Filipino American men proved recently that the kitchen also is their domain.
Manila-born Paul Qui, 31, blew away the competition on the February 29 finale of Bravo’s Top Chef a few weeks after Zambales native Lou Diamond Phillips, 50, bagged the crown in Food Network’s Rachael versus Guy Celebrity Cookoff.
The Philippine originals both grew up in the Lone Star State and have a common passion for cuisine, but similarities end there.
Professional chef Qui, grandson of a Chinese adventurer who immigrated to the Philippines, is shy and soft-spoken Phillips, star of such hits as “La Bamba” and “Young Guns,” is a camera magnet: effusive, touchy-feely, prone to quotable exclamations.
Both started out as early favorites to smoke the finales of their respective tilts.
Top Chef ninth season Filipino fans could not have guessed that there was more than one of their own among the 29 “chef-testants.” When Nina Vicente of Spur Gastropub in Seattle was sent packing, few realized that the quiet but consistent purveyor of refined Asian cooking was born in the archipelago.
Filipino viewers who had assumed no connection to Qui took a second look when he described his dish as “adobo” that he had learned from his grandmother, who “cooked it all the time.” A picture of his grandmother flashed on the screen: a typical beloved “lola” in her duster.
“I want to show my parents that I can be good at something,” the executive chef of Uchiko in Austin, Texas, said in earlier episodes.
Qui told of a low period in his life when he indulged in drugs, dropped out of school, and lost motivation to be productive.
Somehow he found his way into the kitchen of a restaurant and under the wing of a nurturing chef.
James Beard 2011 Best Chef South West Awardee Tyson Cole, executive chef of Uchi, recognized and helped realize Qui’s potential.
Qui was on the team behind Cole’s 2008 aspiration for Iron Chef America. When Cole opened his second restaurant Uchiko in 2010, he tapped Qui for executive chef. Wisely so.
Just last month, Qui was a semi-finalist for title his boss snagged last year, perhaps a precursor to last week’s Top Chef results.
The contest kicked off in Texas, with Qui among the local talents along with Sarah Grueneberg, executive chef of a four-star Italian restaurant in Chicago, who proved to be his near-match. But only just.
Qui reportedly was 10 years old when his family immigrated to Virginia. At 17, they moved to Houston. Qui then fell to the lure of the kitchen and moved to the state capital to study at what was once the Texas Culinary Academy, now Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts.
When the contest came down to five, the venue switched to Vancouver. There, Beverly Kim, executive chef of Aria in Chicago, rejoined the finalists after having beaten earlier cast-offs in the “Last-Chance Kitchen.”
While rivals sniped at Kim’s spirit and “too-Asian” palate, they literally embraced Qui and called him “a friend.”
Qui coolly avoided conflicts between and among the opponents, and seemed to bond with Ed Lee, self-taught chef of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Kentucky.
He showed his organization skills by posting tasks and stations for his finals team, and respect for a peer in his collaboration with Vancouver celebrity chef Barbara Lynch.
Qui bared his sensitive side when he broke into tears upon seeing his mentor at an elimination cookoff, which he won. And then again at the finals when, told that a table of diners wanted to see him ASAP, hugged his parents and girlfriend, leaving no need for a reply to his mom’s “Are you surprised?”
Least taken aback was producer-head judge Tom Colicchio who told Qui moments before the end: “All season long you just brought it,” but then added, “In the end it was about as close as it can get.”
Maybe for that last round. But having bested half of 16 elimination challenges, Qui doubtlessly dominated. He took home the $125,000 jackpot besides a Prius and a trip for two to Costa Rica to learn about sustainable cuisine and extra cash from those nerve-wracking quickfire and elimination challenges.
The Rachael vs. Guy Celebrity Cookoff debut in January was the perfect ride for Lou Diamond Phillips’ drive to reclaim his former status as a Hollywood A-lister.
The Golden Globes nominee joined Olympic swimming champion Summer Sanders, comedian Cheech Marin, and singer Taylor Dane among entertainers vying to win $50,000 for the charity of their choice.
Phillips never trailed in any of the challenges. His plating and flavor combinations wowed co-hosts Ray and Fieri, who decided his “restaurant” outshone that of rapper Coolio.
The winner’s largesse went to No Kid Hungry, a campaign for online pledges for Share Our Strength.
Newly branded as “LDP,” Phillips sported jetblack mane and bulging biceps. He constantly referenced his Filipino-ness, from the “toyo” that typified his recipes, to mimicking his mother Lucita Aranas’ accent.
That was cause for applause for those who once upon a time snarled when they heard Phillips identify himself as “100 percent Cherokee” on a morning variety show.
Phillips, 50, made a name for himself playing Native Americans and Latinos – even the King of Siam, for which he got a Tony nod. Only Filipino viewers of a little known film he had written would have inferred the identity of his character when he referred to his father as “Ta-tay,” accent on the second syllable.
Phillips’ father was with the U.S. Navy, who reportedly named his son after Marine Gunnery Sgt. Leland “Lou” Diamond, dubbed the “Perfect Marine.”
The family moved to Texas where Phillips, who later took his stepfather’s last name, earned a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Like Paul Qui, Phillips hit a low point in 2006 when he was arrested for domestic violence in an incident with his then-girlfriend now wife. He was ordered to attend a year of domestic violence counseling and 200 hours of community service.
Phillips took service to heart and became a spokesperson for the Filipino Veterans Equity Act of 2006, an ideal advocacy for the son of soldiers.
In 2011 he hosted An Officer and a Movie, featuring veterans and their reflections on major battles.
Phillips turned out to have off-camera skills: of championship caliber.
Cherie M. Querol Moreno is an award-winning journalist, community educator and volunteer.