A beautiful spring has sprung here in Austin, Texas. Bluebonnets are everywhere, it's not yet 100 degrees and, now that the city has recovered from South By Southwest, Austin will soon be celebrating the chance to prove itself in the culinary space with its first-ever Food & Wine Festival.
With chatter about "Austin cool" coming from many directions these days, the city will draw yet another national crowd from April 27 to 29 to eat, drink, learn and be merry with headliner chefs such as Masaharu Morimoto, Marcus Samuelsson, Michelle Bernstein, Gail Simmons and Tyson Cole, among many others, and music from Lucinda Williams and Mayor Hawthorne. In contrast to the Texas Hill Country fest of previous years, the Austin proper version will be centrally located, officially brought to town by Food & Wine magazine of Aspen fame, and expanded to include a line-up of local greats as well as international heavy hitters.
This year is also especially great timing for the city to host this inaugural event as Austin's own Paul Qui recently impressed millions of viewers with his victory on Bravo's Top Chef. Through the show it became clear that not only could an Austin chef dominate the competition with remarkable creativity and magic kitchen chemistry, but also the fresh Japanese fusion cuisine that made him a force on TV and at Uchi/Uchiko back home was a far cry from the BBQ and tacos that people expect out of Texas. In essence, Qui proved that when it comes to food, Austin can do a lot of things right.
With the windfall of celebration that followed, Qui has become a veritable ambassador for Austin to the culinary world and one of the city's biggest champions. The mayor proclaimed Friday, April 6 "Paul Qui Day" and then awarded him a key to the city. Twenty-four hours later, he was headed to the White House lawn to make a healthy version of the Filipino dessert halo-halo at the Easter Egg Roll as part of Michelle Obama's Let's Move program. In May he will be honored at the James Beard Awards for his nomination in the Best Chef: Southwest category.
This attention has been a blast, according to Qui, but his TV image as gracious and humble plays out in real life. Austin's affection for him is mutual as he seems most eager to use the limelight as a way to keep momentum going strong for the local food scene.
"I used to try to fight it because I'm all like, 'I've gotta be in the restaurant, I've gotta be in the restaurant'... but now I'm just embracing it a bit more because I feel like the more exposure I can bring here, the more exciting the restaurant is going to be and the more exciting Austin is going to be. I think it's a win-win for everybody," Qui told me at the key to the city ceremony on Friday.
As for the festival, "the most exciting part for me is to hopefully get all these big chefs in town and have the opportunity to cook with them... and I think if you're a culinary school student and in the city it's a great chance to get involved," he said.
During the Food & Wine weekend, Paul can be found along with other rising star chefs such as Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine, Sarah Grueneberg (also of Top Chef), David Bull of Congress and Aaron Franklin of that famous BBQ joint at the New Taste of Texas VIP event (included in VIP ticket). With the combination of ambitious, new rock star talent and well-established greats, the weekend promises to present a big opportunity for Austin to shine as a culinary destination and showcase just how good food looks these days in Texas.