Food News

Pao Chef Paul Qui Details Drug Addiction, Despair in Hometown Paper

Success can be a heavy burden. Just look at the 27 Club. The tragic group includes Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and Jim Morrison. All five died at the age of 27 after battling drug issues at the height of their careers and fame.

For Austin's James Beard Award-winning Paul Qui, the headiest years of his still-young career turned out to be a burden. In a lengthy interview with the Austin-American Statesman, the first since his highly publicized March arrest, the 36-year-old chef detailed the internal struggles he faced as he ascended the ranks of culinary stardom. 

Qui admitted he's struggled with drugs and alcohol for the better part of two decades as he's tried to manage jealousy and anger issues. The problems began when he was a teen in Houston and was introduced to LSD and Ecstasy. Later, the deaths of several close family members took an invisible toll while Qui buried the pain and continued to climb the kitchen ranks. As he became a brighter star, he was also using pills, cocaine, crack, and methamphetamine, according to the interview. 

His greatest successes only made things worse. In 2011, Qui won the ninth season of Bravo's cooking reality show Top Chef. The Beard came the next year. "I was never present during those times to really embrace those blessings. Those were supposed to be amazing years, but it wasn’t,” Qui told the Statesman. “It was pretty miserable for a long while.”

Moreover, the opportunities that followed only made running his growing empire a greater burden. Visits to the world's best restaurants led to wild fluctuations on the menu of his eponymous restaurant, Austin's Qui. 

His life came crashing down earlier this year when Austin's South by Southwest music and technology festival came to a close. Qui marked it with several sleepless, drug-fueled days as he bounced among events in Texas and California. He was arrested March 19 after inviting friends back to his apartment, where he said he believed some were making passes at his girlfriend. In a rage, he kicked everyone out before trashing his apartment, knocking over his partner and her son in the process. Yet Qui said his recollection of the night remains foggy. With no one to turn to, he said, he asked friends to call police in hopes of stopping the self-inflicted madness. “At that time, I wanted them to stop me,” Qui told the Statesman of the decision. “I was looking for some kind of out, I guess. I was gone. It all sounds irrational to me now that I am sober.”

According to the paper, Qui's girlfriend signed an affidavit of nonprosecution in which she said that he never picked her up or threw her and that she never felt threatened by him. Moreover, there was no similar event in the pair's past. Yet the incident is far from resolved. Qui still faces two misdemeanor charges carrying penalties of $4,000 or up to a year in jail.

Months later, he has begun turning his life around. After detoxing in jail, Qui checked himself into a rehab clinic and in his interview said he hasn't used drugs or alcohol in about five months. He's closing his Austin restaurant and plans to reopen it under the name Kuneho, concentrating on Japanese cuisine featuring the flavors and techniques that propelled him to fame. 

In what the paper described as a tearful interview, Qui seemed reticent to make excuses and was apologetic to a staff that lost faith after his arrest. He said he sees a therapist weekly, attends addiction meetings, and has a sponsor.

"I’m truly trying to think about what makes me happy when I cook,” Qui said.
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Zachary Fagenson became the New Times Broward-Palm Beach restaurant critic in 2012 before taking up the post for Miami in 2014. He also works as a correspondent for Reuters.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson