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A Healthy Approach to Fine Dining

By Alana Folen Photos By Leah Friel
July 21, 2013

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What’s in a name? Apparently a lot, when it’s Chef Chai we speak of. Chef Chai is a relatively new restaurant, named after its sole creator, celebrity chef Chai Chaowasaree. Having opened its doors for business this past March at Pacifica Honolulu on Kapiolani Boulevard, Chef Chai greets patrons to a sophisticated and modern dining experience with an emphasis on Asian fusion.

According to Chaowasaree, it was his mission to break away from his former establishment, Chai’s Island Bistro, at Aloha Tower Marketplace, which closed at the beginning of the year. He wanted to reinvent himself, and offer his new and loyal patrons a healthier approach to dining without sacrificing on taste.

“I strongly believe that good cuisine doesn’t have to revolve around fats and butter. Food can be healthy and fresh, and taste amazing,” Chaowasaree says.

Most recently, Dining Out sat down with Chaowasaree at his exquisitely sleek establishment and sampled a diverse spread of the restaurant’s must-haves. And in the midst of it all, Chaowasaree shared the highlights of his guilt-free menu and his excitement for the journey that lies ahead.

DO: You say that you’re trying to promote healthier ideas when it comes to dining out. How is that achieved at Chef Chai?

Chaowasaree: We cook without butter (except for our desserts) and we use coconut milk instead of heavy cream, because coconut milk features good fat and good cholesterol. We also incorporate a lot of herbs, spices and olive oil into our cuisine. We serve the leanest cuts of meat, such as filet mignon, and when it comes to our chicken, we only serve chicken breast with no skin and no fat.

As we get older, health becomes such an important issue, and a well-balanced diet is a priority for a healthy lifestyle. Moderation is key. We always tell our guests to enjoy what they’re eating, but to take a healthier approach when dining out, and that’s exactly what we offer at Chef Chai.

Imagine if every chef removed butter from their food. I think if that was the case, we’d see a much healthier Hawaii.

DO: Being that you don’t use butter in your cuisine, what are some of your favorite ingredients to work with?

Chaowasaree: Our food is Asian-fusion, so we use a lot of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf and garlic. Garlic and onions always work for any type of cuisine.

DO: Looking back on the opening day of the restaurant, what were your hopes for Chef Chai?

Chaowasaree: First and foremost, I wanted to reinvent myself, I didn’t want Chef Chai to be a duplicate of Chai’s Island Bistro. So, looking back on opening day, I was really excited about what this new restaurant had to offer, and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here. Everything at Chef Chai is more modern, from the cuisine to the ambiance. Designer Chuen Yee of MCYIA Interior Architecture and Design brought a beautiful contemporary feel to this 4,100-square-foot establishment, which comfortably seats up to 100 people in the dining room and 30 on our outdoor patio. We also have a private dining room that people can reserve for special occasions. The room seats up to 25 people and is equipped with its own audio/visual system and flat-screen TV. Reservations are highly recommended.

DO: Besides the impressive menu, Happy hour is a big draw with unbeatable deals, correct?

Chaowasaree: Yes! Happy hour is from 9 to 11 p.m. nightly, and you don’t want to miss it. All the appetizers on the menu are half-priced and we offer Budweiser for $3, Singha beer for $4 and Kettle One Vodka for $5. What sets our happy hour apart from a lot of other restaurants is that although our appetizer prices are reduced, the portion sizes are always the same. It’s really a great deal.

DO: Chef Chai also currently is offering an Early Bird Special Four-Course Dinner. It’s an immaculate feast for two priced at $40 per person. Please tell us about this.

Chaowasaree: This early bird dinner is available to our patrons from 4 to 6 p.m. and is available on the patio only. The meal includes a starter of Chicken Sate with Thai Peanut Sauce, Cucumber Salad and Asian Flat Bread. The two skewers of lean chicken breast pair perfectly with the Thai peanut sauce on our flat bread, and our customers love the cucumber salad, which is similar to a pickled cucumber namasu. Then, the first course, Combination Appetizer Platter, features a sample of appetizers great for sharing, including Fresh Ahi Katsu, Kataifi Jumbo Black Tiger Prawns, Gravlax Salmon Roulade, Roasted Butternut Squash and Lobster Bisque Shooter.

As for the main course, guests receive two main entrees (with white or brown rice) of Braised Kurobuta Pork Osso Bucco with Asian Five Spices, and Grilled Fresh New Zealand King Salmon with Kabayaki Sauce.

The pork shank brings an Asian flair to the osso bucco, which is typically an Italian dish made with veal. However, this dish originated from my mother’s recipe back in Bangkok, Thailand. This is one of my all-time favorite dishes that my mom makes.

The salmon also is a hit among diners as well. We marinate the fish overnight in a bit of soy, ginger, sesame and sake prior to grilling it.

Finally, for dessert, we’re serving our guests White Chocolate Gelato Truffle, which features white chocolate gelato, strawberry sorbet and raspberry guava puree. As the executive chef for Hawaiian Airlines, I originally had created this dessert as a part of the flight menus, but because of its popularity, I included it on Chef Chai’s menu as well.

DO: As a celebrity chef who has received much recognition and praise throughout the years, your career has been a whirlwind experience. To what do you attribute your passion for cooking?

Chaowasaree: I was born and raised in Thailand, and I practically grew up in the restaurant business. My parents owned their own restaurant, so since I was 8 years old I was always at the restaurant and going to the markets with my mom to buy the best produce.

So, simply put, I received no formal culinary training. What I know now had been instilled in me at a young age and are things I’ve learned along the way. I’m constantly learning.

Chef Chai

Pacifica Honolulu
1009 Kapiolani Blvd.
585-0011
Nightly, 4-11 p.m.
ChefChai.com
Note: Reservations are recommended.