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Interview with Hawaiian Airlines Chef Chai

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Last time I went to Hawaii in March I flew Hawaiian Airlines for the first time and had a really great experience. One of the things I was completely unaware of was the fact that I would be served a meal while on my flight….for FREE! You heard me right. There is still an airline, one, Hawaiian Airlines that serves meals to their passengers for no charge.

For me, it is the epitome of one of the wonderful cultural edicts I learned during that amazing trip, ohana. Family. And Hawaiian Airlines treats its passengers like family, including feeding you of course, because that is what families do!

chef Chai Chaowasaree, the Executive Chef, Hawaiian Airlines

I am about to head back to Hawaii for the 2014 Hawaii Food and Wine Festival and I will be the guest of this very generous airline, (along with The Modern Honolulu hotel and the Oahu Visitors Bureau). When offered the chance to interview chef Chai Chaowasaree, the Executive Chef, Hawaiian Airlines, I was beyond thrilled.

Who is Chef Chai?

Well, as his name suggests, Chef Chai Chaowasaree was born in Thailand, where he started on his culinary path by helping out in his family’s restaurant as a child. Eventually, he was put in charge of shopping for the freshest ingredients at the local markets, a skill he utilizes today to seek out local ingredients for his restaurants Singha Thai Cuisine in Waikīkī and Chef Chai at Pacifica in Honolulu.

He is award-winning and known as one of the islands’ top regional chefs. Chef Chai combines local ingredients with a pan-Asian twist. He is also Hawaiian Airline’s Executive Chef, which means he designs meals for passengers as well as manages more than 20 kitchens worldwide.

Chef Chai is an institute on the Hawaiian culinary scene and it is my pleasure to present to you my conversation with the chef.

Interview with Chef Chai

Another chef once said “I am known for making good food and airlines generally aren’t.” Food is such a huge part of Hawaiian culture, so I am sure you felt the pressure of designing a menu that not only lived up to the core cultural principles but also one that could withstand the obvious constraints of airline food processing. What was your approach to your menu and what cultural aspects of the Hawaiian islands did you try to infuse into it?

Creating airplane food isn’t as easy as one would think. Once you understand the constraints (such as cabin pressurization) of creating a dish suitable to be eaten 35,000 feet in the air, the dish also must be simple enough for the kitchen to produce and duplicate hundreds of times for each flight. In addition, not only should it taste good, but it also needs to be presentable as well. With all of this in mind when creating an inflight menu for Hawaiian Airlines twice a year, I always try to incorporate different aspects of Hawaii and what makes our islands so unique.

For example, Hawaii is a melting pot of so many cultures from countries surrounding the Pacific. During the different waves of immigration to the islands over the course of Hawaii’s history, not only did people from different countries bring their cultures, but they also brought with them their food. From Filipino, Chinese, Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese to Hispanic and American, these cultures make our food very unique and exotic in flavors with a colorful presentation. Chinese Black Beans, Thai Curry Paste, Japanese Miso Paste, and Korean Chili Gochujang Sauce are examples of ingredients from different countries that I use in the dishes I create for Hawaiian Airlines.

What is your favorite dish you created for Hawaiian Airlines?

This would have to be the entrée from the first menu I created for Hawaiian Airlines when I came on board. It is the Hawaiian Style BBQ Chicken with Fresh Mango Salsa and Fried Rice. This dish has so many flavors, from the saltiness of the chicken marinade to the sweetness and acidity of the mango salsa. The aroma of the fresh garlic, ginger, and onion always makes my mouth water.  

What have travelers liked? Is there a dish that works well?

This depends on the destination we serve. On our Japan routes, travelers can find two favorite local dishes: Spam Musubi and Loco Moco. The Spam Musubi is a popular snack that evolved from the traditional Japanese omusubi. It is made of a grilled slice of Spam on a block of steamed white rice and rolled in nori (Japanese dried seaweed). The Loco Moco is composed of a hamburger patty over steamed white rice, covered in gravy and topped with a sunny side-up egg. These two dishes are so popular and received rave reviews from our guests and tour operators that we kept it on our Japan routes.

You co-founded Hawaii’s Island Chefs (HIC) organization, tell us a little about why you started it and what your mission is.

I helped start the organization because I wanted to provide the world with the best of Hawaii’s diverse culinary resources from the culture of the people and the bounty of the land and sea—and that’s what our mission is. We want to support locals and have people eat locally. Our chefs use local ingredients that range from organically grown baby greens to fresh hearts of palm, and herbs, spices, meats, and seafood.

