I’ve had a running list of questions for Paul Qui for four years now. In 2016, the celebrity chef was one of the most famous people in Austin. The Top Chef winner and James Beard Award recipient’s wildly successful eateries included East Side King, Thai Kun, the fine-dining spot Qui, and a new restaurant in Miami. Accolades poured in from the likes of Bon Appétit, GQ, Esquire, and Food & Wine. Then, just two weeks after the opening of his highly anticipated Austin restaurant, Otoko, that March, he was arrested after police were called to the apartment he shared with his then-girlfriend and her son. The officers, who reported finding blood on Qui and the walls, as well as broken glass and furniture, charged him with assault and unlawful restraint; the police report said the woman had visible injuries and told police he had been partying with friends and using cocaine.
Qui, who said he was innocent of assault, checked himself into rehab and asked for privacy. The charges were dropped in 2018 after Qui’s former girlfriend declined to take part as a witness. Qui largely stayed quiet, with the exception of one substantial interview, which he gave to the restaurant writer at his hometown daily paper a few months after his arrest. In the Austin American-Statesman‘s August 2016 profile, he talked about his struggles with addiction and said he didn’t remember much of what happened the night he was arrested. He denied the domestic violence allegation against him, even as he discussed his “need to make amends in all parts of my life,” without ever being clear what exactly it was he needed to make amends for. The story announced that he was rebranding his eponymous East Austin restaurant, which had been struggling since his arrest, by taking his name off of the side of the building and renaming the place Kuneho (the Tagalog word for “rabbit,” one of his specialties). He would spend the next few years opening new restaurants in Houston and Dallas. By that point, Qui had become the face of the reckoning around #MeToo and the restaurant business. Each of his new ventures was met with a strong media backlash and eventually closed.
A few weeks ago, Qui posted on Twitter for the first time in two years. He reflected on “the concept of reparations” during the Black Lives Matter movement, the pandemic, and a recent stint in rehab, after he was arrested on a misdemeanor DWI charge related to two minor accidents in October 2019. He also said that he was “committing to an open door policy with the media.” I still wanted to ask the questions I’ve been wondering about since his arrest, so I reached out to him. What was he making amends for? How was he so confident that he was innocent of the allegations if he didn’t remember what happened that night? But more than anything, I wanted to try to find the answer to another question that I struggle with every time I see a man (it’s almost always a man) whose actions have led him to seek public forgiveness for his personal behavior: Is all of this just talk, a way to manipulate the media into granting him an easy redemption narrative?
It doesn’t matter if I found his contrition credible. Just telling a story that centers around how Qui feels plays into the Redemption Story Industrial Complex. We’ve seen that before, in post-#MeToo stories about everyone from Mario Batali to Ben Roethlisberger to Charlie Rose, and they all ring hollow. It’s not my place, or yours, to say whether Qui is really, truly sorry this time, or if this is the moment to grant him a second chance. The incident that led to his arrest wasn’t strictly a private matter—his employees and customers had the right to decide if they wanted to support someone accused of domestic violence—but the only person who can say whether Qui has atoned for it is the woman involved. But also: Qui is still here, still alive, and, like it or not, still famous. So where does a person go from there, if he’s seeking redemption that isn’t ours to give?
There isn’t a lot left for Paul Qui to lose, in terms of his restaurant career. Kuneho closed in 2017. Aqui, his well-reviewed Houston restaurant, shuttered in 2018, the same year it opened. TacQui, his Dallas-based fusion restaurant, lasted six months. A planned expansion of East Side King into Denver was canceled after a public outcry. He still has a financial stake in East Side King and Thai Kun, but he says that “it’s complicated” and that the businesses haven’t made money since 2016. He says he consults for Pao by Paul Qui, the restaurant he opened in Miami Beach, but he doesn’t have an ownership stake in the business. Qui makes most of his money consulting with other restaurants and has a new Filipino concept he plans to open in a Denver food hall when the coronavirus pandemic abates. He’s suing, and being sued by, a lot of the people he was in business with. All of this means he has less to lose, and a lot more to gain, by seeking the public’s forgiveness.
The way Qui talks about his arrest hasn’t changed much. He told me that, because of the business partners he had back in 2016, he “felt like I couldn’t be honest and open about everything,” but his version of the story is still largely the same now as it was then. He does use the term “domestic violence” to describe his behavior now, though. He says that his understanding of what it refers to has changed in the years since the incident. He says he recognizes that abuse doesn’t necessarily mean throwing a punch. He talks about all of this with the sort of revelatory passion you encounter from someone who’s just started doing deep inner work with a therapist for the first time—which Qui has—connecting incidents from his childhood to his past behavior, and recognizing patterns that might have been obscure before.
But all of that is still private stuff. It matters deeply to Qui and the people in his life if therapy is finally clicking for him, but for diners who are deciding whether to go back to East Side King, what he understands about how his upbringing influenced his views of gender dynamics and interpersonal violence isn’t going to change much. What matters is what Qui does with whatever new understanding he’s achieved.
When I asked him how people could trust him this time that things were really different, he cut me off. “Talk’s cheap, man, I get it. I didn’t have the courage to speak up more until now,” he said. So why do it at all? Qui says that he had to go public with his intentions in order to hold himself accountable. “I didn’t know how to do the work,” he told me. “So a friend of mine recommended, like, just put everything that you’re going to want to do out there in the world, and just go for it.”
