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Koko Ni opened late last month in Zeppelin Station, in the upstairs space previously occupied by the bar Big Trouble. Described on its website as “an American Izakaya and Western Saloon,” the Koko Ni concept is simpler than it sounds: A $95 per person pre-paid reservation gets you eight to ten courses served omakase-style, a Japanese phrase that translates as “I’ll leave it up to you.” Alcohol comes at an additional cost.
During a recent dinner, standout courses included local wagyu with squid emulsion, fish caramel, pickled ramps and hoja santa (a Mexican herb), and a simple crudité course featuring veggies from Esoterra Culinary Garden, a Colorado farm dedicated to providing produce for Denver and Boulder restaurants. The courses are served at a fourteen-seat, bar-height, U-shaped table for an intimate dining experience that’s best suited for pairs, since sitting side by side is not very conducive to group conversations. The whole place is bathed in a red light that gives off a trendy vibe but unfortunately also prevents diners from actually seeing the colors of the gorgeous ingredients that the chef is highlighting.
That chef is Paul Qui, and based on the food alone, this spot is generating plenty of buzz on Instagram. Denver’s food influencers laud Qui’s latest restaurant with statements like “one of my favorite dining experiences ever” (@colorado_bites), “Paul Qui shocks the Denver food scene with his Omakase Supper Club” (@milehighbites) and “Wow — this is really the only way I can sum up our experience” (@chefsquire.eats).
But these short captions don’t tell the whole story.
Over a decade ago in Austin, Texas, Qui rose through the ranks at Uchiko, the sister restaurant of the original Uchi, under the leadership of mentor Tyson Cole. After a winning stint on the ninth season of Top Chef and a James Beard award for Best Chef Southwest in 2012, Qui officially achieved celebrity status, and went on to open several successful restaurants in Austin, including East Side King, Thai Kun and fine-dining eatery Qui.
Then, in 2016, Paul Qui fucked up. He was arrested and charged with assault after a night filled with cocaine, Xanax, marijuana and alcohol ended in a domestic-violence incident involving his then-girlfriend.
The arrest made headlines, and food writers in Texas struggled with how to cover the chef as he continued to open restaurants, including Aqui in Houston. Two years later, the charges were dropped when the victim signed an affidavit of non-prosecution, opting not to pursue the case, but the disturbing details (including the initial incident report) remain online.
Paul Qui has been living full-time in Denver since opening Soy Pinoy in July 2020.
And they were resurrected in March 2019, with the announcement that Qui would be opening a concept at Avanti Boulder. The next day, it was reported that Avanti had “backed out of the deal.”
Qui wound up bringing a new concept to a different local food hall the next year: Zeppelin Station, at 3501 Wazee Street, where he opened Soy Pinoy in July 2020, which focuses on the Filipino dishes that Qui grew up eating. It’s part of FAM Hospitality Group, which also includes Lea Jane’s, Grave’s Good Burger and two of Qui’s Texas-born concepts, East Side King and Thai Kun; the barbecue-focused Drinking Pig is set to join the lineup later this year. Although Qui is reportedly opening another concept in a Houston food hall this year, he’s been living in Denver throughout the pandemic.
After eating at Koko Ni — and knowing about Qui’s legal entanglements before I did — I was hungry to know more about how Qui has come to grips with his past, as well as his plans for the future. The issues surrounding when/if/how someone famous makes a comeback post-downfall are sticky (some people think a disgraced chef shouldn’t be in the kitchen at all, while others think the disgrace doesn’t deserve mention), and Qui’s perspective has been notably absent.
Qui’s website states, “I am committing to an open door policy” with the press, so even though I’d been told that I’d have to speak with Qui’s PR representative before I could talk with the chef, I decided to email Qui directly. He replied quickly, agreeing to meet the next day at Zeppelin Station.
“I was very open with everything,” Qui says of disclosing his past to Avanti management. “I really have nothing to hide. …They knew about it. I make sure I tell people, ‘This is what it is, and this is what it means to work together with me.'”
