How One Hawai‘i Chef Became a Dining Institution
From family food legacy to new adventures in fusion, Chai Chaowasaree has reached icon status.
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.
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.
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