What was going through Paul Qui's head when Padma Lakshmi named him Top Chef? "I was honestly so tired that I think I missed it and I had a really delayed reaction," he tells TVGuide.com. "But then I realized she [said my name] and I was super excited." In addition to his big win over Sarah, the Austin-based chef set a record this season for most elimination challenges wins (eight) and won another $60,000 on top of his $125,000 grand prize. How does he plan on using the money? And why is he so calm, cool and collected? Find out below.
Top Chef's Lindsay: I didn't take enough risks
Congratulations! The judges kept reiterating that it was really close. Did it feel that way to you?
Paul: Thanks! Yeah. I didn't have any idea. I wanted to win, but it could've gone either way. You never know what's going to make or break it and sometimes you still don't.
Your dad was adorable crying on the side after you won.
Paul: Oh yeah! I've never seen my dad cry like that. It was pretty exciting. I was so happy to have [my parents and girlfriend] there for it.
Did you think you might not win because of your second chawanmushi batch?
Paul: Yeah, when I saw the second batch go out to the judges, I was like, "If I go home, it's for this." And I was actually OK with it at that point because there was nothing you could do anymore at that point.
How did it end up overcooked?
Paul: Well, when it came down to it, I showed the guys how to make it and it was just left unchecked. It's a really delicate dish, so the slightest thing could really mess it up. Basically, Keith started cooking the second batch and I showed him what to look for, but it takes a little while to get the subtlety of that dish and it just ended up overcooked. I don't blame him for it at all. It just happened. ... And sadly, we had used up all our eggs, so I basically had to go with a bad dish or no dish.
It couldn't have been that bad since you won.
Paul: [Laughs] It wasn't what it was supposed to be. I was really upset about it. It was slightly overcooked. It was more of a pudding texture than a panna cotta texture.
What do you think put you over the top, even with that mistake?
Paul: Granted it is what I do, but I don't think it's the type of meal that they would get anywhere else. It was like a meal they had never had. Working at Uchi +Uchiko, we are a Japanese restaurant technically, but we do dabble into different cuisines and I do go a little bit out there with my flavor combinations, but I try to keep it familiar, like with the congee and the eggs and the smoked fish. I think some of the judges felt it was familiar even though they've never had that dish before. It was comforting.
You mentioned your style was "Japanese with Asian influence," which is redundant.
Paul: [Laughs] I thought that was hilarious! I was like, "Did I really say that?" I meant to say a Southeast Asian influence, but that's what I blurted out on camera, I guess. I think the dishes I did for that final meal were pretty Japanese-based, except for the dessert. ... I used all Japanese ingredients for the most part. I cooked the way I normally cook at my restaurant and stuck with flavors that I know.
Top Chef's Beverly: I definitely felt the fan support
You got Barbara Lynch as a sous chef and you guys appeared to be butting heads a little bit when she questioned your choices. How did you put that aside?
Paul: Working with Barbara Lynch was amazing. She's such a great chef and has such great energy in the kitchen. I just had to be a little more confident. Normally, I do like a lot of input from my sous chefs. After the initial introduction to her, we started grooving really well and the whole team started grooving really well.
Sarah really wanted Heather as her sous chef. Was there anyone you really wanted?
Paul: Not really. When we did that challenge, I just picked all the dishes that I liked and I think it worked out for me.
You mentioned how you didn't step up during Restaurant Wars. Was that a regret you carried all the way to the finale knowing you would have to lead a kitchen?
Paul: Absolutely. I knew I kept my mouth shut at times in Restaurant Wars when I know I should've said something. It was a mistake. This challenge was me versus Sarah. I couldn't have not said anything when I needed something done.
You won eight challenges before the finale, so you had to have known you were the front-runner even if you didn't want to think about it. Did you feel pressure to win?
Paul: Yeah, I felt the pressure to win for sure, but my whole approach was to focus on the task at hand and not worry about anything else. Going into Top Chef, my whole thing was, "I can't get eliminated the first episode, especially in Texas." The whole time, I was like, "I gotta make it past the next step."
You were so chill the whole season. Is that how you are in general?
Paul: Yeah, I think that's how I am in general in the kitchen. I can definitely be more assertive when I need to be, but for the most part, I like to have a good vibe in the kitchen. My whole time here at Uchi + Uchiko, which has been about eight years, I probably only screamed twice and I threw a plate once. Even when I threw that plate, I don't think anyone expected it because I didn't yell. I just flipped at the guy I was pissed off at, picked up the plate and threw the plate at the ice machine. I felt really embarrassed afterward for doing that, but after that, I think my kitchen understood that I can get angry. I think in some ways it works toward my advantage because if I really raise my voice, then they know I am upset.
You stayed out of the drama with Beverly. What did you think about all of that?
Paul: Yeah, I think she just needed more time to warm up to the group. Eventually Lindsay and Sarah got along with her really well. It just took more time for her to get comfortable where she could be herself. For me, I stayed away from that whole thing. There were definitely times when I thought it wasn't cool, but at the same time, I could kind of understand where they were coming from because we all work in kitchens and we all know the trust involved. I definitely vocalized it at some points. I told Heather, "Hey, there are some ways to do it and that's not the cool way." [Laughs]
Top Chef's Ed: What's the point of Last Chance Kitchen?
You seemed to excel at all the crazy challenges they tossed at you. What did you think of all the all-nighters and endurance tasks?
Paul: I didn't mind them so much because no matter how silly I thought the challenge was, I always tried to see the angle that they were trying to come from. I was always constantly comparing it to a restaurant situation. Service in general in a restaurant is not a sprint; it's a marathon. It's about endurance and things can always go wrong in the kitchen. As long as I kept that perspective, I was cool with it. There were some chefs who were a little more vocal about not liking the challenges at the time, but I'm like, "We put ourselves in this situation, so we might as well find a way to accomplish this task."
Did you like the Last Chance Kitchen twist?
Paul: I didn't care. I think Beverly thought it was really cool. Being on Last Chance Kitchen lets you go head to head with all those great chefs. I was surprised, but I thought it was cool. Beverly cooked her way back.
What are you going to do the money? How much do you have total?
Paul: I think I made $185,000 total, and I got a Prius, a trip to Costa Rica and a ticket to the world premiere of Charlize Theron's movie. I'm gonna pay Sallie Mae for my student loans and probably save some of the money and hopefully put some of that into a new project. ... I'm still working with the Uchi + Uchiko group. I'm working on my East Side King, which is my trailer business in Austin. I'm hopefully looking forward to some other projects in the near future.
You wear fun socks, so what's the weirdest pair you own?
Paul: I guess my green socks that look like caterpillars. It's funny because Chris Crary made up that whole rumor about me wearing lucky socks, but all my socks are colored. All my socks are basically whatever I find in the sale rack at Urban Outfitters or wherever and they're the ones that are like $1.99!