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Chef Jet Tila: The Culinary Anthropologist

Picture Chef Jet Tila: black apron, leaning ever so slightly over a stove in the kitchen at one of his many successful ventures. Jazz legend Thelonious Monk is drifting across the line, elevated by the sounds of sizzling, simmering, and slicing—then a flash of fire, and a pan cools. Notes of spices assemble on drafts in the air, and draw the topography of a dish down to the countertop. This is Jet’s orchestra; this is his symphony. This is a culinary anthropologist.

“I love cooking to Monk—just moody and heavy enough, and if the tempo and pace are just right, it makes you reflect on how he was able to do what he did. That complexity puts my mind and body in the ideal space to tell stories with my food,” Jet says.

That complexity in Monk’s music speaks well to Jet’s own work as an artist–how he constructs a narrative with his food, how an ingredient can create wonder, how both balance and improvisation can build an experience.

Food artistry comes in many forms, and if you are entrepreneur, visionary, and food media star Chef Jet Tila, that artistry comes from a deep excavation of family, culture, and flavors. With marrow-deep roots in cooking and a vision to dream through the plate, Jet is truly an artist. From the Food Network and Iron Chef, to his ventures with Compass Group, Modern Asian Kitchen, Stir Market, and Kuma Snow Cream–this vibrant and successful chef has plans to change the way Americans eat and, lucky for us, the way we consume fresh produce.

“As a kid, I spent time learning the ancient traditions of Asian cuisine from my Cantonese grandmother. She was my first cooking instructor. I have these flavor and sense memories that go back 40 years and inspire me to always look for that authentic experience that I remember growing up. It’s about learning the old ways, listening to the stories they tell you, then shaping them into art for all the senses,” Jet laughs.

 


 


 

Asian food in America has been so elastic in recent decades, Jet adds, and increasingly there is a demand for the return of and emergence of what he calls authentic flavors. Authentic is a word that Jet uses often as he moves between chef, media and culinary icon, artist, and father.

“I am searching for those flavors which allow me to understand more about my own culture,” he says.

Jet shares his beginnings. Born into the first family of Thai food in Los Angeles, Jet’s parents opened some of the first Thai restaurants and grocery stores in the country while Jet was doing homework in the back corner of the businesses. So, it’s easy to see why environment had everything to do with the path chosen. But, what was it about the practice that truly took Jet’s passion from a love of food into a culinary career to be rivaled?

For Jet, working in three of his family’s seven restaurants in Los Angeles, California, was simply about helping out with the family business in the beginning. But, the connections he began to perceive and create with food pulled him in.

Chef Jet and Chefs Hong Thaimee and Pichet Ong cooking a Thai New Year Dinner at Beard House

 “My entire life has been spent with ingredients. Our family had import businesses to supply our restaurants, as well as farms where we grew produce in Mexico during the winter and in the California’s Central Valley during the summer months,” Jet says, reflecting on his early days working with each vegetable and each seasoning that graced his fingertips. “Wanting to know where they came from, what they could do, and how to use them, that really sparked my passion to cook.”

 

INGREDIENTS: A HISTORY OF DISCOVERY

But before there were Jet’s “Melting Pot Food Tours” of Thai Town in Los Angeles, and Wazuzu, a groundbreaking take on Pan-Asian dining, at Steve Wynn’s Encore Casino and Resort on the Las Vegas Strip, and even before he launched Bistronomics—a series of pop-up restaurant experiences in Los Angeles–Jet was just a boy with a backyard.

“I really started to break off on my own when I was 23 or 24. Talk about humble beginnings, I was teaching cooking classes out of my mom’s backyard and had no formal training,” Jet smiles. “I saw it as a way to do what I loved and maybe get a little beer money out of it, while answering the demand of some of these diehard shoppers at grocery stores who wanted to learn more about cooking.”

Then reporter Barbara Hansen from the Los Angeles Times got wind of what Jet was up to, and the buzz began.