Chef-Chai
Photo courtesy of Hawaii Food and wine Festival

You are very active in the Hawaiian food scene, with two very successful restaurants and cooking shows, what do you do to relax?

I am a city boy who enjoys the excitement of new things, so staying still in one place isn’t what I like to do. Hawaiian Airlines has more than 20 kitchens worldwide, and when I travel to the destination to visit the kitchen, I often spend a few extra days in that city to explore and enjoy my time there. From dining out at New York City restaurants and getting a foot massage in Beijing, to visit the wine country in Napa Valley and gambling in Las Vegas, it is always fun and relaxing for me to experience new things.

Like a lot of chefs in Hawaii, you source your ingredients at local farmers markets. How important is that aspect of supporting local agriculture to you?

There was a time in Hawaii’s history when our people were 100 percent sustainable. They were caretakers of the land who knew how to cultivate, grow, gather and exchange everything needed for survival. Today, imports make up the majority of what is consumed in the islands. It is important for us to move back towards a sustainable eco-system of agriculture and environment, because not only does this support our health, but it also supports our local economy.

Who is someone that has recently changed your view on food?

Consumers are the ones who changed my view of food because as more and more consumers become more health-conscious and change their lifestyles, I have to adjust my menu and offerings in my restaurants in response to the growing demand for healthier options. This is why I’ve added more vegetarian and gluten-free dishes to my restaurant menus.

Besides the 100% free meals you serve in Coach AND Business class, you also offer pau hana on every flight, it is a great way to prep people for the amazing food they are about to encounter in Hawaii or the last treat before saying goodbye to the islands. How do you go about selecting your pau hana and what were your thoughts around offering them?

In the Hawaiian language, pau hana literally means “done with work,” and in Hawaii, the best way for us to relax, celebrate and enjoy pau hana is to eat. When putting together our Pau Hana Snack Bar, our Cabin Experience team wanted to showcase the best of Hawaii’s locally made snacks, some of which can only be found in Hawaii. Our snack list includes:

• Haute Cookies (Coconut or Chocolate Chip Cookies made by a relatively new boutique bakery in Honolulu)
Hawaiian Host Chocolate Covered Macadamia Nuts
Island Princess Caramel Macadamia Nut Popcorn
Island Princess Mele Macs (Toffee Coated Macadamia Nuts Covered in Milk Chocolate and Rolled in Powered Sugar)
Kona Furikake Chips (Potato Chips sprinkled with Furikake, a Japanese seasoning made of sesame seeds, chopped seaweed, sugar, and salt)
• Primo Popcorn (Movie Butter Flavor – famous locally made popcorn with more than 40 colorful and unique flavors)
Hawaiian Chip Company Taro Chips (Thinly sliced taro cooked to a crisp and lightly salted)
Punalu’u Macadamia Nut Shortbread Cookies (cookies made famous from Punalu’u on Hawaii Island’s southernmost point, also known as the southernmost point of the United States)

We also offer other popular snacks that are perfect for watching a movie during the flight such as Pringles, Snickers, M&Ms, and more.

If you could have a meal with anyone, who would it be?

I would love to have a meal with the Pope. As a Catholic, I admire our Pope because he is so kind, sincere, and understanding.

Describe your perfect food day.

My perfect food day would start off with a visit to the Bacchanal Buffet at Caesar’s Palace because I love the different varieties of food they serve, followed by dinner at the MGM’s Joël Robuchon with great wine, and ends with a bowl of Hawaiian Saimin for a late-night snack.

What is your favorite thing about the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival?

This is one time of the year when talented chefs from around the world convene in the beautiful Hawaiian Islands to serve you their culinary creations over the course of a few days. From Australia and New Zealand to Japan, Korea, and all over the United States, all of these chefs also come together to celebrate the best of Hawaii’s cuisine. Thanks to our fine event co-chairs, Chef Roy, and Chef Alan.

Thank you Chef Chai!

Of course, I couldn’t agree more about including Joël Robuchon’s L’Atelier in a great food day, having had the experience in Vegas I can say it is definitely dream-worthy!

It was an honor to have the opportunity to interview Chef Chai and I look forward to seeing him at the Forks and Corks event next week!

How about you? Have you had a really great Hawaiian Airlines meal? If not, what is the best airline meal you’ve encountered? Comment and share!

Hawaii Food & Wine Festival 2014
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