For years, when people wrote about Paul Qui, they wrote about the caliber of his food. Qui first made a name for himself in Austin a decade ago by working his way up at Tyson Cole’s acclaimed Uchi and with his East Side King food truck that’s now a chain. While Qui was executive chef at Uchi’s sister restaurant, Uchiko, he won the ninth season of Top Chef and the James Beard Foundation’s award for Best Chef in the Southwest in 2012, which made him much more than a local commodity. After opening his eponymous Qui in East Austin, he went on to create three other upscale restaurants: Otoko at Austin’s South Congress Hotel, Pao in Miami, and Aqui in Houston.
But the conversation around Qui changed after his arrest in March 2016 on charges of assault and unlawful restraint after an incident in his Austin apartment with his then-girlfriend in front of her child. (Qui himself called the police, who found overturned furniture, broken glass, and blood on the walls and floor; his trial, previously postponed, is scheduled to begin May 1). Qui disappeared from the spotlight and went to rehab—a familiar move for high-profile men accused of gendered violence—and then returned to Twitter, vowing to “make amends” … by releasing a new menu at Qui that May. In August of that year, the Austin American-Statesman published a long profile of Qui, giving him a platform to explain himself, seek redemption, and declare that he was “closing” Qui (most of the staff left after his arrest) and opening another restaurant in the same space—his tarnished name would no longer be on the side of the wall.
The rebranded restaurant was called Kuneho, and shortly after it opened in 2017, Texas Monthly‘s Patricia Sharpe reviewed it. She wrote mostly about the food, which she enjoyed, and near the end of the piece, she briefly acknowledged that Qui’s name had been in the news for reasons unrelated to his cooking: “I hadn’t seen him since his unfortunately well-publicized stint in rehab this summer,” she wrote, “and I had a sneaking suspicion that the failure of the demanding restaurant might have been the best thing that could have happened to him.”
The magazine’s 2017 review came up again last month in a piece by New Yorker food correspondent Helen Rosner, who said Sharpe “tripped a delicate minuet around the assault arrest.” Rosner, formerly of Eater, was addressing the moral responsibility that food critics and writers assume when they cover figures accused of gendered violence and harassment, such as John Besh and Mario Batali, in the #MeToo era. It featured a closeup portrait of Qui at the top of the page.
Much of the writing about Qui’s problems, of course, took place in 2016 and early 2017—before revelations about Harvey Weinstein in the The New York Times and the New Yorker and other powerful men ignited the #MeToo movement. Until then, most restaurant critics believed their job was to focus only on the food. That’s one of the reckonings going on in media in recent months, along with the reckoning around specific bad-actors at a number of outlets around the country: Would writers do it differently now, if they could?
Since we’re colleagues, it’s easy for me to ask Pat Sharpe that question, so I did. I know that when she compiled the list of 2018’s Ten Best New Restaurants for the March issue, she decided not to include Aqui, even though the food was among her favorite of the year. So what changed in the twelve months between her glowing review of Kuneho, in which she didn’t even mention the specific allegations against Qui, and her decision to not bestow an honor on his Houston restaurant?
“The #MeToo movement happened,” Sharpe told me. “I think it made all reviewers aware of the larger societal context. I previously mentioned Paul Qui’s 2016 arrest very briefly, but in the interim, the attitude of the country changed so drastically that I felt that stronger action was necessary. Our Ten Best New Restaurants list honors chefs, and I could not see heaping praise on someone who did what he has been charged with. So I left Aqui out.”
The recent shifts in consciousness have led to noticeable changes in how people discuss Qui now. It’s been relatively quiet in Austin—he closed Kuneho in November and has distanced himself from Otoko and East Side King. However, in Houston, where Qui lived as a teenager and in his twenties until moving to Austin, there’s been a lot of hand-wringing about whether and how to cover Aqui. When the restaurant opened in the late summer, Houston Chronicle food writer Greg Morago interviewed Qui in a gushing preview and completely ignored the charges outright. (In an unfortunate turn of phrase, he described Qui as making a “confession/apology” for “having a hard time saying no to projects.”) But then #MeToo happened, and his colleagues had more difficult decisions to make. Chronicle food critic Alison Cook placed Aqui at No. 2 on her year-end list of best new restaurants for 2017, leading Houstonia‘s Gwendolyn Knapp to publish a response with the title, “Aqui Ranks No. 2 on The Houston Chronicle’s List of Best New Houston Restaurants. I’m Never Going to Eat There,” recapping the (largely fawning) coverage Qui’s restaurants have received since his arrest.
That reaction seems to have stuck with Cook; when she published a four-star review of Aqui in early February, she also published an explanation online under the headline, “Why I Reviewed Aqui, the New Houston Restaurant From Chef Paul Qui.” In the essay, Cook describes herself as “horrified” by the allegations against Qui, but says that a restaurant is more than just the chef whose reputation secured financing and whose name is on the sign: “When I finally did go in,” she writes, “it was out of respect to chef de cuisine Gabriel Medina and pastry chef Jillian Bartolome, whose careers I had been following with admiration for years.” (Likewise, Sharpe told me that the collaborative nature of a restaurant is why she’s comfortable including Aqui in the Texas Monthly Dining Guide, though she expects the decision to frustrate some readers.)
One thing is clear, though: In the span of a few months — as #MeToo began to spread to the restaurant industry — the tone of the coverage Qui received in Houston shifted from excited to strained. Even critics who adored his restaurant felt the need to spend a lot of words justifying their decision to gush about it.
So it’s no surprise that when Qui announced in late February that his next restaurant would be in Dallas, his arrival in North Texas met with a less enthusiastic reception than his Houston homecoming had. Consider the way Eater Houston announced Aqui in March 2017, compared with the headline they ran with when announcing his Mexican-Japanese fusion restaurant, TacQui: “Paul Qui, Still Awaiting Trial, Will Open a DFW Restaurant.”
Eater Dallas (and Eater Houston) editor Amy McCarthy seemed to set the tone for the coverage of Qui that followed in the city. Reporting on the announcement in the Dallas Observer, writer Beth Rankin led with “Paul Qui, Awaiting Trial on Domestic Violence Charges, Is Opening a Richardson Taqueria.” In D Magazine, Eve Hill-Agnus published a thoughtful examination of whether the local dining scene even wanted Qui there, “Awaiting Trial On Domestic Violence Charges, Paul Qui Invades Dallas.”
All of this, it should be said, is quite new. When Qui was arrested, I wrote about the difficulties that food journalists would face in covering the charges: “Whatever we learn about the encounter at Qui’s apartment, though, the challenges that Austin’s food media (typically not a group that overlaps with reporters who cover criminal and domestic violence charges) face here are substantial. Food writing is frequently service-based—readers want to know when the new place opens, where the best tacos are, and what to order—and the cult of personality that’s risen around chefs like Qui means that coverage tends to be based on both food and who the chefs present themselves to be.”
That wasn’t—and isn’t—a fault of food writers, whose primary job is to tell readers where to spend their money on a night out, and to highlight the people doing the most innovative and exciting work in the field. But the days when we, as a culture and as a collective media, could do those things in silos—where the food writers could claim to focus strictly on the food, where the sportswriters could argue that their job was to just tell you what happened on the field—are past us now. There’s been a steep learning curve for a lot of journalists in figuring out how to cover men accused in #MeToo stories over the last several months. But based on how the coverage of Qui has evolved, it appears that people are figuring it out.