What if Zorro worked at Benihana? Or maybe Mario Andretti operated a taxi cab? How about Steinbeck writing personal ads? That’s pretty much what cheese and crackers at Paul Qui’s self-named restaurant is like.
The idea of elevated kitsch cooking is not new. The minute that Barclay’s Prime put a hundred dollar philly cheesesteak on the menu… or Ina Garten topped meatloaf with caramelized, rosemary-infused onions… or someone plumped up mac and cheese with lobster meat, we crossed the chasm from red-neck to white table cloth.
Kitsch drips with sentimentality. Consider the Velvet Elvis with a streaming tear. An image teased out of an inky velvet canvas. As if a silver spot spotlight catches the King in a private moment. The drama is heightened by the microphone which clues us that he’s in a public place.
Velvet paintings get their magic from the material. Unlike traditional painting, an image is formed by teasing out highlights from the shadows. Most painting begins on a white surface. Then color is stacked upon each other until the richness and depths emerge. Velvet paintings are made backwards.
The effect is a sudden and irreplaceable fall into shadow from what’s visible. In many circumstances, the majority of the surface remains untouched by pigment. Much like how most of the earths surface is covered with water. Or most brain activity occurs in the subconscious.
It is under these conditions we admire the highlight details. And are moved by the somber cello of the visual effect.
In 1965, Nabisco riding the waves of technology and convenience, introduced aerosol cheese to the American palette. Dubbed Snack Mate, then later Easy Cheese, this cheese-in-a-can afforded moms a culinary fountain pen to make any cracker into a gourmet snack.
While American tastes have grown up since, Easy Cheese, like Chicken-in-a-Biscuit, Twinkies and SpagehettiOs still line the store shelves. For adults, they anchor us to more innocent times. To the upcoming generation, they are a fountain of pleasure that processed food provides.
It is under this banner, that Chef-Artist Paul Qui exercises talent. It would be hard to find a food group so tacky as spray cheese. It’s very constitution comes from a garbage dump of additives. The makeup so twisted it defies gravity with a consistency molten enough to flow, yet solid enough to retain it’s shape past the piping tip. It carries enough of the milk proteins and salt to elicit cheese flavor.
In Chef Qui’s edition, the buttery Ritz is replaced by a cracker studded with seeds. The very shortness of the dough is evident as it breaks like a meteor on on the tongue. Nutty flavors and the dense, alkaline characteristic of whole grains showcase a surgeon’s finesse.
The waitstaff lay down a granite slab with the unadorned crackers. Look quickly before the mighty silver canister is bowed. Gently squeezing the nozzle unleashes a nitroglycerin of cheese. It’s viscosity gives enough time to reveal a florret. This is the best moment to snap the picture before Newtonian physics take command. Move too slowly and the artful dollop relaxes into a creamy white lozenge.
Flavor explodes in the mouth. It’s a reversal of physics. Much of the cheese world gains intensity during the aging process. In it’s compromise, the soft and pliable, become hard and crumbly. Parmesan is a classic example. A grain of Parmesan has 100 times more cheese flavor than a Kraft American single.
However in Qui’s example, this nearly liquid form of cheese has enough muscle to put Parmesan in a headlock.
Such is the wit and precision of one of Austin’s finest culinary thinkers.
It would be easy to dismiss our own ability to reinvent the campy with such elegance. Chef Paul clearly has the technical skill to realize what he imagines. He does not, however, have a monopoly on imagination.
So take a chance like Qui to be whimsical. Take courage to play with tradition. Take us on an adventure through your own Sentimental Journey.