How One Hawai‘i Chef Became a Dining Institution
From family food legacy to new adventures in fusion, Chai Chaowasaree has reached icon status.
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Oysters, caviar, lemongrass garlic mignonette: Chai Chaowasaree’s food today shows his evolutionary arc since he opened a Thai restaurant 26 years ago.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
On a Monday morning, Chai Chaowasaree stands inside the doors of his gleaming restaurant, Chef Chai, surrounded by fallen leaves. He’s trimming an arrangement of heliconia, torch ginger and other tropicals. At 11 a.m., five hours before opening, there are no scents from the kitchen, no staff to direct. It’s just the chef and the flowers.
Thirty years in restaurants in Hawai‘i, 26 of them helming his own, are just part two of Chaowasaree’s life. Part one, growing up in his native Thailand, was spent in the restaurant that pulled his family out of poverty and into the wealth that launched him to this country. Chaowasaree has only changed scenery. Even on his days off, he stays where he feels at home. “Working every day doesn’t bother me, because I grew up in that lifestyle. I saw how my parents worked,” he says.
Twenty-six years as a chef-owner also puts him in vaunted territory. Chaowasaree opened his first restaurant, Singha Thai, around the same time Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong opened theirs. “He has a solid foundation. You want to know how he’s stuck around and evolved, it’s all from that,” Yamaguchi says. “He has pretty good taste buds.”
Chaowasaree doesn’t realize it, but in Hawai‘i’s often fickle food scene, he’s become an icon, too.
If you know Bangkok, you have a sense of where he grew up: 10 minutes from the Oriental Hotel in the heart of the teeming capital. The neighborhood was Chinese and Catholic, as was his family: His father arrived from China alone at age 12 and started hauling rice on the docks; his mother was a second-generation Chinese-Thai. Chaowasaree was their seventh and last child.
Opened in 2013, Chef Chai is Chaowasaree’s third restaurant. The menu skews lighter—no butter, he says.
Their restaurant was born of desperation. The family had tried making cookies and candy, only to lose money when customers didn’t pay. With a restaurant, they reasoned, customers would pay on the spot. “It was very, very, very, very successful,” recalls Chaowasaree. “We never prepped food fast enough, because people came knocking at the door. We had to pull the curtains, turn off the lights. As soon as we opened, we were packed.”
They made whole fish, the bones softened through a secret technique so you could eat them. They made bitter melon that wasn’t bitter. They cooked pork so the skin was fluffy. Chaowasaree grew up learning all this. When he showed promise at the markets, choosing the right fish, meat and vegetables, his mother gave him the job.
“I was a nosy kid,” he says. “I would buy vegetables at the market, then I would hang out with the vendors and go with them to the wholesale market, see where they buy their ingredients. I see it’s much cheaper.”
After that, he started going directly to the wholesalers. Two or three times a day, he filled tuk-tuks, Bangkok’s motorized three-wheeled rickshaws, with bitter melon, cabbages, flour. In the kitchen he learned to scale fish and kill pigeons. He watched his mother, learning her techniques and flavors so well that, when she finally took a vacation, she put him in charge.
Chaowasaree was by then in college. Unable to score high enough to get into an elite subsidized pharmacology program, his parents’ dream for him, he was studying business. Not that his family needed subsidies. They didn’t have chauffeurs, like some of his classmates, but they had maids and cooks. They had enough that, when Chaowasaree decided to try life in America, they sent him.