In Austin, Texas, reviews are rolling in for Kuneho, a new restaurant from Top Chef alum and empire-building chef Paul Qui. But these aren’t ordinary restaurant reviews — and Kuneho isn’t an ordinary restaurant. The new project opened in the space that was once home to Qui’s high-end flagship, called Qui, which shuttered in the summer of 2016, a few months after the chef was arrested on assault charges. Before the arrest and subsequent trip to rehab, Qui was amongst the most beloved — and famous — chefs in the small, booming Texas city, and the shockwaves still resonate across the industry.
After winning Top Chef, Qui became one of the city’s most high-profile food celebrities: He was given the key to the city, and his rags-to-food-truck-riches story was irresistible to local (and national) media. His casual eatery, East Side King, expanded across the city, and Qui, his ambitious and ever-evolving restaurant, became so essential that on its one-year anniversary, Eater did a retrospective, asking Qui to annotate his original menu.
Presciently, in the days after news broke that Qui had allegedly assaulted his girlfriend in the presence of her young son, Texas Monthly writer Dan Solomon pointed out that for local media, there would be a temptation to minimize the allegations of abuse and assault. “But it’ll be unfortunate if the reporting on Qui and this incident treats his arrest on domestic violence charges as just another unfortunate thing that happens in the restaurant business,” Solomon wrote over a year ago. “Keeping the real, human stakes around the issue in mind is important, because the way we talk about domestic violence allegations frequently underplays how pervasive it is in our culture.”
A Kuneho review from the Austin Chronicle has set Twitter ablaze today, with many voicing distress over how critic Melody Fury (who has contributed to Eater Austin) explicitly framed her review, questioning if “Paul Qui’s new concept offer[s] redemption.” This narrative weaves itself throughout the entire story, and Fury finds much to like about the new menu. It culminates in a final paragraph that perpetuates the idea that a restaurant can, in fact, provide “redemption” after all.
The question of whether Qui has redeemed himself lingered in my mind throughout the meals. When focusing on the food alone, the answer was a resounding “yes.” It was clear that chef de cuisine Mia Li runs a tight ship, sending out only what she was proud of. Even so, the show’s tune has changed. The transformation to deliver more approachable fare was indeed successful. But while sitting at the counter, the hot and cold service was unable to swoon me like they once did. At each progression of the meal, I couldn’t help but ask “Where’s Qui?” and wonder if he would one day bring cohesion between food and service back.
To recap, the road block to Qui’s “redemption” is the lack of “cohesion” his restaurant displays between food and service, all due, perhaps, to the chef’s conspicuous absence from the kitchen. The basic premise here is that “redemption,” vaguely defined, is achievable through running a good restaurant that serves delicious food.
The internet has taken notice, with seemingly all replies to the Chronicle’s social media around the article offering criticism and dismay. Writer (and former Eater Austin editor) Andrea Grimes puts the issue succinctly in a Twitter thread that’s been racking up shares today: “To suggest that a nice dish can ‘redeem’ someone of criminally violent behavior? I mean. Just talk about how the fucking food tastes.” In a follow-up blog post, Grimes exposes the troubling logic implied by the Chronicle’s conclusion: “So look, the food totally made up for that time Paul Qui was arrested for attacking his girlfriend in front of his child, but the service really did not make up for the time that Paul Qui was arrested for attacking his girlfriend in front of her child.”
Austin-based writer Jessica Luther tweeted, “[T]his is incredibly disappointing. incredibly,” and followed up in two tweets, “you can just review the food without even suggesting that redemption is possible... through food.” Replying to the Chronicle’s Facebook post (status: “Does Paul Qui’s new restaurant offer redemption?”), the first commenter simply asks: “Didn’t he hit someone?”
I’m not even against reviewing the fucking restaurant! It probably SHOULD be reviewed. But don’t look for moral reckoning in fish.— andrea grimes (@andreagrimes) April 17, 2017
As Solomon warned, the redemption narrative has been hard to resist. Last year, the Austin American-Statesman published a profile of the chef, titled “Fall from the Top,” which basically presented the restaurant’s revamp as part and parcel of a chef who was Making Big Changes. Qui’s quotes in the interview go largely unquestioned:
“It’s like a reset button for me. Being around my boys again feels good. I lost it for a little while,” Qui said.
He said he wants to “get back to having fun in the kitchen” and abandon the rules he had created in his mind of what his food was “supposed to be.”
The response to the profile was swift, with Texas Monthly filing its own reaction that asked, “When Is the Right Time for a Paul Qui Redemption Story?” Writer Dan Solomon continued to beat the drum: “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... 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.”
Last month, Texas Monthly reviewed Kuneho without ever using the word “arrest.” The review sticks closely to the food, until the conclusion, where critic Patricia Sharpe inserts this arc: “‘Was it difficult,’ I asked Paul Qui, when I called to talk a few days later, ‘closing Qui?’ I hadn’t seen him since his unfortunately well-publicized stint in rehab this summer, 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.”
Today, Solomon points out that the strong pull towards redemption narratives isn’t unique to food media. He tweets: “Things that can’t redeem a person for violence they’ve inflicted on someone else: cooking well, pitching fast, completion %, winning Oscars.”
The revamp itself divided opinions from the get-go, but if anything, the recent reviews from both Texas Monthly and the Chronicle suggest that it was an effective business decision. As Eater’s Editor-in-Chief Amanda Kludt put it a January edition of her weekly newsletter — titled “How Should We Talk About Paul Qui?”:
Some would say it’s a new restaurant in the old Qui space, which the chef closed when he returned from rehab. It serves Japanese bites, sushi, fried things, and more, and has a “new look.” Less generous commentators would say this is a savvy rebranding to a) garner new press that does not revolve around his altercation with his girlfriend (in which he allegedly “threw her against walls and doors”), and b) operate a restaurant with clean search engine results. Change the name, alter the menu, paint the ceiling black, and voila — new year, new you.
So, once again, the food world is left trying to figure out: How do we talk about Paul Qui?
UPDATE November 8, 2017: Paul Qui’s restaurant Kuneho is closing. Eater Austin reports the last day of service will be November 11. “Yes, we're closing, but not sure what the future holds," he told Eater. "Still figuring that part out.” Also per EATX: “Qui’s pre-trial hearing for his domestic violence arrest charge has been pushed back to Friday, November 17.”