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Paul Qui, Nordic cuisine superstar partner at new Houston restaurant

Paul Qui, Nordic cuisine superstar partner at new Houston restaurant

Norwegian chef Christopher Haatuft remembers standing inside a cavernous, empty shell in the downtown Houston fringes wondering just how the massive, hulking former post office space would be transformed into a food hall that would house his first American restaurant.

“Conceptualizing the space was impossible for me,” he said.

But he trusted his restaurant partner and the development’s owner to realize the myriad details of creating Post Market, the centerpiece food hall within Post Houston, the mega mixed-use development of the former Barbara Jordan Post Office from Houston-based Lovett Commercial.

With that partner, the James Beard Award-winning chef-restaurateur Paul Qui, Haatuft has opened what is surely one of the most exciting Houston dining projects in years — Golfstrommen, a Norwegian-inspired seafood restaurant that merges international culinary prestige with Texas Gulf fish bounty. Golfstrommen (“gulf stream” in Norwegian), dedicated to sustainably sourced seafood, is a jewel within the restaurant collection at Post Market, the buzzy food hall that Lovett opened to great fanfare in November with hungry crowds packing the dazzling space to take in the city’s newest congregation of culinary talents.

Golfstrommen marks one of the most distinctive chef collaborations Houston has ever seen. It brings together one of the pioneering chefs of Nordic cuisine with a Filipino chef who is rebuilding his reputation with a considerable restaurant portfolio that has a visible presence within Post Market. As 50/50 partners in Golfstrommen, Haatuft and Qui have created an uncommon dining experience — a seafood market and restaurant invested with sustainable practices and colored by flavors from a chef renowned for his “fjordic” seafood cuisine.

“Both have an appetite for exploration and experiencing new types of cuisine,” said Kirby Liu, Lovett Commercial’s director of development and project manager. “Both of them are trying to continuously open new territories within culinary innovation. They share the same goal.”

Chef Christopher Haatuft, owner of Lysverket, a modern Nordic restaurant in Bergen, Norway, is co-owner of Golfstrommen, a new seafood restaurant at Post Market food hall in downtown Houston.

Chef Christopher Haatuft, owner of Lysverket, a modern Nordic restaurant in Bergen, Norway, is co-owner of Golfstrommen, a new seafood restaurant at Post Market food hall in downtown Houston.

Kat Ambrose / Kat Ambrose

Reflecting Houston’s food culture

Lovett had its own goals for Post Houston. The commercial real estate developer acquired the former post office at 401 Franklin in 2015 with plans to create a mixed-use project like the city has never seen, sporting one of the world’s largest rooftop parks — with a farm and concert venue, plus retail and office space, and an international market hall filled with restaurants and bars. The company hired international architecture firm OMA, founded by Pritzker Prize-winning Rem Koolhaas, to design the project.

From the beginning, Lovett wanted its food hall to reflect Houston food culture.

“For me, it was always about the food itself and if the food could tell a story about the city,” Liu said.

What the company may not have envisioned was just what an interesting story Golfstrommen would become.

Lovett turned to Qui, who moved to Houston in 2018, to consult and curate Post Market as the food hall’s operator. For Qui, the timing was ideal. That year, he began working with restaurateur Johnny Hoang, a friend he’s known since they were in high school in Houston, and together they formed FAM Hospitality Group. FAM, responsible for multiple concepts within Denver’s Zeppelin Station food hall, is now the umbrella group for restaurants, including chef Thai Changthong’s Thai Kun; East Side King, the Japanese street food concept created by Qui; Soy Pinoy, Qui’s Filipino fare restaurant; Lea Jane’s Hot Chicken, founded by Hoang and named for his life partner; KokoNi, Qui’s American izakaya concept; Pao by Paul Qui at the Faena Hotel Miami Beach; and Drinking Pig, a Miami barbecue restaurant. Thai Kun, Soy Pinoy, East Side King and Lea Jane’s are all vendors at Post Market.

Qui and Lovett collaborated to assemble the culinary lineup, with an eye for diversity, emerging local vendor operators and food that reflected Houston’s rich multicultural heritage.

“Lovett did a great job supporting these guys. Some of them had never had a restaurant,” said Qui of the vendors that include ChopnBlok, chef Ope Amosu’s first brick-and-mortar location; Thrive juices, a Black-owned cold-pressed juice bar; Lucy Pearl’s, a local dessert business with its first brick-and-mortar store; SOUPreme, a new Vietnamese pho concept; and Sweets with L&L, an emerging local business specializing in cotton candy.

“We didn’t want a cookie-cutter food court,” Qui said.

Golfstrommen exemplifies Post Market’s goal for avoiding food hall predictability. Committed to sustainability, it has forged relationships with select Gulf seafood purveyors, some that are selling only to Golfstrommen in Houston. It also is bringing in international fish, oysters from New England and Canada, and sustainable caviar. From local waters come Gulf stone crab, blue crab, golden tilefish, scorpion fish, vermilion snapper and blue runner.

Haatuft admits he’s never heard of some of these fish and seafood (including sheepshead, red snapper and brown shrimp), let alone cooked with them. As Golfstrommen, initially intended to be a Norwegian seafood concept, evolved to embrace more local catch, Haatuft was quick to pivot and excited to adapt.