“Next thing you know, I was a cover story in the Los Angeles Times,” Jet reflects, still in awe at how it all happened so quickly. “I was just a kid teaching 20 people to cook and working out of a backyard. I got about 1,000 phone calls over the next seven days inquiring about the classes, getting involved, and wanting to learn more about cooking and me. This was a pivotal moment for me.”

Chef Jet Tila with Geoffrey Zakarian and Aarti Sequeira (Photo: Myleen Hollero)

 At that time, pre-Food Network mind you, there was not much of a mainstream presence in what Jet calls “Edutainment,” essentially educational entertainment in his professional arena. With a need and demand for the type of culinary experience—cooking, educating, and entertaining—knocking on his doors, Jet saw an opportunity and a career begin to reveal itself.

But first, Jet realized that while he greatly appreciated and cherished his early development with his grandmother’s teachings, he needed a more formal education to connect his food to the consumer and to the industry at large.

In order to build a foundation for his passion, Jet attended and completed his culinary education at Le Cordon Bleu, establishing a framework of classical French technique to elevate his extensive knowledge of Asian cooking, and allow him to more fluidly articulate his artistic capabilities and vision.

Steve Wynn’s Encore Casino and Resort on the Las Vegas Strip where Jet debuted the acclaimed Wazuzu, and was the former Executive Chef

“French culinary school gave me the vocabulary to explain the techniques that my ancestors used and also formalized the concepts for me. The food history in my family has been passed down through sharing, showing, and practice,” Jet says. “Making the decision to achieve a formal education has allowed me to access more arenas of cooking, while continuing to develop my own niche.”

Along with his education at Le Cordon Bleu, Jet also completed an intensive study program at the California Sushi Academy. Predominantly cooking within Thai and Chinese cuisines, Jet’s cooking overall represents the neighborhood he grew up in LA.

“I have a bone deep connection to Los Angeles,” Jet shares. “There is something about my DNA that needs to be tied to this city, and it really informs my aesthetic and love for food. The energy, the motion, the diversity, it all draws me in.”

During his early years, Jet also went from article-subject to producer by writing for the L.A. Times after culinary school. Contributing to many other publications and multimedia platforms, from NPR, the Food Network, and the CBS Early Show, to appearing on No Reservations, Best Thing I Ever Ate, and Iron Chef America, Jet cut his teeth on the editorial side while also expanding his presence in the food media industry.

Expanding his portfolio, Jet has also debuted a café at Google headquarters in Silicon Valley and has a popular Asian food line through Schwan’s Home Service.

 



 

And, if you didn’t already catch on to the notion that diversification is Jet’s forte, he has also set three world records: creating the world’s largest stir fry (4,010 lbs); creating the world’s largest seafood stew (6,656 lbs); and creating the largest California roll (422 ft.).

Need a little firsthand love from Jet? Luckily for us, Jet has published 101 Asian Dishes You Need to Cook Before You Die: Discover a New World of Flavors in Authentic Recipes. From a kid growing up in L.A. in a Thai and Chinese family to a prominent chef and restaurant owner, this book is sure to show you the way.

Now, with his recent partnership with foodservice giant The Compass Group, Jet has his sights set on helping to grow a food movement that is close to his heart: increasing fresh produce consumption.

 

A Revolution

So, how does Jet see himself helping to change the culinary impact of chefs everywhere? Through fresh produce, of course.

In partnership with The Compass Group, Jet has launched a program called VegRev, or rather Veg Revolution.

“Fruits and vegetables are not only nutritious, but they bring such unique and diverse flavors to the plate. I have been incredibly privileged to be a partner with The Compass Group, we are one of the largest foodservice providers on earth,” Jet says. “The company serves 9.4 million meals a day in America. If you think about that scale, the impact, and potential impact of our program moving forward, we can really help affect change in the healthier eating movement.”

Jet, his wife Ali, and daughter Amaya (Photo: Ken Goodman)Jet tells me that chefs really are the tip of the spear when it comes to creating a movement around increasing fresh produce consumption. And, moving it to the center of the plate.