So here’s what I have been up to:
After completing thirty days of rehab, I have begun work with a female code switching therapist from Embodied Culture in Boulder, Colorado. Her job is to help me understand how my culture has intersected with my living as a first-generation
— paul qui (@pqui) June 29, 2020
Qui, who was born in the Philippines and moved to the U.S. as a child, says that he intends to raise money for groups in Austin and Colorado—where he’s now based—by hosting fund-raising dinners every few months. He points to the nonprofit Asian Family Support Services of Austin, which helps Asian immigrant survivors of domestic violence, as one of the organizations he’s been in contact with. [A representative from the organization told Texas Monthly after this story was published that their scheduled meeting had not yet taken place.] He says he wants to serve as a good influence in kitchens where, in the past, he might have attempted to reward people for their hard work by buying them shots or helping them score drugs. I hope he does what he promises to do. But I also know that, as Qui said, talk is cheap.
For some perspective, I turned to Dianna Anderson, a Baylor alum and author of 2018’s Problematic: How Toxic Callout Culture Is Destroying Feminism. Anderson has written extensively about redemption both as a media narrative and also—owing in part to her background as a theologian—as a philosophical concept. “Men in public positions do have a tendency to try to take credit just for working on themselves,” she told me. She believes firmly that people need a path to redemption, but good intentions are only the first step.
Some of the amends Qui needs to make are private, but others are more complicated. There were a lot of people who worked hard to make him a success, and they all had to deal with the consequences of his actions, too. One of them is June Rodil, a master sommelier who was the first manager of Qui’s namesake restaurant. Like Qui, Rodil, who is now a partner in Houston’s Goodnight Hospitality and Austin’s June’s All Day brasserie, was born in the Philippines and moved to Texas as a child. Rodil left the restaurant before Qui’s arrest—she says she saw a “downward spiral” coming and didn’t want to be a part of it—but I asked her about what it was like to watch as her friends and colleagues dealt with the aftermath of his arrest. “He let down his community,” she told me. “When you’re an owner, you are responsible for all of your employees. You’re talking about people’s livelihoods. The most hurtful thing was that people dedicated their time to work with him, and the lack of respect [for that].” When his restaurants closed, employees lost their jobs; staff and business partners lost opportunities because of their association with him.
As a high-profile Asian American chef in a state whose massive Asian American community still doesn’t get to see itself represented in media, Qui’s success was important. Qui has talked a lot about the need to make “amends,” sometimes in tasteless ways—he used the word to describe a new menu at his restaurant in 2016, and posted a picture of “redemption lumpia” on Instagram in April—but says that he didn’t really understand what those concepts meant until recently. His “redemption lumpia,” he says, were redemption for a first batch of spring rolls that he’d burned, and the menu made “amends” by giving employees better food to serve. Those aren’t satisfying answers, and they’re consistent with Qui’s own characterization of the way he thought about his accountability for years. “I’ve never necessarily been a philanthropist,” he said. “I’ve always thought that if I can just do good work with my food, then that’s me.” If Qui is ready to address that with action now, it’ll be the first step he’s really taken to make amends with his community. Noted Rodil: “It’s not that Paul didn’t realize that he did something wrong—it’s that it took him a really long time to acknowledge it to other people.” She’s hopeful that his acknowledgement means that he’ll follow through with action.
Qui can’t cook his way into being a better person. He can, at least in theory, use his skills—and the leadership role he finds himself in whenever he sets foot in a kitchen—to bring about positive change. Will he follow through on that? “I’m always good until something bad happens,” he told me. “So I’m trying to do something good before something bad happens again.” But whether you believe that Qui’s main motivation for returning to the public eye is to hold himself accountable or simply to rehab his career, he can only prove you right—or wrong—once he stops talking about it and starts living it.
Redemption narratives oversimplify everything. Redemption, like sobriety, doesn’t have an endpoint—it’s an ongoing, lifelong process, and one that will include false starts and struggles. But we want these things to be clean and simple, because that’s how narrative works: Kylo Ren or Severus Snape can atone for past misdeeds by doing the right thing, suddenly and spectacularly, and then the story ends. Life is messier and more complicated.
The most Qui’s quest can lead him to is a daily, ongoing practice of doing the work. Qui doesn’t deserve credit for things he hasn’t done yet, but there are a lot of men who have abused their partners, and most of them will wake up tomorrow with the choice of whether to work to be better, or not. Qui is still famous, and if he lives up to the standard he declared for himself, his path could give those men some ideas about how they can atone for their past behavior.
Toward the end of our interview, I asked Qui what a life he was proud of would look like five years from now. In retrospect, that’s a tricky question to ask someone in recovery. “Five years is huge when I’m trying to focus on day to day,” he said. “It’s hard for me to really give you that full picture.” He tried to answer it anyway. “But it’s probably just having a boring life. I’m not trying to be the next big thing in food. I’m not trying to be a celebrity. I’m not trying to kill myself at work doing the most advanced shit. I know what I don’t want.”
I can’t help but wonder if some part of him still craves those things—he did decide to talk to the press and return to social media, after all—but it doesn’t really matter. I asked Rodil if she thinks that it’ll be healthier for Qui if his next chapter comes with less celebrity and power, and she was unequivocal. “Absolutely,” she told me. “His personality can’t handle that.” He’ll have to take his accountability process day by day, and that’s how those of us deciding whether to support his projects will have to make our decisions, too. Despite all our narratives to the contrary, redemption doesn’t work any other way.
Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify information about Asian Family Support Services of Austin.