Wednesday, May 23, 2001

Chef Chai lists
2 restaurants
for sale

He says it is to prepare for
the possibility that he may
be deported

By Rosemarie Bernardo
and Betty Shimabukuro

Chef Chai Chaowasaree has put his two restaurants up for sale, saying he must be prepared in case the immigration case pending against him leads to his deportation.

Chai's Island Bistro and Singha Thai Cuisine have been listed by Oahu broker Paul Kang on both his Web site and on LoopNet, an Internet real estate marketplace.

Chaowasaree invested more than $600,000 in his restaurants. Both generate about $3 million in gross revenue and employ more than 70 people.

Chaowasaree said he felt he had to at least begin looking for a buyer in case a court ruling, due next month, goes against him. In that situation he might have little time to organize his affairs, he said. "I'm hoping I don't have to sell at all, but since my status is so uncertain, for me there is almost no choice at all."

If he must leave, he hopes to have time to train a new owner and see to the welfare of his staff, he said. "I don't want to wait until it is too late."

The Immigration and Naturalization Service denied Chaowasaree's request for citizenship in 1991, ruling that his marriage to a U.S. citizen was fraudulent. The case has been on appeal since, but the Immigration Service is fighting for immediate deportation now, saying Chaowasaree -- whose legal name is Vichai Sae Tung -- abandoned his appeal when he returned to Thailand last year to see his ailing father. Chaowasaree maintains that the Immigration Service approved his trip.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco has scheduled a hearing in the case for June 14.

The chef emphasized that he is not giving up on his fight to stay in the United States and that his businesses are doing well. He added, however, that he had considered selling one of the restaurants before because it was growing too difficult to run two busy establishments. Even now, he hopes he will be able to keep one restaurant under the management of his sister, Joy, who now runs Singha Thai Cuisine.

"I just have to prepare for the worst," said Chaowasaree.

Other Oahu restaurateurs expressed regret over Chaowasaree's decision.

"It is unfortunate," said Hiroshi Fukui, executive chef of L'Uraku.

"He's always willing to help out," said Fukui, remembering when Chaowasaree let him use his kitchen at Chai's Island Bistro during the Hawaii Garlic Festival last year at the Aloha Tower Marketplace.

"I just cross my fingers and hope he stays. ... He has to stay."

Colin Nishida of Side Street Inn said, "Of all the years I've known him, he always gives more than he has."

Dean Okimoto of Nalo Farms said he learned of Chaowasaree's decision during a benefit held at Leeward Community College two weeks ago to raise money for the culinary arts program. Chaowasaree was among 16 chefs who donated thir time to the event.

"For what he does for the community and for Hawaii ... it's just a shame that we're letting a talent like him leave the island," Okimoto said. Like others in the food industry, Okimoto hopes Chaowasaree will have a chance to remain in Hawaii.

D.K. Kodama, owner of Sansei Seafood Restaurant & Sushi Bar, said: "With his predicament it's hard for him. He doesn't know what's going to happen tomorrow."

Kodama, who has known Chaowasaree for 31/2 years, said the restaurateur is a hard worker who puts in 16-hour days to run his two restaurants.

Restaurateur Alan Wong said: "If Chai was to leave the island, that would be a sad thing. Chai's a good person. He's a solid citizen.

"His food evolved to become East-West, which is very symbolic of Hawaii," he added. "We need more chefs like Chai.

"I hate to see something like this happen to him."

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