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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A Chinese Catholic family in Thailand: Chan Saechung and YouKeun Saetung with their seven children. Chaowasaree is on his mother’s lap.
Photo: Courtesy of Chef Chai Chaowasaree
Between 1985, when he got to Hawai‘i, and 1989, when he opened Singha Thai, Chaowasaree worked at seven restaurants, often two at once. He cooked Thai, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Chinese before he figured out that servers made more money. He was waiting tables at Andrew’s restaurant and cooking at a small Thai place when he heard the old Popo’s Cantina space had opened up in Waikīkī.
Thai food was in vogue on the West Coast, less so in Hawai‘i. Scattered around town were Chiang Mai, Mekong and Rama Thai. Against these, Keo’s Thai Cuisine stood out with an exotic, upscale trendiness. “I watched Keo (Sananikone). He’s the one who put Thai food on the map here. He’s my idol,” Chaowasaree says. “I wanted to be like him. His name was always in the papers. When celebrities came, he would always take picture with them. His cookbook was so popular.”
‘Ahi tartar in mini waffle cones at Chef Chai.
PHOTO: STEVE CZERNIAK
With help from his parents, he opened Singha Thai. By this time, he knew how to run a kitchen, manage a restaurant, work the front of the house. Now he started watching an emerging generation of star chefs. Hawai‘i
Regional Cuisine was taking off, punching out of the calcified scene of European and Waikīkī-dominated fine dining. He started appearing on Hari’s Kitchen with the wisecracking Hari Kojima. The first time he was on, Singha Thai’s reservation book filled up, all the customers ordering the spicy garlic pepper shrimp and Thai beef salad he had demonstrated. He worked with concierges to bring in tourists and celebrities. Robin Leach came for dinner and ended up featuring the restaurant on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Hale ‘Aina awards started coming in.
Chaowasaree would get his own cooking show, Two Skinny Chefs, then Dining Out with Chai. He would open a second restaurant, Chai’s Island Bistro at Aloha Tower Marketplace. And he would write The Island Bistro Cookbook. He had achieved all his goals, and he wasn’t even 50.
“You know you’re a success when you do an event and chefs and politicians come and say hello to you. In election years the governor and the mayor say hello to ME,” he says. “I was like, wow, I’m kind of like somebody now.”
Even as the dining scene evolved—as neighborhood Thai spots became the norm, locally sourced ingredients found their way onto plate lunches and the midrange of the market exploded—Chaowasaree and his restaurants retained an elegance. That was one constant.