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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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Left, Chef Chai’s terrine of layered vegetables on a bed of green curry sauce, right, Gravlax salmon roulade with crab and cream cheese, above. At right, Chaowasaree with his mother and sisters Saowonit Niki Garcia, seated, and Saowalux Joy Saetung.
Photo: Steve Czerniak 

 

Not your neighborhood Thai joint: Singha Thai’s opening menu was pure, upscale Thai.
Photo: Courtesy of Chef Chai Chaowasaree

The other was change. His food at Singha Thai had started out as Thai, then Thai-Chinese (his mother’s influence), then, when he discovered butter and cream, Thai fusion. When he opened Chai’s Island Bistro in 1999, he left behind as much Thai as he could. Freed from expectations of curry and noodles, he stuffed quail with foie gras, and basted ribs with honey-hoisin barbecue sauce.

 

The recipe worked: Thai fusion at one place, fusion anything at the other, both casually upscale. But, 14 years later, in the lead-up to Aloha Tower Marketplace’s transition to college dormitories, he closed Chai’s Island Bistro and reinvented again. Chef Chai, his third restaurant, would be upscale and healthy. He’d made it to 50 with a clear bill of health and wanted to stay that way. He put a vegetable terrine on the menu. Grilled New Zealand king salmon. Stir-fries with brown rice or shredded zucchini “pasta.” The Mongolian lamb chops and signature kataifi-wrapped tiger prawns would stay, but customers who had followed him since Singha Thai were also getting older. Chaowasaree had realized that career wasn’t all about succeeding, and neither was life. 

 

His father had died in Bangkok. It was the lowest point for him, not being there at the end because of well-publicized immigration problems here. He was stunned after that when his mother agreed to come live in Hawai‘i. That’s part of the reason that, even though he closed Singha Thai after 25 years and reopened as Chai’s Waikīkī, an upscale fusion plate lunch café, Chaowasaree says he would be just as content with one restaurant. For five years now, he’s planned business-class menus and trained chefs for Hawaiian Airlines. In his own kitchens, a booming catering business including a lū‘au on Tantalus has overtaken restaurant revenues. 

 

Photo: Courtesy of Chef Chai Chaowsaree

But then again, he is only 52. Chaowasaree woke up one morning in September and realized he wasn’t going to scale back after all. Chai’s Waikīkī, never a moneymaker, had attracted interest but no buyers. That morning, he decided to reinvent yet again. “When I bought Singha, the restaurant before me couldn’t make it. I turned the space around. When I went to Aloha Tower, the restaurant before couldn’t make it and I turned it around,” he says. “I’ve survived for 26 years. What am I afraid of? Hell with it, I’m just going to do it.”

 

Chai’s Waikīkī Hawaiian Fusion will blend Chaowasaree’s greatest hits with modern trends. Signature dishes from his previous restaurants will go locavore with Maui venison, Hawai‘i Island beef and local produce, while a tapas menu will offer fusion-style shared plates. The targeted opening date is late 2015. But, as with everything else in Chaowasaree’s still-evolving story, it’s best to stay tuned.

 

Chef Chai 1009 Kapi‘olani Blvd., 585-0011 chefchai.com

 

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Honolulu Magazine November 2018
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