The Hawaiian Connection
It’s 5:30 in the morning, but Rex Chandler is already up and waiting in line at Honolulu’s public fish market, and he’s as excited as a kid about to be admitted to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. The sounds and smells of the open sea and fishing boats unloading their catch assault his senses, bringing back memories of his 20-plus year run as the king of seafood at his Waikiki restaurant, Nick’s Fish Market, which began his 40 year career in fine dining.
That career extended through Newport Beach, where The Rex Restaurant was rated the best seafood restaurant in southern California 11 years running. When he moved to Sun Valley in 1993, where Chandler’s became a fine dining icon for over 15 years, he had to forego his passion for seafood because it was all but impossible to get fresh, prime fish to Idaho. Still, he harbored dreams of one day being able to share his love of Hawaiian seafood with his new-found home.
“Ten years ago, when we were looking at Boise, we had a choice,” says Rex. “We could open a fine dining seafood restaurant that serves a good steak, or a prime steak house that serves good seafood. At that time it was a pretty easy choice to make.”
Since he opened Chandler’s in Boise it has become the area’s number one steak house. But he never gave up on his dream of returning to his seafood roots. Now, logistics have made it possible.
Late last summer he took a trip back to his old stomping grounds and reunited with old friends.
“We have relationships that go back some 30 years in Hawaii, not only in choosing the best quality seafood, but in preparing it,” Rex says. “No one here can really match that. Besides having a wonderful reunion, one of the main reasons we went to Honolulu was to go down to the fish market and spend time with the guys who select and process our fish for us over there.”
That would be William and Derek, from the Honolulu Fish Company, the exclusive supplier of Hawaiian seafood for Chandler’s and many of the finest seafood restaurants in the country, from New York City to Los Angeles.
“It’s their specialty,” says Rex. “They’re the only company in Hawaii that deals specifically with high quality, prime fish, and it all goes to mainland restaurants like The French Laundry, Tru, and La Bernadin and Chandler’s. We’re the only restaurant in Idaho that has fish shipped directly from the Honolulu fish market, and the quality of the fish we serve here is unparalleled.”
That quality and consistency is determined by how the fish is handled from the moment it is caught, to how it is processed and shipped. The Honolulu Fish Company only works with smaller boats, because they only stay out one or two days at a time. Their fish is fresher because they run less line, which means they pull them up more often and get their catch to market quicker than the bigger boats that fish farther out and don’t make port for a week or two at a stretch.
“It was a big-eye tuna catch that morning, and they showed us how to tell whether the fish were freshly caught or whether they had been hanging on the line for a while,” Rex explains. “The bigger ships, like the factory boats from Japan, put out so much line out they can only check them every two days, versus twice a day for the smaller boats.”
Selecting the freshest, highest quality fish takes a keen eye and years of experience, but getting it from the market to your plate requires a skill set all its own.
“These are our guys,” says Rex. “The fish they select are specifically for Chandler’s are computer-tagged on the spot that morning, transported to their processing plant a few blocks away, and by 11 a.m. they’re on a plane and at my door the next morning.”
It just doesn’t get any fresher than that, and Chandler’s reputation as a premier seafood restaurant has now grown to the point where fish is almost 50 percent of his overall food budget.
“We still sell more steaks than seafood,” Rex says with a grin. “But now many of my customers have learned to expect a quality seafood experience as well.”