Late in Wednesday’s final episode of Top Chef: Texas, Bravo flashed results from a live poll saying 88 percent of voters were going with Paul Qui as the winner.
This overwhelming support is just about the only reason why viewers might have expected the Austinite (Uchiko, East Side King) to lose to Chicago-based Houstonian Sarah Grueneberg, as reality television does abhor a non-surprise. But the love for Qui was especially apparent on Twitter, as this satirical tweet shows:
Go, Paul! #TopChef
— Every Tweet Ever (@EveryTweet_Ever) March 1, 2012
Somehow, Top Chef: Texas spent not one, not two, not three, but FOUR episodes in British Columbia, an interminable, and ultimately inconsequential stretch of false drama and flashy gimmicks that went out the window Wednesday night with an episode that was entirely about interesting cooks making interesting food.
The first part of the episode marked the return of earlier cheftestants to compete for sous chef spots, along with New York chef Marco Canora (Hearth), who got passed over like the little kid in kickball (meaning he would judge instead) and Boston’s Barbara Lynch (No. 9 Park), who got snapped up first by Qui.
They began by butting heads, with Qui rejecting Lynch’s ingredient suggestion for one dish (“There’s no way that I would allow a chef to get in the way of what I set out to accomplish”), and Lynch second-guessing his decision to improvise a shrimp purchase at the Granville Island Market.
Ultimately they got along great. “It’s amazing,” Lynch said later about being Qui’s top helper. “He’s got passion, drive, wisdom and I’m very proud to have this opportunity.”
As Qui settled into the kitchen at the Vancouver restaurant Coast, he worried that his team was not familiar with his style of cooking, which he nervously described as “Japanese with an Asian influence.” That malaprop was mocked on Twitter during the show by … Paul Qui himself.
Japanese food with an Asian influence WTF lol
— paul qui (@pqui) March 1, 2012
Qui called his restaurant “Qi” and served a meatless four-course tasting menu, leaning heavily on fish and eggs. His dishes were chawan mushi, steamed egg custard, prawns and pea shoots; grilled sea bass with clam dashi, pickled radishes and mushrooms; congee with scrambled eggs, uni and kale; and coconut ice cream with puffed wild rice, mangosteen and Thai chili foam.
Grueneberg countered with a menu of spot prawns and coconut; rye crusted steelhead trout with pickled beets, fennel and gras pista; braised veal cheek with veal sweetbread; and hazelnut cake with roasted white chocolate ganache.
But there were problems on both sides. Grueneberg had trouble with the texture of polenta, and her fiancé warned her that his steelhead trout had bones. Meanwhile Qui’s planned dish fell apart because the crab was funky (his backup shrimp came in handy), while one of his sous chefs overcooked the custard for the chawan mushi during second service, and at that point they were out of eggs, so there were no second chances.
Much of the remaining drama (besides how close the actual competition seemed to be) came from Qui’s open discussion of how badly he, as a former college drop-out, wanted to prove himself to his parents. Despite all he’s already achieved, he said that winning Top Chef would prove he can follow through and succeed at something. What he didn’t know is that his mother, father, and girlfriend were all at the restaurant.
“Hi Pa, Hi Ma,” he said, making himself a liar for a previous promise that his tears with Tyson Cole would be the only time we ever saw him cry (and Qui’s Dad was even tearier).
“It put me at ease, and it got me fired up to win this thing,” Qui said. “It’s really important for my parents to be proud of me. This is something I can do to give back. That’d mean everything to me.”
As the judges talked about the dishes, it really sounded as if Grueneberg might pull off the upset. Her first course and dessert were both huge hits, while Qui’s overcooked course for one set of judges seemed to really hurt him. But his dashi broth had Emeril Lagasse rhapsodizing, and Tom Colicchio preferred Qui’s dessert.
After what felt like six full minutes of commercials–everything’s bigger in Texas!–somewhat anticlimactically, host Padma Lakshi proclaimed, simply: “Paul… you are Top Chef!”
“I’m Top Chef,” a shellshocked Qui said in his interview segment. “I’m extremely happy to see my Dad and Mom being there, and everybody throughout this journey. It’s finally come to an end, and the magnitude of what we’ve done since San Antonio… it’s so broad I can’t describe it.”
Leave it to the Twittersphere, then:
I have a case of..Quisanity? Can I apply that to other successful Asians?
I have a case of..Quisanity? Can I apply that to other successful Asians? #topchef
— Lilly (@lillyj) March 1, 2012
— Uchiko Austin (@uchikoaustin) March 1, 2012
Or leave it to this picture, which was taken at Uchiko (that’s Uchi and Uchiko owner Tyson Cole in white):
Photo by Laura Skelding of the Austin American-Statesman
In a subsequent Q&A with Bravo.com, Qui said his $125,000 prize money would go to “Student loans, savings, [and his girlfriend] Deana.”
“I’m happy to be able to shine a national spotlight to what we do in Texas,” he also said. “It isn’t all about BBQ and Tex Mex.”