In the weeks following Qui’s official opening, diners have been raving about the small-but-meaningful details that define the East Austin restaurant, including the atmosphere, art, aprons, design, drinks, dishes, and desserts. Although Paul Qui may be the face of the fine dining, internationally-inspired restaurant, the cooks that support the celebrity chef are just as essential to the establishment.
Pastry chefs Monica Glenn and Jorge Hernandez talked with Texas Monthly about developing Qui’s dessert menu, how their creative process works, and how they translate madness into conceptualized desserts.
Texas Monthly: Tell us about your culinary background.
Monica Glenn: I moved down to Austin to go to culinary school at the Le Cordon Bleu and started working for Philip and Callie Speer. I started out as Callie’s assistant at Parkside and quickly got a job at Uchi, working under Philip Speer for about four years or so. I helped runt the Uchi program in Austin and when Uchi Houston opened, I moved down there to help open that restaurant for about a year. I wanted to be back in Austin and I knew Paul was opening this restaurant, so it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.
TM: What attracted you to working with Paul? Uchi Houston has really blown up this year, so it must have been tough to leave that behind.
MG: Originally, I had worked with Paul at Uchi. He was my first boss there, but I only briefly worked with him before he went to open Uchiko. I was a little disappointed I didn’t get the opportunity to learn underneath him at that time. So when he decided to open this space, I knew it was something I couldn’t pass up. The fact that he had Tim Dornon and June Rodil on the team really sealed the deal for me.
TM: Tell us about the process of conceptualizing desserts for this menu.
MG: It was a challenge because it’s very different than what I’ve done in the past. The philosophy is very unique and creative, but everything is done with a purpose. The more simple things are, the more he likes it. We went through a whole bunch of different ideas from the get-go, and finally Paul, Jorge, and I sat down and talked about all these childhood desserts he had in the Philippines and they were these wacky, crazy creations. Our Mais Con Yelo and Avocado Pie are variations of things Paul ate growing up.
TM: Is there one dessert you were surprised ended up working out and being on the menu?
MG: The cheddar ice cream was my original idea and was something I wanted to develop, and it turned into something we never could have expected. I’m proud of the way it came out. That was the result of multiple hands being involved in that project.
We just recently put on the avocado pie that June and Paul helped us with. You basically mix avocado with condensed milk and ice and eat it straight. We turned the avocado into a smoothie and made the condensed milk into a mousse and then flavored it like a key lime pie.
TM: What is your creative process like in coming up with these desserts?
MG: I definitely enjoy research. I use Twitter for finding images and ideas. I love its immediacy. I also use Texas Monthly to see what other Texas chefs are doing. We also have a library in the restaurant we use to peruse through different trends and concepts around the world. Jorge and I get together and talk about ingredients that are in season and what we want to do with them. We’re usually just bouncing ideas back and forth off each other and from there we’ll try different methods. It’s a very organic process. It’s never what you plan it to be, but a lot of times you have to let go of what you think something will be and just let it be.
Texas Monthly: How did you end up at Qui?
Jorge Hernandez: I was the executive sous chef at Minibar [in D.C.]. Paul had come in to eat at one of the pop-up restaurants we were doing, and I knew he was from Texas so we talked a bit. He came and ate at Minibar shortly afterwards, and we just stayed in touch while he was traveling. He started telling me about Qui and different ideas he was working on. I got really excited about the restaurant, its process, and the plans he had for the Austin restaurant scene. It was around the time I was thinking about moving closer to home, so the timing worked out really well. My role is to take Paul’s amazing creativity and use my background, research, and development to bring these desserts to life. I let him be the creative person and I work to turn the team’s thoughts into finalized ideas.
TM: Monica mentioned she came up with the cheddar cheese ice cream sandwich. What dishes did you come up with?
JH: I didn’t have a role in any one individual dish. My role is to take ideas that Monica and Paul have and help them focus on techniques. In regard to the cheddar cheese ice cream sandwich, Monica had this cheddar ice cream that we all loved, and Paul brought in this little waffle cone maker that he had won somewhere. I thought it might be playful to see what we could do with that. We were talking about these nitrous oxide canisters and Paul asked what we could use them for, and I said basically anything. I took the waffle cone batter and aerated it and turned it into this crispy waffle cracker and that ended up being a great vehicle for Monica’s ice cream. My role is to see what adventurous techniques actually work out.
TM: Could you tell us about your process?
JH: There is a huge research component and all of us are devoted to that. We are trying to keep up with what’s going on across the country. The entire creative process is pretty intense and methodical. People assume we’re sitting around having so much fun, but again, it’s very methodical, so if we’re going to put a meringue on the menu, we’re going to try it ten different ways so we can decide which one is the best. We look into what’s been done and then decide how we can take that to the next level.
We also make it as collaborative as possible. Monica and I are very different, but it’s great to work with her and see what comes from that process. It’s the nature of the beast. You don’t know what’s going to be the best until you try everything, and it’s a very long and arduous process. We aren’t going to just throw an ice cream sandwich on the menu; it has to be the best one you’ve ever had.