Chef Chai at Pacifica has become synonymous with elegant dining. But long before Chai Chaowasaree’s namesake began to dazzle diners with an expert knowledge of Asian-fusion and Hawaii regional cuisine, all he really wanted to do was avoid eating vegetables.
“I didn’t eat a lot of vegetables when I was young,” he recalls. “If I went to the table and I saw the things I don’t like, I just walked into the kitchen and cooked it myself.”
It has, of course, been quite some time since his days as an at-home amateur chef. For about 30 years now, Chaowasaree has honed those skills in Hawaii, a place he never imagined he’d end up.
“I never thought I would retire here,” he says. “After all these years, people in Hawaii really accept me and are very supportive of me. This is home.”
Having first opened Singha Thai Cuisine in Waikiki some 25 years ago, he’s now transformed that space into his latest venture, Chai’s Waikiki Market and Café. With it, he hopes to bring local flavors a little closer to Hawaii’s tourist hub.
“I thought it’s something we can offer to our visitors because now, if they want to try local food, they have to drive out of Waikiki so far,” he says.
Now open for about a month, Chai’s Waikiki Market and Café offers familiar dishes such as loco moco, saimin and beef stew at affordable prices in a casual atmosphere. This new venture also serves as a way to showcase locally made products. In one section that he refers to as an “omiyage station,” shoppers passing by may find anything from local honey to a pineapple cake that is made with his mother’s recipe.
“This is totally different from what we’ve normally done in the past,” he says. For Chaowasaree, that shift from what many may have come to expect of him is a true reflection of his own philosophy as a chef and restaurateur.
“I think, if you’re doing the same thing again and again, your customer probably is going to be bored and also yourself, and then your staff,” he says.
“Change is always a good thing,” he adds. “You have to keep updated all the time.”
Outside of his restaurants, Chaowasaree also devotes his time as executive chef for Hawaiian Airlines’ in-flight meals for first-class passengers. It’s a job he’s had for almost five years, and one that adds to his already busy schedule.
In fact, Chaowasaree rarely spends a moment in his apartment. “You know, I don’t cook at home at all,” he says with a laugh, adding that this also means he has no pets or plants.
Still, it’s a career Chaowasaree is grateful to have. Everything he ever only imagined of being able to accomplish, he says, has come to fruition.
“It’s all my dreams,” he says. “That’s why I say I’m so blessed that things happened the way it is, and I can’t ask for anything more.”