How I Made It: Jet Tila parlayed his Thai immigrant family roots to food TV fame
Jet Tila, 44, is a chef, instructor, writer and TV personality who has appeared on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef America,” “Chopped” and “Cutthroat Kitchen.” He’s been evangelizing Thai food in America since the 1990s and was named culinary ambassador of Thai cuisine by the Royal Thai Consul General in Los Angeles in 2013. Along the way, he’s battled Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, gotten matching tattoos with Alton Brown and taken the Guinness world record for largest-ever stir fry.
Thai immigrant royalty
Tila’s parents arrived separately in Los Angeles in the 1960s as part of the first big wave of immigrants to the U.S. from the Southeast Asian country. His family would open the city’s first Thai food grocery, Bangkok Market in Hollywood, in 1972. The store gave the nascent community a badly needed epicenter. Tila would later spend years working at the business, starting by sweeping the floors, then packing groceries and eventually operating the butcher’s band saw.
Less than a decade after starting the market, the family opened what’s believed to be the first Thai restaurant in West L.A.
Royal Thai Cuisine, at Pico Boulevard and Overland Avenue, was designed to appeal to bigger-spending American clientele such as studio employees at nearby 21st Century Fox.
“It was the cool studio lunch in the 1980s,” Tila said. “It was Americanized Thai. My dad’s version of Thai barbecue spareribs was really just barbecue sauce blended with pineapple.”
Tila, which is short for his family’s full name, Tilakamonkul, struggled to emulate his parents’ drive as first-generation immigrants. He couldn’t focus as a student and dropped out of high school his senior year and got a GED. He then drifted for several years, working odd jobs such as a security guard, alarm installer and a deckhand for fishing charters.
“I was lost,” Tila said. “I never had any aim or direction.” Despite that, he always had the family market to fall back on. He didn’t know it at the time, but it would change his life.
Finding a purpose
By the 1990s, Thai food was well established in America. English speakers flocked to Bangkok Market to seek out kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce and curry paste. Tila invariably would be stopped in the aisles and asked about how to cook with different Thai ingredients. The inquiries became so frequent he decided to begin holding cooking classes at his mother’s Cheviot Hills home. He had learned to cook at the family restaurant and also by his grandmother’s side. Now he was teaching neophytes the famous Thai balance of hot, salty, sour and sweet flavors. His classes became the subject of a 1999 Los Angeles Times article that catapulted Tila from obscurity.
“I got 500 calls in the span of a week after it was published,” Tila said. “That’s when the light bulb went off — this is going to be my career.”
Tila enrolled in culinary school and later got a job at a corporate food-service firm cooking for employees at the likes of Google and Yahoo.
“That taught me everything about scale and having a system,” said Tila, who also contributed nearly two dozen articles to The Times’ food section. “I was a high school dropout, but I had to know math. I had to know the food cost, the labor cost and how to prep ahead to feed 5,000 to 10,000 people.”
Battling the Iron Chef
By 2008, Tila was running his first big restaurant, Wazuzu at the Encore in Las Vegas — an experience he likens to getting an MBA. The exposure to Las Vegas’ celebrity chef scene eventually led him to an offer to battle Morimoto in an episode of “Iron Chef America.” The secret ingredient was seaweed. Tila would lose by only a couple of points, but the experience was unforgettable.
“They tell you before what the three likely ‘secret’ ingredients are going to be,” Tila said. “So you have to write three five-course menus, shopping lists and prep plans. We worked 10 to 12 hours during the day and then trained three more hours after work. It was like preparing for war.”
Within a few years, Tila would become a Food Network mainstay. It’s where he would meet two of his biggest influences: Alton Brown and Bobby Flay. Brown taught Tila how to entertain audiences on TV. Flay had a penchant for sitting Tila down and asking what he was working on and how he could do it better.
“I admire those two men,” said Tila, who credits them for helping him break out of his shell.
“Culturally, being an Asian kid, you don’t want to raise your hand and stand out,” Tila said. “They taught me to go get it. To find my voice. Not to be arrogant, but confident.”
Branding Chef Jet
Standing out in an industry teeming with talent is essential, Tila said.
“I learned quickly that I wasn’t just a chef, but a brand — a product that could be licensed, sold and used to promote things,” Tila said. “I wrote recipes and packaged them into concepts. I created a logo that I could apply to my recipes and concepts. That logo meant Chef Jet made that recipe and I had to make sure the recipes were delicious. So when any of my guests in restaurants, campuses or cooking classes made them, there was brand recognition.”
Angling for a break
To unwind, Tila fishes regularly in the South Bay with the friends he made two decades earlier as a deckhand. “All those guys are boat captains now,” Tila said. “We chase tuna together.” But mostly, Tila spends his free time with his wife, Ali Tila, 6-year-old daughter, Amaya, and 3-year-old son, Ren, in their Silver Lake home.
“I found my niche as an Asian chef at a time when there was huge demand for my expertise,” Tila said. “People needed to learn how to cook Asian at the home level and the commercial food-service level. I was at the right place at the right time with the right set of skills.”
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