At the beginning of 2016, chef Paul Qui was on top of the world. He was building a culinary empire, with multiple establishments in Austin and a chic hotel restaurant in Miami, and had earned effusive praise from restaurant critics and diners alike. He was a James Beard Award winner and, four years prior, he even won Bravo’s Top Chef Texas.
But by the end of March, Qui had been arrested by Austin police and charged with assault after a fight with his girlfriend at their apartment. He smashed a phone, broke a coffee table, and ended up with injuries of his own, claiming that the blood found in the apartment was his. In an interview with the Austin American-Statesman shortly after his arrest, the chef denied punching her — police alleged that the victim’s arms were bruised and her jaw was swollen — but admitted that he refused to let her leave and had knocked her and her son out of the way in the process of drunkenly terrorizing the apartment. In April 2018, the charges were dropped because Qui’s alleged victim refused to cooperate with prosecutors.
Qui has tried, with varying degrees of success, to move on. But as the industry began to reckon more deliberately with domestic violence and harassment in the wake of #MeToo, fresh questions emerged about how to treat the once-renowned chef. Amid calls for redemption and forgiveness, a not-that-radical proposal emerged: Paul Qui’s time is up.
There’s a mental trick we play on ourselves when we talk about “canceling” someone who has committed an act of violence or harassment: We think it’s final. It sure seems that way, after all. One is canceled or one is not, and once the verdict has been rendered, the judgment cannot be appealed, because it’s generally hard to un-cancel things, whether you’re talking about television shows or doomed Apple products or people. Justice has been served, if not by the legal system, then by the community, which has banded together. The offender has been canceled! They’re done. Right?
What the last year has shown is that cancellation isn’t a simple binary, an on/off switch to be toggled. It’s a process: It’s iterative and messy and uneven. Cancellation is in the eye of the beholder, and it can take time to cascade across communities. And even in the event that a shitty man is successfully canceled, keeping him canceled can require constant, unerring vigilance.
A now-familiar string of events inevitably plays out every time a prominent figure is accused of doing something heinous: News breaks, it inspires a backlash on social media, and an apology is promptly issued. Maybe that apology comes with some kind of self-flagellation — Mario Batali’s sad cinnamon roll recipe, John Besh stepping away from operations at his restaurants, Paul Qui going to rehab — intended to demonstrate deep remorse. There’s a period of radio silence, a time for the person to get their life together, get sober — and plot their comeback. And they always seem to come back.
Long before the charges were dropped, how to handle Qui was a major topic of debate. When Qui opened Aqui in Houston in August 2017, Gwendolyn Knapp of Houstonia, the city’s monthly magazine, made a compelling case for why diners should stay away from the restaurant. “What if we lived in a world where critics didn’t review restaurants opened by people who were arrested for allegedly assaulting a woman,” Knapp wrote. “What if, for once, somebody actually took a stand against men’s repugnant behavior? What if, for once, a ‘perfect bite’ of foie gras wasn’t worth more than human decency?”
When Qui opened fast-casual taco spot Tacqui in a Dallas suburb in February 2018, Dallas Observer restaurant critic Brian Reinhart wrote in an open letter to Qui, “It’s not just one woman and her child that you hurt when you allegedly took cocaine, Xanax, marijuana and alcohol; became enraged; and started throwing a loved one into a wall. You hurt all the employees of your restaurants.”
Some, however, seemed to want a redemption narrative. Aqui earned a “rare” four-star review from Houston Chronicle critic Alison Cook, who wrote an equivocating essay about her decision to review a restaurant owned by a man who had been accused of violence. “I don’t feel qualified to tell anyone else whether they should patronize Aqui; I can only explain why staying away ultimately didn’t feel right to me,” Cook wrote. “We’re all kind of wandering in the wilderness at this fraught moment in America, and in the hospitality business, trying to think our ways through the revelations of the #MeToo movement to something better.” One headline about the new restaurant bellowed that it “packed a flavorful punch” (the deeply unfortunate headline was changed after criticism, but the story itself still spends a dozen paragraphs praising Qui’s food before addressing the arrest). Other people just wanted to be left alone and eat their pork buns in peace without having to confront the politics of domestic violence or #MeToo.
The ongoing controversy surrounding Qui has not eliminated his ability to ink high-profile restaurant deals, and that’s due in large part to the inconsistent narrative around his comeback. Last Monday, Denver food hall Avanti Food & Beverage announced that a location of Qui’s East Side King would open there. It immediately prompted a backlash: “Avanti is an incubator for emerging talent, not a house of second chances. Say no to Paul Qui and yes to integrity,” wrote Colorado publicist Kate Lacroix on Facebook. “We are female consumers with a voice and we are watching and waiting for you to do the right thing.” More than one story about the chef’s expansion to Denver led with Qui’s 2016 mugshot, his face scratched and hair disheveled. Late Tuesday night, about 36 hours after the announcement, Avanti declared that it was pulling out of the deal.
