges. These include situations in which a victim is financially dependent on an abuser. While none of us can say with certainty what happened that morning at Qui’s apartment, it’s important to note that, even as Qui’s attorneys are pushing a legal document that suggests that his girlfriend wasn’t truthful with police about what happened, the prosecutors in Travis County are still pursuing the assault charge against the local celebrity.

Qui needs for us to forgive him because his businesses depend on it. And he’s lucky, because that fits neatly into how we think of redemption—do something great that reminds us of who you were before we learned the ugly things you were capable of. Replacing his namesake restaurant with a concept he’s calling Kuneho signifies a desire for a new beginning, and headlines that lead with things like “Top Chef Winner Paul Qui to Close His Hit Restaurant Qui,” “Paul Qui to close namesake restaurant,” and “Austin’s top chef pulls the plug on acclaimed namesake restaurant” create the illusion of Qui suffering consequences for his actions—his restaurant is closing, after all. But he’s not so much closing Qui as much as he’s rebranding the restaurant so that it no longer has the name of a man currently facing charges for domestic violence on the side of the building.

Qui declined an interview for this piece, but there are a lot of questions that come up when considering his bid for redemption. If Qui were quietly trying to get his life together, they wouldn’t be anyone else’s business—but since he’s turning to the media in his attempt to rehabilitate his image, the media needs to ask them: What happened to his girlfriend’s jaw? Whose idea was it for her to sign an affidavit of non-prosecution? How does he know he didn’t hit her if he doesn’t remember that night? What is he trying to atone for if he wasn’t violent toward his girlfriend? Is it the right time for his redemption?

It’s very easy for someone like Qui to be cast in the role of the protagonist, trying to overcome the unfortunate situation that he found himself in—even when it’s one that he himself caused—simply because our culture is built for those kind of stories. Someone was always going to offer him a second chance if he agreed to say the right words, tell some stories about his past, and pose for some contemplative photos—but now that it’s here, it just reminds us of how much more seriously we need to take it when talking about concepts like atonement. We’d certainly like to see Qui earn his redemption narrative, but that’s the sort of thing that people build their lives around. We shouldn’t be telling the story of how they’re being earned just because someone has a new project to promote.

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  • Lolo

    The girlfriend made the right decision and is allowing her son to live with his father. No one should be surprised that she signed an affidavit of non-prosecution. As the article mentions that happens all the time. Mr Qui works in an industry where cocaine is used all the time.

  • WestTexan70

    People need to get over their love for “celebrity” chefs. They are just overgrown four-year-old punks.