Chef Jet Tila is a nationally recognized culinary trailblazer, a cookbook author and gifted storyteller, a world-record holder, and a bona fide celebrity TV chef. His list of food-related accomplishments is as remarkable as it is long. We recently caught up with him to ask a few questions about his distinct personal style, his Thai/Chinese cultural background and his unique vision for BMW Financial Service’s Ultimate Dining Experience events.
Did you always have a calling to be a Chef?
Jet Tila: I tried to resist until I was 22 and then I stopped resisting. My family had markets, restaurants and farms, so food is really all I did since I was 4. Finally, I realized...I’m actually decent at this, so I kind of followed my love for the education side of food culture and also for feeding people.
What was the first restaurant you opened? How was that experience different than the launch of some of your recent ventures like Modern Asian Kitchen and Kuma Snow Cream?
Tila: I went to Las Vegas in 2007 and opened the Encore Hotel with a 100-seat restaurant called Wazuzu. It’s still there. I created it and ran it ’til I left town. The scale of Las Vegas is a bit mind-blowing. Just the crystal dragon alone — we’re talking about a wall decoration, here — cost $1.5 million. That’s like half of the opening budget for an entire restaurant of that size. So, the scale was mind-numbing. But so was the volume. I would do 1,000 meals per day in a 100-seat restaurant! Everything is just bigger and faster, and more expensive in Vegas.
“What I really like about working with BMW is its commitment to “excellence.” When they do something, they are the best at it.”
Were there any pivotal moments for you during the early launches?
Tila: There are always pivotal moments during a restaurant launch. I feel like Vegas was kind of my graduation into the big time. I was involved in smaller, fine dining restaurants before that. I’ve always been more of a businessman than a chef so I quickly understood that a restaurant is a full experience and not just food. I learned that you need an entrance statement. How you get greeted from the podium is critical...the quote time for a table, as well. And once you’re seated, you have to be greeted in 30 seconds, water on the table in two minutes, etc. You just have to understand that a restaurant is a totally immersive experience.
You emerged from LA’s Thai subculture. Can you discuss your background in the context of that community, as well as your family history?
Tila: My family got to Los Angeles in 1966 with the first in influx of Thai people. And from that first group of Thais came the first markets and restaurants. Basically, Thai food culture in America was started in 1966 and my family was right in the center of it. We helped to establish Thai Town. In fact, LA has the only official Thai Town in America.
Do you see yourself as a disrupter or a traditionalist? In other words, are you trying to reinvent, deconstruct or progress Thai and/or Chinese cuisine?
Tila: I think that nowadays the true traditionalist is the disrupter. Thai food is on its 50th year in America, Chinese food is in its 200th or something year, Japanese food, 100th. The version of Asian cuisine most people have been eating has been fusion or “confusion,” as I like to call it. So, the true traditionalists are emerging and becoming the disrupters. I mean, wrap your head around that. It’s a trip. People want region-specific cuisine now. They’re not just saying Thai; they’re saying Chiang Mai Thai, or Northern or Southern Thai. So I am a traditionalist, which I guess makes me a disrupter.
So, you’re more of a purist? Basically presenting well-known and established dishes to an American audience without altering the recipes or presentation too much?
Tila: I’m a firm believer that Asian food is home food. Certain ethnicities have Royal Court food like Koreans, Chinese and Thais, but I cook and teach authentic Asian dishes that are home style, or street style. So I don’t do ornate, esoteric dishes. I’m gonna make you the Pad Thai that my grandmother made from like 100 years ago.
You have French culinary training. How does that affect your approach on Pan Asian cuisine?
Tila: French formal culinary training gave me the language, the explanations, and perhaps a lot of the science and terminology to express what I was already doing. My grandmother was illiterate and she cooked her whole life. She was a phenomenal cook and taught me recipes by, you know, “a pinch of this, a spot of that.” But my formal education allowed me to understand the bridge between the two worlds — the field cooks versus the measuring cooks.
Was this as much a cultural mission to promote Thai culture as it was a culinary one? In other words, do you see yourself as a cultural ambassador of sorts?
Tila: I actually work for the Thai government as its Culinary Ambassador. It’s an official title. My entire goal is to spread the knowledge of Thai food and culture wherever I can.
Do you see any similarities between your personal brand and BMW’s?
Tila: What I really like about working with BMW is its commitment to “excellence.” When they do something, they are the best at it. Quality is important and so is the nature of the experience. We’re creating the Ultimate Dining Experience and that’s really about creating a phenomenal feast of the senses. Period. That’s the connection — the parallel between what I do and what BMW does.
Why do you think the menu and event you’ll prepare qualifies as an “ultimate dining experience”?
Tila: The really nice thing is that it won’t be just like going to a restaurant. I don’t just put food down. The guests will come in from the drive and then take part in an entire hour and a half that’s really a cooking class, a show, a total immersion — a real fun, interactive three-course meal. They get to eat it but they also get to see it made and hear stories about it. That’s why it’s a true experience. You’re not just eating; you’re actually experiencing the evening.
What’s on the menu?
Tila: This will be my dream-eating evening. I’m Thai and Chinese, so I’ll do a five-spice braised pork belly. It’s sticky/ sweet, with soy and five-spice flavors. I then put it in a crispy, steamed bun with Hoisin sauce. And then I go to Thai and make a curry rice noodle soup. My wife is the baker in our house, so we do her coconut rice pudding at the end. It’s truly a full three-course experience.
Apparently, you have several “world records.” Can you tell us a little about those?
Tila: Many, many years ago the Thai community wanted to do something cool so I said, “Let’s make the world’s largest Pad Thai, in an effort to bring Thai food to the spotlight.” And that became the world’s largest stir-fry. So I’ve just been creating these really fun events. I always wanted to do the impossible. How do you do a 6,000-pound stir-fry? How do you make a 20-foot wok, etc.? I found really good people around the country who wanted to tackle those kinds of challenges with me and we just went for it.
Is Jet your given name?
Tila: Jet is my real name. I was born in the era of the 747. Thai Airways acquired their first one around my birth and I was a giant Asian baby. I’m not a big person now. I’m tiny. But I was born a 9-pound Thai kid, and that was pretty unheard of those days. So they called me Jet...Jumbo Jet to be exact. That’s how it all started.
Where to next for Jet Tila?
Tila: I think we’re going to open more restaurants. I slowed down with restaurants because I have two little kids. But I think it’s time to go back. I’m starting to get the itch again. I’ll definitely do more television, too. And with my new cookbook, I’ve gotten the bug to write more. I’m already thinking about a second.
Is there an “ultimate” statement you’d like to make to close this interview?
Tila: The Ultimate Dining Experience is truly something special. It is a fabulous partnership with BMW Financial Services. We all do all kinds of things in our work life, but this is fun. I truly encourage people to try to come out, if they can.
Discover more about Chef Jet Tila and purchase his new book, 101 Asian Dishes You Need to Cook Before You Die, at www.chefjet.com.