On Tuesday, the Houston Chronicle’s food critic, Alison Cook, released her list of the best new restaurants in Houston of 2017. In the No. 2 spot is Aqui, a Montrose eatery that was opened in August by Paul Qui, the Austin-based James Beard Award–winning chef who last year was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend in front of her small child. This is the first time Cook has ever written about the controversial restaurant. She starts off with the following:
One can argue in good faith that it's wrong to patronize Paul Qui's restaurant. The Houston native was charged with domestic assault last year in Austin, where he made his name with the Uchi brand and his own restaurants. What cannot be argued is the thrilling fare being produced by Qui's Houston chef de cuisine, Gabriel Medina...
I agree with Cook that Medina is one of Houston’s top up-and-coming chefs—his menu at Bosta Kitchen was delicious—but in making the decision to work for an alleged domestic abuser, he and his colleagues are complicit in Qui’s attempt at redemption.
In a year in which food writers revealed the horrors that women face in the restaurant industry, with investigations into John Besh and Mario Batali’s abhorrent behavior, a year in which over 1.7 million women tweeted their sexual assaults via the #MeToo movement, it is vastly disappointing to read, from a prominent female voice in food criticism, why we should be enamored of a restaurant opened by an alleged domestic abuser.
What if we lived in a world where critics didn’t review restaurants opened by people who were arrested for allegedly assaulting a woman? What if, for once, somebody actually took a stand against men’s repugnant behavior? What if, for once, a "perfect bite" of foie gras wasn’t worth more than human decency?
We do not live in that world. Instead we live in the one where Paul Qui keeps getting a pass from Houston food media. We live in the world where Mario Batali apologizes for his sexual misconduct by including a link to pizza dough cinnamon buns. We live in the world where millions of women can tweet their sexual assaults, but they do not have the actual power or support system to prevent them from happening in the first place.
Since Qui’s arrest, food media has been conflicted about how to cover the chef’s establishments. In August 2016, the Austin-American Statesman ran a redemption tale, focusing on Qui’s drug abuse, that was immediately countered in a post by Dan Solomon on TexasMonthly.com. When Qui’s eponymous restaurant rebranded into Kuneho, it was the subject of several redemption-themed reviews, which were then countered by an Eater piece Actually, You Can’t Redeem Yourself By Opening a Good Restaurant. Kuneho shuttered, after which Qui moved to Houston (he’s not a native, as has been erroneously reported by some press outlets).
After Qui opened Aqui in August, CultureMap’s Eric Sandler wrote a piece titled Award Winning Austin Chef’s Restaurant Arrives Quietly, Packs a Big Punch—the title was changed after a social media backlash—in which he noted that “of course, some people will never visit" Aqui. The Chronicle’s own first look, penned by Greg Morago, didn’t mention Qui’s arrest at all, just that the “buzziest new restaurant in town” was serving bite-size portions of something called blood noodles and “knuckles” of scallop. CultureMap and Thrillist listed the restaurant as one of the best newcomers in Houston —CultureMap did mention the allegations, but Thrillist did not. Houstonia, too, listed Aqui as an anticipated opening without mentioning the arrest.
In my previous position as the Houston Press food editor, not one, but two contributors tried to pitch glowing first looks that did not mention Qui’s arrest. I wasn’t interested in running either of them, although we reported its opening and one contributor chose an Aqui dish as the best thing she’d eaten in the month of September of this year.
Maybe you have read all the articles out there. If you haven’t, I would encourage you to. In a TexasMonthly.com article from March 2016, Solomon noted the importance of not making light of the charges against Qui, and did so again after Qui’s girlfriend signed an affidavit on non-prosecution.
While one in three Texas women will experience family violence in her lifetime, many recant; as a result, Texas prosecutors train each other on how to prove a case without them on board. Solomon predicted that the world would find out more in the months ahead. But months have come and gone. Paul Qui's pre-trial hearing date for charges of assault and unlawful restraint was pushed back so many times it's shocking it didn't fall right off a cliff; a trial date is now set in Travis County for January 30.
All of which explains why I look at Cook’s small review of Aqui with trepidation. I look at the restaurant’s very existence with disbelief and overwhelming sadness, the same way I looked at my Aunt Susie whenever she showed up for Christmas with fewer teeth than the previous year, her husband having freshly knocked more out of her head.
For those of us who have witnessed assault and abuse as children, or lived through it ourselves, we know that abuse doesn’t leave the body or mind, not really; not ever. In November, The Atlantic’s Megan Garber wrote that “harassment and assault, by their nature, often take place in the shadows, away from others, in the intimate places that are hidden and walled and secret. And this is often used as a weapon against the victims.”
The police affidavit filed March 19, 2016 noted that there was “blood smeared on the walls and floors throughout the apartment.” The girlfriend, the report noted, had a swollen jaw, a cut on her right arm, bruising on the upper arms and was experiencing “a lot of pain” on the left side of her body. The girlfriend stated that Qui had “pushed her and her son” and “started throwing her against the walls and door.” In August 2016, Qui told the Austin-American Statesman that he could only remember “bits and pieces” of the night of his assault, but that he didn’t hit his girlfriend or touch her child.
I am not eating at Aqui because I value the lives and welfare of women and children more than I do a buzzy new restaurant experience. I am not eating at Aqui because this year proved to me that, if women do take a stand against misogyny, sexism, sexual assault, domestic abuse, and the inequalities brought upon us day in and day out in America, then we can make a difference in the welfare of all beings.