VegRev brings chefs from around the country to innovative and fresh produce-forward restaurants who are defining and elevating fruits and vegetables in different ways. The goal: having chefs and diners fall in love with fruits and vegetables again.

With a vision for plant-forward immersion that expands through innovation and education, the program kicked off in 2016, to connect The Compass Group’s culinary creators to the front lines of the veg. Jet took The Compass Group chefs on VegRev tours to experience how restaurants were approaching how other culinarians were bringing produce to the center of the plate. Each visit along the way brought chefs into ideation sessions to promote and inspire ways for them to bring these opportunities back to their own commercial restaurants. Over the course of the tours, 900 chefs were exposed to plant-forward menu engineering tips where the plate makeup was 50 percent vegetables and fruit.

In 2017, Compass extended an invite to the VegRev education platform by bringing experts from the Humane Society of the United States to learn new techniques with the goal of influencing more than 1,000 chefs in plant-forward menuing.

“Through this process we are creating a team of chefs that are the leaders in their fields, and can inspire other chefs within The Compass Group. By recreating this new narrative for the story we are telling about food in America; we can impact generations of diets and food philosophies,” Jet says. “The key to not only affecting global sustainability but also personal sustainability is by eating more fruits and vegetables.”

 

Full Circle

When it comes to fruits and vegetables in Jet’s own culinary artistry, he has been looking back in order to move his own food aesthetic forward.

“I love combining traditional and experimental ideologies about food,” Jet says. “I am bringing back dishes that my grandmother used to make. Dishes like braised, dried, dehydrated cabbage and lotus roots to recipes with winter melons. To me these are staples, but to the public, they are considered experimental. I am always trying to find ways to look at a plate and bring balance with fruits and vegetables. If one tasks themself to bring more fruits and vegetables to the center of the plate, they will force themself to learn or relearn how to make vegetables delicious again. Produce is already an amazing and flavorful resource in its natural state, but now we can create recipes to enhance, elevate, and reimagine the flavor potential.”

I ask Jet what he sees next as we look to flavors and cuisine. He points to a globe, then spins it.

(Photo: Myleen Hollero)“International tastes and distinct flavor combinations are really traversing the global palate. One area on my radar is North African cuisine from countries like Morocco, who use items like harissa, lots of superfoods, and turmeric,” Jet says. “One thing that has really emerged is that the U.S. diner likes flavors with a hint of sweetness; for instance dishes that combine cinnamon, raisins, and molasses. North Africa’s diverse regions, along with many others, are really inspiring food artistry.”

Asian cuisine has definitely been on the rise in recent years as well, Jet shares. Whether it is Hunan, Fujian, or Northern or Southern Thai, the food profiles are now becoming more specific within those larger culinary types.

“Looking forward, it will never be just Thai or just Chinese cuisine anymore,” Jet states. “People are going to start identifying flavors and dishes by region as they recognize the subtle and unique differences within any country’s cuisine. Flavors shift by region, by demographic, by culture, and the way we speak about that food will shift, too.”

As we talk about Jet’s love of food, creativity, and all their nuances, I ask Jet what dish really describes his aesthetic, his story. I sense a furrowed brow.

“There is one dish that Grandma made that I have not cracked the code on yet,” he says, slipping back into memory. “And it is literally my favorite meal. She used to braise pig’s feet in a sweet soy, five spice, broth for hours. The pig’s feet would gelatinize into the broth and I could simply eat it over white jasmine rice. That is a meal I could eat all day every day. That is the dish I miss the most.”

You can sense the deep storyteller in Jet. The part of him that moves ingredients around on the plate, brings flavors together, lets them rest in a broth for hours because he senses a story there that needs to linger a moment longer.

With every layer and memory he reveals, and with every narrative this food artist threads, you can sense just how much Jet is truly a culinary storyteller. I might call it potential. Jet would call it culinary anthropology.