The making of a chef

Chef Chai grew up in Thailand, where he learned about flavors and perfection from his mother. Today, he has pioneered four restaurants on the islands.

Text by Carrie Shuler | Images courtesy of chef Chai Chaowasaree

We begin our journey 29 years ago in the busy, steamy street markets of Bangkok, Thailand. The soil that nourishes its vegetation is rich and moist, and the need to ask where the chicken comes from is virtually irrelevant. The norm of food handling in Thailand then is what most in Hawaii dream of—cheap and local (literally a village away). To a foreigner, the marketplace is a universe of tastes unknown and edible sights never seen, like trying to discern a Shakespearean play in a foreign language. Regulars and foreigners, vendors and buyers, Thais and Laotians of all ages sift their way from pocket to pocket of flavorful aromas within the marketplace, picking their delights of the day.

Although he may be hard to spot, a young man barely tall enough to see over the day’s offerings scurries from vendor to vendor, a routine that begins early in the morning and ends late at night. He is there on behalf of his family’s restaurant, with strict orders from his mother to seek vegetation perfection. The vendors seem cross at first: “Those fingers on your hands aren’t the same size. Why do you expect these melons to be?” But it was all for a purpose—to instill the value of quality in the young chef’s mind. Today, when chef Chai Chaowasaree prepares a meal, from start to finish he is focused on the quality of his offerings. From the poached pear salad with purple cauliflower and lotus root chips to the Asian-style braised korobuta pork osso bucco (Chai’s parents’ recipe from their restaurant in Bangkok), Chai has transported himself from a market boy in the streets of Bangkok to being recognized as one of the islands’ top Hawaii regional cuisine chefs.

Over the last 25 years, Chai has launched four restaurants and been Hawaiian Airlines’ executive chef. Thanks both to his energy and roots in Thai cuisine, he found success with former restaurants Singha Thai and Chai’s Island Bistro, and now, as owner of Chef Chai on Kapiolani Boulevard, where he is a proponent of local sourcing and tastes—all while serving as Hawaiian Airlines’ executive chef. And he continues to redefining his roots in Waikiki. It was here that he opened his first restaurant, Singha Thai, 25 years ago. Today, he has renovated and re-inspired this original location as Chef Chai’s Market and Café.

Pan-seared fresh Kauai prawns with beet risotto at Chef Chai.
Pan-seared fresh Kauai prawns with beet risotto at Chef Chai.

Chai learned everything he knows from his mother in Thailand, pitching in for his family’s award-winning restaurant in Bangkok. “I’m a mama’s boy,” jokes Chai. “As a child in Thailand, I went to the market with her everyday, and that’s how I learned to cook. You had to pick your own fruits and vegetables, and she was very picky back then. Everything had to be the exact same size. I was only 12 years old and I would take a tuktuk to the market three times a day to buy food for the whole restaurant.” Chai came to Hawaii in 1985, bringing with him a world of cooking and cuisine unknown to Hawaii and its diners’ palettes.

In 1989, Chai ventured out on his own with Singha Thai in Waikiki. Back then, he says, Thai food was Hollywood and hip, the new taste on the block, and he knew he could do it best (though he realized he had to tone it down for the masses). But as the scene changed and palates clamored for more, so did he, until he realized the best venture for him was to head out west—to Aloha Tower, where he launched Chai’s Island Bistro. This restaurant received critical acclaim over its 14 years, and it was here that Chai delved deeper into finding what local foods were available and meeting other chefs who are passionate about them.

Pear salad at Chef Chai.
Pear salad at Chef Chai.

At Chef Chai’s Market and Café, the chef is bringing some of the best local grub to Waikiki. The new restaurant serves local favorites like saimin, beef stew, oxtail soup, pipikaula, and poi, and the entrees run between $10 and $15. He imagines it as something more casual, where people can just walk in wearing slippers, grab their ono (fish), and walk to the beach (there will also be a grab-and-go section with healthy salads, desserts, that are convenient for foot traffic).

Twenty-five years ago, upon opening Singha Thai, Chai dreamt of following in the footsteps of local restaurant Keo’s Thai Cuisine, a popular location that was renowned for its flavor and flair. He would read cooking books and think, “I want my own cookbook.” He watched television and thought, “I want my own cooking show.” Today, he is an award-winning chef with three simultaneous projects, a man with unique roots who continues to think big. Sitting in self-named restaurant, talking about his past and future, it is easy for Chai to say that he has successfully accomplished his dreams.