COOKBOOK COMMEMORATES 10 YEARS OF RESTAURANT HE POURED HEART, SOUL INTO
Thai, the Chai way
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
By Wanda A. Adams
When Chai Chaowasaree was just tall enough to peer over a produce stand, his mother would send him to buy food for their busy and popular family restaurant in Bangkok. And in Thailand, he recalls, " It's not like a supermarket. You have to choose and bargain."
Three times a week the pint-size purchaser would buy enough food to fill up several tuktuk carts. "My mom is so picky. The melon has to be sized just right, the fish has to be the best. When you're young, you don't understand why that's important, but now I'm grateful for what she taught me."
And today, he is still purchasing produce, often going to local farmers markets and Chinatown to see what's new and fresh, and working with local farmers. But this time for his own restaurant, Chai's Island Bistro at Aloha Tower Marketplace.
He has become one of the Islands' best-known and -loved chefs, as can be seen by the long-running success of both his restaurants, Singha Thai Cuisine (co-operated with his sisters, Joy and Nikki Saetung) and the Bistro, and by the outpouring of support some years ago, when he was threatened with deportation (that matter is still making its way through the legal system).
Now there is his new project, a cookbook, reaching stores soon, "The Island Bistro Cookbook" (Watermark, hardback, $32.50). Unlike many professional chefs, Chaowasaree, 46, has never been secretive about his recipes or techniques, sharing them in his KHON TV cooking show, "Dining Out with Chai," and in a column he does for The Advertiser's Dining Out magazine. This book reveals the secrets of many of his customers' favorite dishes, including the signature Kataifi and Macadamia Nut Crusted Kaua'i Prawns.
His primary advice, in the book, and in his classes: "Defer your fear. When I open Singha, I thought I would never be able to do it. But we did."
But none of this was his plan.
At 22, he had an idea to get him out of the daily grind of the family business. The youngest of seven children, his dream was to earn a business degree in Thailand, then head for America, where he would study for a master's degree, make lots of money and, in 10 years, return to Thailand and retire.
Didn't quite work out that way.
Chaowasaree did earn a business degree in Thailand, and he did come to America, to stay with a relative in New Jersey. And he hated it. "I arrive in August and by November, I was freezing. It was soooo cold," he recalls.
And so he headed west to L.A., where a cousin owns a restaurant, and then, after six months of working there, hopped to the Big Island, where he worked for two years in a place called the Lanai Siamese Kitchen in Kona. Finally, he came to O'ahu for the first time on vacation and the city boy knew he'd found a home.
Naturally, as happens to every entrepreneurially inclined chef, he had begun to yearn for a place of his own. But he believed that first he needed to learn more about the front of the house, so he went to work as a waiter and bartender at Andrew's at Ward Centre, among other sometimes menial cooking jobs.
After six months of this self-imposed "internship," he called his mother, to whom he is devoted. She sent not only some startup money, but his sisters to help.
The result, 20 years ago, was Singha Thai Cuisine, a traditional Thai restaurant still in operation in Waikiki.
Chaowasaree says frankly that he watched closely the work of the Islands' Thai restaurant pioneer, Keo Sananikone, who pretty much single-handedly created the Islands' Thai food craze by taking a Western approach: bright, clean places with flowers on the tables, a progression of dishes in the Western manner instead of serving all at once as Thais do, and a lot of marketing, getting his name known by attracting press and writing a book.
Chaowasaree and his sister created a restaurant where the attraction was not just the food but the decor, with its elaborate but miniature Thai temple at the door, plus performances by the Royal Thai Dancers. "People love it because they learn not only about the food, but about the culture," he said.
Still, the first years were a struggle: "In Thailand, word of mouth is enough. If the food is good, they come. In America, you have to be marketed."
Plus, he was learning American tastes: "We cook traditional Thai and the flavor was a bit too strong and intense for people at that time. We were trying to understand the food and the palate."
But as Thai flavors became more familiar, and competitors began to proliferate, chef friends urged him to branch out.
He tried adding Thai-Western fusion dishes to the Singha menu. "People say, 'This is very good but it's not Thai. I say, it's Thai-influenced.' And that's when I decided to open a place where I can do anything — Korean, Japanese, Chinese, French, Thai, whatever. And that's why we didn't call it Singha II."
The restaurant opened 10 years ago and is known for its courtyard dripping with orchids, signature dishes that marry East and West and, again, entertainment, though not of the nightclub variety. He calls it "a supper club."
This time, he knew it couldn't be Thai dancers, so he looked about for the best contemporary Island entertainers he could afford to do mini-shows while diners ate. Now the Brothers Cazimero, Hapa and Melveen Leed play there regularly. The music nights were so popular, he even bought Robert Cazimero a piano so he could do solo evenings. (Tip: If you find Chai's too loud, ask for a table on the courtyard; you can enjoy the music and still converse and focus on the food."
The restaurant won awards at Taste of Honolulu year after year; in fact, the first year, one in four of those attending lined up at Chai's booth.
Chai's Island Bistro turns 10 this year and the book commemorates this event with recipes that, though some are a bit daunting, make great reading for those who like to enjoy a cookbook like a novel and imagine that someday they'll attempt Smoked Duck Breast Salad with Tangerine Vinaigrette. Beautiful photographs by Rae Hao set it off.
It is also a tribute to his parents: his father, who passed away earlier this year at 92 and his mother, who still helps with the family restaurant at 86 and whom he calls, in the book's dedication, "my best friend and my soul."
What's next for Chaowasaree? He hints that there's a change in store for Singha to a healthier, more up-to-date concept involving shabu shabu, fondue, different dipping sauces and ingredients, and small plates, reasonably priced.
"In the restaurant business, change, always change."
Reach Wanda A. Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org.