His fusing of local fish with his Nordic culinary finesse shows up in the redfish ceviche dish. He takes the farmed fish from Matagorda Bay (or sometimes uses Gulf tilefish from Freeport) and treats it to a Viking spin, using strained buttermilk whey and vinegar as the acid (there are no lemons or limes in Norway) and dots of smoked oils, apples, celery leaves and dill fronds. In one bite, guests can taste both Texas and Norway.

If the idea of a Norway/Houston mashup sounds odd, it’s not. According to the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C., the energy business has brought a high concentration of Norwegian companies to Houston and Norwegians with it: Houston has one of the largest populations of Norwegians anywhere outside of Norway.

“I’m coming to a very big city with a very well-defined dining scene and dining culture,” he said. “It’s scary because it’s outside my comfort zone.”

Learning from the past

Haatuft and Qui have created their own comfort zone as partners at Golfstrommen.

Haatuft, 42, comes to the project as the owner of Lysverket, a modern Norwegian restaurant in his native Bergen, Norway. As a younger man, Haatuft was immersed in Bergen’s punk rock scene and had the mohawk to prove it. At 25, his interests turned to food, and after completing culinary training in Europe, he came to the United States to stage and work at high-end dining temples such as the Michelin-starred Per Se in New York, Alinea in Chicago and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, N.Y.

At 32, he moved back to Norway to open Lysverket in 2013, which quickly became Bergen’s top restaurant, often described as serving “neo-fjordic” cuisine; Haatuft also has been called the “punk chef godfather” of modern Nordic culinary movement. Within the pantheon of innovative Scandinavian chefs, he has carved out his own path by highlighting local, natural and organic foods (especially obscure local fish and shellfish) that he serves in multicourse chef menus at Lysverket.

He was introduced to Qui in 2016, during a time Haatuft was hosting a guest chef series at Lysverket. He invited Qui to Bergen for a week. Qui cooked for the series, creating dishes that included minke whale.

Looking back on the experience, Qui said he disliked the food he prepared. He was not, by his own admission, in a good place that year. In March 2016, Qui was arrested in Austin after an altercation with his then-girlfriend; he was charged with unlawful restraint and assault. The charges were dropped in 2018 after the former girlfriend declined to participate as a witness, but the damage to his career remained. The chef who had won Season 9 of “Top Chef” and earned the coveted James Beard Award as Best Chef Southwest for his work at Uchiko in Austin, found his reputation in tatters, affecting business at his Austin and Dallas restaurants. Aqui, his first Houston restaurant, which opened in 2017, closed in December 2018.

After his arrest, he went into a monthlong rehab. In an interview with the Chronicle in 2018, Qui said he was struggling with sobriety and still working out “who I am as a person.” In 2019, he was arrested on a misdemeanor charge for driving while intoxicated in Harris County. He pleaded guilty and is on probation. He said he’s in therapy and he’s sober.

Lovett, according to Liu, was well aware of Qui’s past when it elected to work with the chef for Post Market.

“He had a controversial past, and there was a big risk to us, given the media environment,” Liu said. “His creativity impressed us and his alignment with our vision.”

Chef-restaurateur Paul Qui is the consulting operator of the Post Market food hall at Post Houston. He's shown with the fresh oyster display at Golfstrommen, a seafood restaurant in the food hall.

Chef-restaurateur Paul Qui is the consulting operator of the Post Market food hall at Post Houston. He’s shown with the fresh oyster display at Golfstrommen, a seafood restaurant in the food hall.

Greg Morago / Greg Morago

A new start

Today, the 41-year-old Qui isn’t making excuses for himself. He has found in his work with the growing FAM Hospitality Group and for Post Market essential tools for repairing his career and rebuilding his persona “brick by brick.”

While curating the restaurants for the food hall was “a huge confidence booster,” it was not without struggle. Qui said he had to put himself out there within a restaurant community that is fully aware of his past. In the process, he said, he also had to find the joys that initially brought him to the restaurant industry.

“I had to learn to fall back in love with it,” he said. “I’ve become stronger because of the whole experience.”

In the process of repairing himself and his reputation, he’s found new purpose, he said. Instead of beating himself up, he’s learned to appreciate himself and his skills. “I have value.”

He’s in a good place, he said. And happy. “I’m more inspired now than I’ve ever been, and the big reason for it is the people I’ve surrounded myself with.”

Those include the people he’s brought in at Post Market. And his partner in Golfstrommen.

“He has a lot riding on this,” Haatuft said. “He’s gambled everything to make this place a success.”

Lovett is pleased with Qui’s work.

“He’s very collaborative. He moves easily between high and low cuisine,” Liu said. “He’s brought in food that’s accessible, surprises, delights and feels authentic.”

And Qui’s not done. About 20 concepts have signed on at Post Market, with seven more vendors to be announced in the new year, Qui said. Post Houston also has space for two rooftop restaurant projects.

Post Market, like himself, is a work in progress, Qui said.

“I want to make this place the food destination in Houston,” he said, “and I’m not going to stop until I achieve that goal.”

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