Award-winning Chef and TV Personality Jet Tila showcases his dynamic presence with dishes that touch both hearts and stomachs! With the help of his wife and business partner, Ali Tila, the Los Angeles native showcases his vast knowledge by tapping into the places closest to his heart – his home and his family.
The Jet Tila team has produced a one-stop guide to perfecting the foundations of cooking with their new cookbook, 101 Epic Dishes: Recipes That Teach You How to Make the Classics Even More Delicious. Total Food Service sat down with Jet Tila to discuss his culinary inspirations, big breaks, and next steps.
What drove you to become a chef?
My family opened the first Thai food businesses in the country in the 70s in L.A. They moved here and there was the largest type population outside of Thailand. So, my early years were spent watching our restaurants and markets and the import companies and the farms – I was working in a family business.
We had the only grocery store in L.A. that had all these Thai ingredients for the whole fusion California cuisine movement. Chefs like Wolfgang Puck and all the big L.A. guys looked to us as the only one-stop shop in town. I was bagging their groceries and delivering food to their restaurants.
So it was a logical next step for me to move on to the French Culinary School and then Japanese Culinary School in my 20s. I then came back and started working for many of them. Actually, my first job was working for Russ Parsons at the L.A. Times. I was the test kitchen intern for about a year.
Can you tell us a bit about how your career came together?
My big break really was with Bon Appetit Management. They assigned me to tech companies like Google, Cisco, and Yahoo. I did all their big openings in the early 2000s and then I got a call from Steve Wynn in 2007 to open the Encore Hotel in ‘Vegas and that was my big national break. I was one of the eight chefs to cook a tasting for Encore because they needed someone with a balanced skill set of Thai, Chinese, Japanese and French.
Is the definition of Asian dining in Vegas different than it is in Los Angeles?
Totally different. You have to be able to do everything in one building. In any city you can go to a Chinese dim sum restaurant, a Thai restaurant, a Japanese restaurant, a sushi restaurant, an Americanized Chinese restaurant, but we have to do that all in one tower. And in some cases, all in one room, one restaurant. That’s why they needed someone that understood from fine dining down to dim sum to fast casual. My entire career kind of prepared me for that job and it worked out perfectly. I spent five years with Wynn at Encore.
What brought you to TV?
While I was at Encore, I was asked to battle Chef Morimoto on Iron Chef. I’d done really limited TV up until that point, so that was my first big national tv show.
We went in kind of as underdogs and he beat me by two points. It was such a great battle that Food Network asked “Hey, do you want to do more television?” and I said, “absolutely, I’d love to”. That’s what started my TV career.
Cutthroat Kitchen was my first series and after that, I went on to do Chopped, Beat Bobby Flay, Guy’s Grocery Game. I basically did all the non-dessert competition shows on Food Network and then they asked me to join the cast of Iron Chef as a floor reporter – so it kind of came full circle.
As you look at this phenomenon of competition cooking and being a competition chef versus being an a la carte chef on a line, what are the big differences you see between the two?
They’re totally different muscles and skill sets. A competition chef has to be able to take ingredients and immediately make a decision without going through the tasting process, without vetting dishes, and they just make a choice and knock it out. With competition cooking you are cooking for someone who’s going to eat maybe three bites of your food and then maybe up to two to four of other people’s bites of food. You’re really trying to do the Cliff’s Notes and appealing to eyeballs and palates – bigger flavor, more aggressive plating – you’ve got to make a mark versus an a la carte dining experience that can take 30 to 90 mins to multiple hours. It’s a very different discipline. You’ve got to give them smaller portions, build menus that make sense together. So, competition chef is like you’re really crafting one dish that has to be memorable versus an entire experience.
What’s your strategy for writing a cookbook?
It’s actually a third discipline – being a teacher. First, I know my audience is going to be home cooks. Home cooks don’t spend 10,000 hours on the line. In my early years while I was cooking at restaurants I was moonlighting and teaching at all the culinary schools in Los Angeles. That comes from a very slow, methodical point of view. You have to make it accessible. Our cookbook is really about taking fundamental dishes and having people really master them and understand not just the “how” but the “why”. My wife was an educator – she was in Preschool Special Ed for fifteen years – we both came at it from a teacher’s point of view. We want to make the reader immediately comfortable and not intimidated and just take them through the fundamentals.
The nice thing about this book is there are levels of experience. It’s mainly for people who do a little of everything. It’s the perfect book if you’re a new cook, it’s the perfect book if you’re an experienced cook. There are really great recipes to draw from.
We wanted to create a book where a family or a single person could cook from this book in every meal period of the day. I think everyone wants to become a better cook, but beyond just being a better cook they want recipes that work, that they’re familiar with. So, if you want to make chicken and waffles for breakfast or a frittata, we’re going to show you how to make the best one. If you want to make anything from chicken parm to prime rib, we’re going to teach you that. And then to add sides, the perfect french fry, and why that works and roasted brussels sprouts. This really is an everyday cookbook.
How have you utilized social media to enhance the readers’ experience with the book?
The book works phenomenally on its own. As a working cookbook, you don’t need anything more than that. If you’re a visual learner, we have a really robust Facebook and Instagram page that we cook the dishes from the book. Some people like to see how things come together. It’s hard to put into words what “perfectly caramelized” or “golden brown, delicious” looks like, but we reinforce that with the tips and tricks and the visual depths of the dishes, and it becomes a total package. We have a very strong social media presence that will back up the book.
We have a website and host a lot of content, but I think the way that everybody checks their Instagram and Facebook page multiple times a day is what hits home. And if you don’t know me from television, this cookbook is going to be phenomenal. If you know me from TV it’s one more layer of engagement, it’s one more way we can all hang out together.
Do you see yourself back in the restaurant business at some point? In other words, where are you as you look at your career?
I’ve never really left. I did full time, but we’re running a really nice place. We have some national partners including NBC, Universal DreamWorks. On the foodservice side, we work with Compass Group North America for whom we support the entire country. They have 3000 plus contracts and I’ve written an Asian concept for them – kind of a fast-casual, healthy Asian concept that they use in thousands of units. I’ve been in the Compass world for 20-something years.
How about your connection to Bobby Flay? How’d you choose him to write the forward?
Since we competed on TV, Bobby’s become a brother and a mentor. Once or twice a year he’ll sit me down in a restaurant, you know. He’s very hands-on and very, very supportive. And our stories are very similar. High school dropout, grinding the business, and Bobby and I became very good friends when his daughter came to school in L.A. I basically told Bobby, “Look, I’ve got a brother who’s a cop and I’ve got some cousins on the other side, so no matter what happens to Sophie, we’re going to make sure she’s safe” and based on that one conversation we’ve become very, very close friends. He actually tells that same story in the forward.
To learn more about Chef Jet Tila, his recipes and books, visit his website.