But a public outcry quickly followed the announcement. “It got a little volatile and crazy,” Qui admits, “and I feel like a lot of it could have been avoided if we had just maybe talked it out more beforehand. But I don’t want to be anywhere I’m not wanted, and I wasn’t trying to sneak in … We had a signed lease and everything; I just let it go.”
His move into this state had been in the making since late 2018, prompted by friends with Colorado connections who encouraged Qui to consider bringing his East Side King brand to Denver or Boulder after he shuttered his Houston restaurant after just over a year. “Right after I closed Aqui, and I was wondering what I would do, one of my friends and the Zeppelin development team hit me up around the same time, so I thought, ‘I have nothing to lose. I’ll fly out to Denver and check out what’s going on here.'” On that trip, Qui also made the connection with Avanti through its then-general manager, Dan Wyman, with whom he had worked at Uchi in Austin.
Zeppelin Station hadn’t even been built yet, so Qui went with Avanti. After that deal fell through, Qui ran into more legal trouble. “I had a relapse,” Qui admits, explaining that while he’d quit drinking in 2016, he’d kept smoking marijuana “because it was helpful to me during that time.” During a night out in October 2019, he “met a couple out at a bar … and smoked something, and it wasn’t really weed, and then I blacked out, and I ended up back at my house in bed,” he says.
Before he landed in bed, though, Qui was involved in two auto accidents, according to an Eater article; a toxicology report revealed alprazolam (Xanax), cocaine and THC in his system. DWI charges were not filed until late that December, however. “I was going to Marfa for Christmas,” Qui recalls, “and I get pulled over by a cop.” The officer informed him that there was a warrant for his arrest, but let him go because he “had my three dogs and my cat in the car.”
Upon returning to Houston, Qui turned himself in. “I want to be responsible for my actions. I want people to see that I handle my business in that realm,” he says. Following an April 2021 court date, Qui agreed to participate in a DWI pre-trial intervention supervision program. “Basically, I have to prove that I can stay out of trouble for a year,” he explains. The case has been rescheduled for April 7, 2022.
As he worked through his new legal case, Qui reconnected with Kyle and Andra Zeppelin and signed a lease for a stall at Zeppelin Station in June 2020. That’s when he ended up meeting with the person who had led the charge against his Avanti concept, Boulder-based PR professional Kate Lacroix. “The Zeppelins were like, ‘You should just have lunch and sit down and talk with her,'” Qui explains. “I just wanted to chat with her and be like, ‘Hey, I don’t know what to say. I’m really trying to move forward with my life. I’ve been sort of quiet with what I do for a while. I wasn’t trying to sneak past anybody, and I didn’t know that I had to announce stuff.'”
Lacroix connected Qui with a therapist in Boulder, and also encouraged him to “write something [publicly] that wasn’t bullshit,” according to her recollection of the conversation. Qui posted a message on Instagram in July 2020 that read, in part, “After completing thirty days of rehab, I have begun work with a female code switching therapist from Embodied Culture in Boulder, Colorado. Her job is to help me understand how my culture has intersected with my living as a first-generation Asian American and how this inherent stress has led me to make such poor choices, particularly with respect to my domestic violence incident in 2016.”
Days after that Instagram post, Zeppelin Station announced that Qui was bringing Thai Kun and Soy Pinoy to the RiNo food hall. “For the most part, I was left alone, and I was okay with that,” Qui says. With business slow because of the pandemic, Qui had time to focus on food, particularly the Filipino dishes he wanted to showcase at Soy Pinoy.
Qui admits he had to scale back initial dishes at Soy Pinoy to find the Filipino flavors he remembers.
“I am Filipino, but I’m not known for Filipino food,” he remarks. “Through the years, that’s been an interest of mine: to cook the food I grew up with, because I never understood it, but then I remember missing it, and I remember trying to cook it and not being happy with it because I was making it too Americanized, and I had to go back to the roots. … Doing something where I have to meet my grandmother’s standards, that’s a different game for me. That was really fun.”
