How I Went from Being a Terrible Drug Dealer to Top Chef
Before I appeared on <i>Top Chef</i> or started my Austin restaurant Qui, I was broke and making a living as a bad drug dealer. But soon I settled into the Texas cooking scene, coming up the ranks and constantly refining my approach to cuisine.
When I was growing up in the Philippines, my grandparents did cook—dishes like adobo with soy sauce, and pork blood stew. But when I came to the US, we ate a lot of junk food. My parents were divorced and my mom and stepdad worked long hours. We used to go on these Costco trips where I'd buy junk food. You name it, I probably tried it. I ate a lot of packet noodles, and discovered this canned cheese that came in a whipped cream dispenser, which you have on crackers. At Qui, we make our own version now, but we use two-year-aged, cloth-bound Cabot cheddar.
My first cooking job was at Orange Julius, making smoothies and hot dogs—an interesting combo. I was 15, still at school, and did not know what I was doing. I got in trouble a lot when I was young. I'd be sneaking out, going to buy weed, going to rave clubs in DC.
Finally, my mom said, "You can't stay here," so I ended up with my dad down in Houston. That was my first real exposure to the food scene—it has a huge Vietnamese population—and it opened up my mind. I don't know that I loved Texas to start with, but I eventually fell in love with Houston.
I was so broke. A buddy of mine said, 'I can't really help you out with cash,' but he gave me 500 pills of Xanax. That was my start-up fund.
As an art major in college, I was waiting tables to make money, then started selling drugs before I realized I was a bad drug dealer. I woke up one morning and there was dog shit all over the floor; people that I didn't know were passed out in my house. I started wondering, What am I going to do with my life?
Back then, Austin had the shortest and cheapest culinary program, so I decided to move there with a friend who was a DJ. I was so broke. A buddy of mine said, "I can't really help you out with cash," but he gave me 500 pills of Xanax. That was my start-up fund.
Austin was not a food town, at least not then. I basically wanted to gain my cooking chops before I moved to the big city. All of my chef idols had come from or cooked in New York, but every year Austin somehow charmed its way back into my life and more opportunities opened up for me.
While I was training, a friend introduced me to Tyson Cole [owner of the Japanese restaurant Uchi], who became my mentor. I worked one month for free, then was paid $7.50 an hour. I spent all my money on cookbooks, knives, and World of Warcraft. That was my whole life as I was coming up the ranks. I started at Uchi as free labor, and ended up as chef de cuisine. At Uchiko [the sister restaurant], I was executive chef, and was working until 9 or 10, then going to the food truck I set up at East Side King for 11. We'd be there to 2, 3 in the morning. I definitely was not sleeping a lot.
As for watching Top Chef, I can't—it gives me anxiety. At 1 AM when I get home, I don't want to get stressed out over somebody else's kitchen.
I was already going to open my own restaurant when I went on Top Chef. I had the investors for this place, but it launched me in a different direction and meant that people who would not otherwise know me would know who I am. It made a huge difference. As for watching those kind of foodie shows, I can't—it gives me anxiety. At 1 AM when I get home, I don't want to get stressed out over somebody else's kitchen.
I still don't know what my food is. I'm learning just as much from every one of my cooks as I am from myself. Japanese food drew me because of the aesthetic, and the pursuit of perfection. I look at chefs I admire, and chefs I work with, and like to think we create a situation where we can provoke some new ideas. Normally people build a menu, then build a kitchen around that menu, and a restaurant around that kitchen. Here at Qui, I wanted a blank canvas. There's a bit of Texas in there, a bit of me, and a bit of my chefs.
I tend to say to my suppliers, "Just give me what you are excited about." Here in Texas, the seasons are crazy. You might get something for a week and then the weather turns. At the moment, I love any kind of peppercorn and using calamansi, a Philippine citrus that's like a key lime or a kumquat.
What does it matter, as long as I'm passionate about what I cook and what I eat? You are not going to make everybody happy all the time.
For years, I stayed away from Filipino food. And for a long time, I didn't cook dinuguan, a pork blood stew, because everyone's grandma's stew tasted better than mine. But then one of my farmers brought me some warm pig blood and I wanted to do something with it. Some people are scared of it; but if you cook it right, its creamy and it doesn't taste iron-y at all.
I learn a lot from trial and error. I have made some things that were not good enough to put on a plate. It usually happens when I start experimenting with a new ingredient that I don't know how to cook—peculiar parts of fish, or offal—but for me it's all about the experimentation.
I'm 34 now, but I don't really know about getting to the top. The food scene is so pretentious; Michelin stars, all that stuff. What does it matter, as long as I'm passionate about what I cook and what I eat? You are not going to make everybody happy all the time.
My mom is definitely more proud of me now than she's ever been, though I don't know if she likes what I cook. I know my dad doesn't. He'd rather have a steak with french fries or something.
As told to Laura Dixon