The failure of the deal is the most direct business consequence of Qui’s arrest yet, marking the first time that a property developer or investor has publicly cut ties with Qui. “We apologize to our guests, our tenants, and our team for misjudging the severity of the situation surrounding Chef Qui. At Avanti we pride ourselves on offering a safe, all welcoming environment,” the group’s statement read. “We want our actions to speak louder than words and therefore have cut all ties with Aqui Hospitality and East Side King. Our priority is to listen to our community and continue to support Denver’s culinary scene and aspiring restaurateurs.”
Qui still has a deal in the works with Houston’s Sawyer Yards, a new development focused on building one of the country’s largest arts communities. That restaurant hasn’t opened yet, but Qui was adamant that Aqui’s closure did not mark his disappearance from Houston. “Our team is very excited for all the projects we have in store for Houston in 2019,” Qui wrote in a statement announcing the restaurant’s shutter. “Houston is our home and we are excited to continue to add to its rich culinary story.”
That Qui continues to land new restaurant deals in buzzy real estate developments despite the ongoing, highly visible controversy shows how tenuous a supposed cancellation can be. Paradoxically, what happened after Qui’s arrest provides a solid model for how to handle bad chefs now and in the future.
Paul Qui is, arguably, the best example of what occurs when people decide that they no longer want to support someone who has been credibly accused of domestic violence. The glowing reviews he once earned from restaurant critics are now accompanied by hand-wringing essays about how to praise a man accused of beating a woman, and some diners and journalists swore that they’d never set foot in the restaurant, no matter how great the food was. The James Beard Awards committee cited Qui’s behavior as a reason why Aqui was not nominated for any restaurant awards in 2018 (though its pastry chef earned a nod). Three of his restaurants — Aqui, Kuneho, and Tacqui — closed. The deal with Avanti Food & Beverage was terminated. He’s not out working the food festival circuit, as he was before. He was once named an “Empire Builder” by Food & Wine, but that empire just doesn’t exist anymore.
Similar scenarios have played out elsewhere in the industry. Accused of harassment by upward of 30 employees, San Francisco chef Charlie Hallowell did a spectacularly bad job of managing his own comeback — there was a dunk tank involved — and issued a statement detailing his inane 12-point plan to return to the city’s restaurant scene. Mario Batali was able to convene something of an exploratory committee for his “second act.”
Those who criticize “cancel culture,” which University of Michigan professor Lisa Nakamura has defined as a “cultural boycott” that involves withdrawing personal and financial support from a person who says or does problematic things, tend to view it as a way for people to demonstrate how “woke” they are. It’s also often derided for lacking what its detractors describe as “due process,” and for obliterating the possibility of forgiveness.
In Qui’s case, while he has apologized in interviews and described his behavior on that night in 2016 as “unforgivable,” he has not publicly made any kind of amends in the three years since his arrest: He hasn’t detailed what he plans to do to make sure that he’ll never assault another person again. What he has done is open two restaurants, both branded with his name; cooked at exclusive pop-ups in trendy arts enclave Marfa; and, of course, continued to sign deals for new establishments.
What would it look like for Qui to be welcomed back into the industry without significant pushback? He could start with a sincere apology, one that communicates full accountability for his actions and directly addresses his behavior. Qui’s noncommittal apologies have always relied on the idea that his food would be his redemptive quality, not an actual commitment to making amends for what he’s done. “I acted irresponsibly. I was a public figure, you know. I can’t turn back time on anything like that. Just maybe one day I can cook for people again,” Qui told the Dallas Morning News in 2018. “I can’t change the past. I can’t. All I can do is make sure people see me right in the future, and that’s what important to me.”
Applying the framework of restorative justice — a criminal justice theory that “emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior” — according to the Centre for Justice & Reconciliation, it’s not unthinkable that people who have done terrible things can come back as a positive force in the industry. But unlike, say, ex-gang members who mentor teenagers to keep them away from violence, men like Qui have shown that they are just trying to get back to making money and basking in praise again.
There is a great deal of value in learning from mistakes and bad choices, but it requires vastly more honesty than we’ve seen from chefs who have been credibly accused of violence or harassment. We have to have a serious conversation about what abusers must do to make amends to the community and the people that they harmed in a way that doesn’t excuse their behavior. Maybe, if the circumstances warrant, they can then return to the industry in a way that doesn’t inspire protest. In the absence of a meaningful attempt to make amends, the restaurant community and those who support it have to make a choice: Continue to allow abusers in their ranks, or extricate them entirely. Forget their names, forget their restaurants, and let fading away from everyone’s attention be the consequence that actually sticks.
Amy McCarthy is the editor of Eater Dallas and Eater Houston.