Culture plays into Qui’s ongoing work with his code-switching therapist, as well. “It’s like looking at it from a different lens. It’s helped me understand the way others are impacted by my actions and what I say,” he explains, then notes that code-switching is also about understanding how his upbringing factors in. “In Asian cultures, there’s no such thing as addiction, per se,” he says. “If you’re doing [drugs], you’re lazy or, like my mom says, ‘It’s because you’re not going to church.’ … It’s helped me understand conversations like that with my parents and even my friends, which was actually really healing for me to understand those perspectives.”
Qui says he’s now completely sober. After the DWI charge, “I was like, ‘Holy cow, I can’t really dabble or do anything at all. I just have to cut it out of my life and focus on the positive things that make me feel like I’m a worthy person,'” he recalls. But he also struggles with the idea of talking publicly about his experiences with substance abuse: “I think it’s weird to promote it. If I’m gonna be sober, I’m gonna be sober for myself. I don’t feel like I have to be like, ‘Look, I’m Sober Guy.'”
Even though he’s in an industry where alcohol plays a key part and other substances are easily accessible, he says he’s “taken that energy of ‘Let’s go to the bar after hours’ to texting my guys at 7:30 a.m. to go to the gym, ride a bike or play basketball. Basketball has actually helped me really refocus, too.”
He’s also been able to put the 2016 domestic-violence incident in a bigger perspective. “It was larger than my initial arrest — I felt like I let my whole community down and everybody down,” he says. “I’ve done everything I could to make amends with Stephanie [his ex-girlfriend] and her family and anybody who was affected in a negative way. … At the end of the day, I didn’t understand fame. I didn’t understand what it meant to be famous, I didn’t understand all the pressures that came with it and how it affected my friends and family and my habits, and I fell because of that.”
The aftermath of his arrest and the feeling of being “targeted by the media” for any misstep had left Qui feeling vulnerable, and he stopped posting anything personal on social media. But in 2020, his post about starting therapy lifted a weight. “I just want to be as authentic as possible,” he says. “It’s about having organic relationships with people.” Which is exactly what he’s trying to cultivate at his new restaurant.
Only drinks are available in the front lounge area of Koko Ni. The fourteen-seat table for the tasting menu is behind the dividers.
Koko Ni “was just intended to be the space where it would be good for my creative soul as a chef, and same for my staff,” he says. “After doing more than a year of mostly to-go food and putting things in boxes, we just had to have a creative outlet.” Part of the inspiration was a meeting with Mark DeRespinis of Esoterra Culinary Garden, arranged by a friend who volunteers there. “[Mark] gets excited about food the way I get excited about food, so I was like, ‘Holy shit, I should just do this menu with this guy,'” Qui recalls.
The concept developed organically. “The intention initially wasn’t for me to chef it out here at the counter, but to open a more casual space,” he explains. “But I’m really glad I did, because it sort of connects me with my craft and helps me remember why I do what I do.”
The space presented some challenges, because it was built to be a bar. “We don’t even have a real kitchen back there,” Qui notes. “I went to IKEA and bought two induction burners. I have a Philips grill that’s infrared that I think was on Oprah’s favorites list in 2018.”
Overall, Koko Ni is a collaborative effort by Qui and his team, which includes alums from some of Denver’s top restaurants and former staffers from Qui’s Texas concepts. “That’s part of what I enjoy the most, is…being able to work together to create something special,” Qui notes. “My food is my least favorite food to eat,” he adds, laughing.
“I just try to create a positive environment, mentor cooks and chefs, and give back when I can,” he concludes, and with the opening of Koko Ni, it seems he’ll be doing just that in Denver for a while.
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Molly Martin is the Westword Food & Drink editor. She’s been writing about the dining scene in Denver since 2013, and was eating her way around the city long before that. She enjoys long walks to the nearest burrito joint and nights spent sipping cocktails on Colfax.