A toast to 35 yearsCover Story
October 8, 2023
Story By: Dining Out Team | Photos by: LAWRENCE TABUDLO
Chai Chaowasaree is a well-known name in the local restaurant industry, and not just because his popular Kapiolani Boulevard eatery features his moniker in the title. The award-winning chef is a friendly face in the upscale dining world, and for decades has prepared his delicious food for everyone from local families celebrating a birthday to celebrities visiting the state for the first time (check out the “celebrity gallery” on chefchai.com to see for yourself).
The Bangkok native’s forte is blending Asian flavors with local ingredients, which you can find on the menu of his upcoming 35th Anniversary Dinner and Wine Pairing series ($80, plus $40 for wine pairing) Oct. 11-14. See the full menu on chefchai.com.
Here, Chaowasaree takes us back to his start in Hawaii and tells us what guests can expect at the upcoming dinner.
DO: How did you end up in Hawaii?
CC: When I first came to Hawaii, it was in 1985. I went to the Big Island and worked as a chef in one of the Thai restaurants for a year and then I came to Honolulu for vacation and decided to stay. I was working in a different Thai restaurant in Waikiki for a while as a server, and then I opened my own Thai restaurant in 1988.
DO: What did you like about Honolulu?
CC: I’m from Bangkok so I’m a city boy. When I first came to Hawaii, we flew directly to the Big Island because I got a job offer over there, and I love it there, but when I came here, I thought this was more what I’m looking for because there’s more things to do — the beaches, the nightlife. I was young back then and it was more exciting for me in Honolulu than Kona.
DO: Congrats on 35 years in Hawaii! How does it feel to celebrate such a feat?
CC: We count our blessings. Thirty-five years is a long time for any restaurant to survive that long, especially with COVID and anything else along the way. People are supporting us and we never take things for granted.
That’s why we offer different specials; we don’t do the same things. And, I’m here working every day. You can ask my customers, you can ask anyone — we are not afraid of hard work.
DO: What are two of your favorite dishes on the Anniversary Dinner series menu?
CC: The Grilled New York Steak Salad and the Pan-seared Duck Breast with Panang Curry. When you bite into the salad, you get that crunchy texture of the peanuts and the texture of the beef; the flavor explodes in your mouth because it’s lemongrass, fish sauce, sugar and garlic. It’s just so flavorful in one bite, and the color of the dish is beautiful with the cherry tomatoes and mangoes. It’s colorful to the eye and the flavors match that. I eat that at least twice a week.
If you are a Thai food lover, you’ll love this curry. It’s a staple. Any Thai restaurant you go to will have a Thai curry, but, of course, every chef has their own version and this is our version.
DO: Why was it important to you to pay homage to your dad and Thailand roots with this menu?
CC: I grew up in the restaurant business since I was little. I think I was 7 or 8 years old, and I used to sit on the stairway — because in Thailand you live on the second floor and the ground floor is your business — watching all the people coming in and out and watching my mom and dad cook. That’s how I learned how to cook.
One of the dishes that my dad would make is the Garlic Pepper Beef Tenderloin with Garlic Demi. It has the pepper, hoisin, garlic and ginger. It was just so flavorful and every time I eat that dish I think of him because he taught me how to make it.
DO: Tell us about the collaboration with Chuck Wagner.
CC: Chuck Wagner is a genius winemaker. Caymus Vineyard is so good but you pay the price for it. But what I appreciate from his line are the Conundrum white and red blends. It’s very reasonable but the flavor is like high-end expensive wine.
DO: Anything else?
CC: I just want to say thank you to the customers, and thank you to Dining Out.