Call it the law of attraction, his personal field of dreams or plain-old positive thinking, but just before Chai Chaowasaree opened his first restaurant Singha Thai in 1988, he confidently told his sister, “I think we can just work hard for 10 or 15 years, then retire.”
Thirty-two years later, he hasn’t slowed down—and isn’t thinking about retiring anytime soon. He’s too busy continuing to expand an empire that over time has included writing cook- books, hosting TV cooking shows, catering and serving as executive chef for Hawaiian Airlines, in addition to opening restaurants.
With a third wave of young Hawai‘i chefs coming to the fore, it’s rare to hear mention of many of the originators of the late 1980’s Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement or the Hawai‘i Island Chefs group he founded, but Chaowasaree has remained relevant. In addition to drawing crowds at Chef Chai at Pacifica Honolulu, he’s slated to open another upscale restaurant in Kapolei this spring.
He’s accomplished all this, in spite of speaking very little English when he arrived to Hilo in 1985, when, as the son of a restaurateur, he had a job lined up at a Thai restaurant. But, wanting to learn his way around an American kitchen, he quit after six months to take a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
That desire to learn and grow from his experiences, starting at the bottom, has made him a culinary chameleon, able to adapt to an ever-changing cook- ing landscape.
Beneath his calm exterior is a highly competitive spirit that has always studied the masters around him in hope of replicating their achievements, and then some.
“I’m very competitive. If I see something wrong, I’m willing to fix it. I have no problem changing myself or changing the concept if that’s what it takes. That’s the business. You have to adapt who you are, and where are you are, in a particular moment in time.”
It’s a strategy that led him on a path from serving traditional Thai food at Singha Thai to modern American cuisine at Chef Chai, although he’s never forgotten his roots, which continue to resurface as part of his extensive culinary vocabulary. It’s an expertise that often came from pushing himself beyond his com- fort zone.
“The first time I tried sashimi, I didn’t like it,” he says, with a pained expression. “The texture … Growing up, I was never exposed to it, so the idea of eating raw fish was a shock. Now, I eat everything.”
He had no choice but to challenge himself by tasting new foods and experimenting with different styles of cuisine after having learned early on that what worked at his mom’s restaurant in Bangkok, didn’t work here.
“For one thing, Bangkok has eight mil- lion people,” he says. “You don’t need to advertise. As soon as we opened our doors, every day, people would fill the restaurant. But in Hawai‘i, I learned that good food alone isn’t enough. People want an experience.”
The first time Chaowasaree appeared on Hari’s Kitchen—a popular cooking show that had been built on the success of Hari Kojima’s Let’s Go Fishing series—he had no television experience, and said he didn’t know what to do.
“I think I just cooked. I didn’t say anything.”
But the response was tremendous. “At that time, there weren’t a lot of TV stations, so everyone watched the same shows.”
When his restaurant filled up the day after the show aired, Chaowasaree said he told himself, “I’m gonna have my own show one day,” in spite of being told by his new customers, “We don’t understand anything you’re saying.”
He went on to make 14 guest appearances on Kojima’s show, and in 2004, teamed up with Big Island Chef Beth-Ann Nishijima, of Nori’s, to create the cooking show, Two Skinny Chefs. When Nishijima could no longer keep up the pace of running her restaurant and hosting the weekly show, Chaowasaree continued on his own with Dining Out with Chef Chai, which provided another opportunity to cook with other chefs and learn from them.
Starting with Singha Thai—and with Keo Sananikone’s Keo’s Thai Cuisine as a template—Chaowasaree sought to stand out from the pack with beautiful presentations. Instead of the basic boxy mom-and-pop restaurant, he created an oasis reminiscent of being in Thailand, with flowers he arranged himself. Instead of spring rolls typically served lying on a plate, he cut them in half on the diagonal then stood them up against a backdrop of greens for a sculptural effect.
“People eat with their eyes so I always had to have something visual, something colorful that makes people want to eat.”
That philosophy is reflected through signature dishes at Chef Chai, such as jumbo black tiger prawns encased in a swirl of deep-fried kataifi, and the contrast of vivid colors with an appetizer of ‘ahi tartare with avocado mousse presented in mini waffle cones.
That aesthetic and the ability to be nimble helped prepare him for the cur- rent social media climate, in which younger diners are continually on the prowl for the new and Instagrammable.
In addition to such diner-friendly fare served up at Chef Chai, such as pan-seared fresh jumbo Hokkaido scallop with lobster reduction over creamy truffle risotto or braised Kurobuta pork osso bucco, one of his introductions is a Thai classic of whole deep-fried tai, positioned upright on a platter, as if swimming. It’s a dish that might have scared diners a few years ago but is welcomed and frequently photographed today.
He continues to be surprised and heartened by how adventurous diners have become, and the more they have grown, the greater his ability to bring to the table all the flavors he grew up with.
“I did a dinner with a menu featuring my favorite childhood dishes,” he recalls. “One of them was bitter melon-stuffed with shrimp, pork and mushrooms. I was unsure about putting it on the menu. I didn’t think it was gonna sell that well because who wants to eat bittermelon? I thought we were only going to have 30 people, but we ended up filling the whole restaurant with two seatings, about 200 people.”
Another surprise has been the popularity of his housemade durian ice cream, made from a custardy but odiferous fruit that tastes of onions and garlic chives with a touch of sweetness. Its smell got it banned from public transportation in Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore.
“To me, people are looking for exotic ingredients and to experience something new,” Chaowasaree says “Maybe they’ve tried it in Thailand, and haven’t been able to find it here.”
Although he continues to experiment in preparation for his new restaurant opening—including creating a variation on a favorite seafood gratin he learned to make upon arrival on O‘ahu, when he worked at Andrew’s restaurant—he knows better than to mess with tried-and-true flavor combinations. Sometimes, making a classic buzz-worthy again merely involves reimagining and rearranging the components, as he’s done with his caprese salad.
Where once the interspersing of red and white slices of beefsteak tomatoes and mozzarella cheese, with a touch of basil, was enough to bring out the cameras, his new presentation has a centerpiece ball of burrata on a dish studded with halved cherry tomatoes and the molecular gastronomy of balsamic vinegar pearls.
Where younger chefs seem intent on serving what they want, Chaowasaree continues to focus on who’s important: the customer. It’s a lesson gleaned from his eight years of working for Hawaiian Airlines, with its customer base of international travelers. He researched each market to understand what was important to each culture before creating his menus.
“If you understand and respect the culture, people appreciate that a lot.”
For Japan’s Haneda market, he presented Spam musubi in a bento-style box with three compartments for rice, Spam and egg, that allowed travelers to build their musubi to their taste, while enjoying something local but familiar.
It was another formative experience. “Working for Hawaiian, I had to come up with 32 ways to prepare chicken. It always had to be something new, something interesting.”
1009 Kapi‘olani Blvd. (808) 585-0011, chefchai.com