SXSW: Paul Qui, Questlove talk culinary inspiration, why everyone should work the dish pit

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Paul Qui and Questlove spoke together at a South by Southwest Interactive panel on Saturday afternoon at the Driskill. Photo by Addie Broyles.

On Saturday afternoon at the Driskill Hotel, several hundred attendees packed into a large ballroom for a conversation with Questlove, the musician, producer and food fanatic behind @cook4quest on Twitter, and Austin chef Paul Qui called “Life’s a (Dinner) Party: Channeling Culinary Creativity.”

Here are some of the highlights from their chat:

Paul Qui and Questlove spoke together at a South by Southwest Interactive panel on Saturday afternoon at the Driskill. Photo by Addie Broyles.

Paul Qui and Questlove spoke together at a South by Southwest Interactive panel on Saturday afternoon at the Driskill. Photo by Addie Broyles.

On ditching the ego and asking for help: “I’m smart enough to know when I’m too close to something to be able to see it clearly,” Questlove says. “That’s why I need feedback.” At Qui, staffers are asked to leave their egos at the door, including the namesake chef. They all are there to learn from one another.  His employees all train for both front and back of house, and “everybody gets a turn in the dish pit,” he says. “People don’t come to Qui to work for me; they are here to work with me.” Also, the motivation needs to be authentic or else the project will fail.

On the importance of collaboration: Questlove says that when he first got into food, around 2006, when he invested in a fried chicken truck, he realized that he could treat the culinary world just like he did the music world, which meant collaborating with anyone and everyone. He now hosts food salons and dinner parties to bring together his friends, who are often well-known thinkers and influencers who aren’t necessarily in the food space. A synesthesia experience happens when they share how flavors make them feel.

The Austin’s food truck scene: “…is totally on fleek,” Questlove says. He also has moved on from Stubb’s to Sam’s for barbecue but said he enjoyed eating Terry Black’s Barbecue today.

On sources of inspiration: Colors, photography, travel, other chefs are all sources of inspiration for Qui, and for Questlove, it’s all about collaboration.

On hustling: Qui started his first side project, East Side King, when he was still working at Uchiko. He’d go to work on East Side King at the Liberty Bar when his shift was over at Uchiko or on his days off. He’d bike food all up and down East Sixth Street to spread the word. “During the first years of my career, I never said no.”

On running a micro-restaurant: Qui said that it doesn’t make economical sense for most restaurant to open small spaces, like the 12-seat Otoko, an omakase-style restaurant to open inside the South Congress Hotel this summer. But the fewer the seats, the more attention to detail you can give each customer, the more flexible you can be with the menu and, ultimately, the more memorable the experience.

On the lengths they’ll go to for good food: Questlove worked for seven months to score a seat at the restaurant featured in “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” for his birthday. He was so excited, he got up at 5 a.m. for an 11 a.m. reservation. “He makes 18 pieces of food and hands it to you. With five guys behind him, he stands in front of you as you eat each piece.”


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