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Restaurant Insider with Anne Lee: Chef Chai

Restaurant Insider

January 26, 2020

Story By: Anne Lee | Photos by: LAWRENCE TABUDLO

Anne Lee, left, with chef and owner Chai Chaowasaree get in tune at Chef Chai.

ANNE LEE speaks with chef and owner CHAI CHAOWASAREE

Famed Chai Chaowasaree, owner of Chef Chai restaurant, has honed his top-caliber skills with more than 30 years in the culinary business. Locally, he started in 1988 at Singha Thai restaurant in Waikiki, then expanded to Aloha Tower and opened up Chai’s Island Bistro in 1998.

“When the lease was up at that location, we moved to the current location on Kapiolani March 1, 2013. We will be celebrating seven years this year!” Chaowasaree notes. He shares more about his background and restaurant here.

Chilled Foie Gras Chawamushi (FILE PHOTOS)

AL: What got you into the culinary industry?

CC: I was born and raised in the restaurant business. My parents had a restaurant in Bangkok, Thailand. It was very popular and famous, called Ocha. They finally retired last year, after over 50 years of working in that restaurant. Every day I would get up and see my mom cooking. I would go to the market with her since I was 7 years old. I learned everything from being in that restaurant. My mother showed me how to choose produce, at age 12, I started going to the markets by myself and getting all of the necessary ingredients for the restaurant. I learned to go directly to the wholesale market, something that my parents didn’t know to do, as I was very adventurous. I would hang out with the people who we purchased the produce from, and they introduced me to the wholesaler. We saved a lot of money that way but you have to know how to choose the best quality products.

Here in the (United) States restaurants can call the distributor and place the order and it’s magically delivered to your restaurant. In Thailand, you are on your own, you have to go to the markets and get everything yourself. 

Deconstructed Grilled Beef Tenderloin Wellington

AL: Who is executive chef at the restaurant?

CC: I have an executive chef, his name is Mark Lopez. Every recipe is my recipe and creation. Chef Mark has been with me for over 18 years, and knows how to run the kitchen. He started as a dishwasher, then a pantry cook, then a sous chef and executive chef.

AL: You have mentored and have had a lot of talented people who have worked for you, can you name some of these chefs?

CC: We count our blessings every day. It doesn’t matter how good I am, if I do not have someone that can help me carry on my vision, then we would be nowhere, as people need a team. Some of my chefs have gone on to run large hotels. Chef Shaymus Alwin, Rodney Uyehara, Kyle Higa (now chef at the Aulani) and Jason Takemura, to name a few. I am so very happy and proud to see their successes. To see some people that you work with to go on and accomplish better things for themselves and the community… it’s a blessing. 

Mongolian Style Lamb Chops with Brandy Demi

AL: What type of cuisine does the restaurant specialize in?

CC: When we first opened up Singha Thai, most of my food is Thai cuisine, but being in Hawaii there are so many good things about the mixed culture. It’s a big melting pot so I didn’t want to limit myself to just Thai. I started to incorporate Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino — I would say it’s the best of the island cuisine, wherever I can find the best ingredients.  I am able to create per the customers’ preferences. We can create any cuisine. We have participated in many different cultural food events, from the Okinawan Festival to Filipino Food Week.  I love the Asian ingredients and French technique and presentation. The best that the island has to offer. 

Crispy Asian Taco with Smoked Duck Breast

AL: What makes the restaurant stand out from other restaurants on the island?

CC:  We have exotic flavors. A lot of guests comment on how they love the flavor profile when they eat here. Each dish has its own unique flavor and taste. The most important thing is that it’s different from any other restaurant. My dishes are created based on Thai methods, but incorporating Japanese and Chinese into the dish as well. I am part Chinese too! When I was executive chef for Hawaiian Airlines, we flew to Korea and Japan. I wanted to make sure that the food that the passengers received a meal that was in line with the Japanese palate and Korean palate. Even though I had no real knowledge on how to prepare Korean dishes, I studied at Korean restaurants. I was able to understand the flavor profile, and I created my own version of a Korean dish.

FULL MOON CONCERT COMBINES MUSIC, FOOD 

Vegetables Terrine with Green Curry Sauce

Chef Chai hosts a Monthly Full Moon Concert with Robert Cazimero and a special menu. Although the February date is sold out, customers can call to make reservations for the upcoming shows or reserve online chefchai. com. The maximum capacity is 60 guests.  Dinner is at 6 p.m. and the show is at 7 p.m. at a price of $85 per person.

“It’s a wonderful evening with the celebrated musician and kumu Robert Cazimero and his dancers,” says Chai Chaowasaree, owner of Chef Chai restaurant.

“Robert is amazing, very professional, talented and it’s never about the money with Robert.  He wanted to support us and local music, and he was the one that came up with that concept of the Full Moon,” Chaowasaree adds.

Every month the date is different; the date changes depending on the moon.

“He has two of his dancers that accompany him, to dance for Robert, you have to be good,” Chaowasaree notes. When you do attend the show, photography is upon request.

For the dinner, the starter course is Chicken Tenderloin Sate.

Appetizers include Stuffed Big Island Baby Abalone, Foie Gras Chawanmushi, Fresh Ahi Tartar; and Smoked Duck Taco with Spicy Mango Salsa. Some of the entree choices include Grilled Beef Tenderloin with Mushroom Foie Gras Puff; or Mongolian Style Lamb Chops with Brandy Demi. Other entree choices are Chef Chai’s Signature Oxtail Soup; and Miso Fresh Chilean Seabass.

For those who prefer a meatless entree option there is Vegetarian Terrine with Thai Green Curry Sauce and Steamed White or Coconut Milk Ginger Brown Rice.

Choice of dessert includes Chocolate Lava Cake with Fresh Berries, White Chocolate Amore Truffle with Raspberry Guava Puree, or Halo Halo.

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