Chef Jet Tila is known for his mad skills in Asian cuisine. He runs the show at the uber-luxe Wazuzu at Encore in Las Vegas, holds the Guinness World Record for the “World’s Largest Stir Fry” at 1805 pounds, and now he’s hosting Bistronomics in LA, a series of dinners focused on creative and affordable haute cuisine. Along with chef Alex Ageneau of The Royce at the Langham, Tila will host the pop-up residency at Breadbar in Century City every Thursday-Sunday night in October. I checked out a Bistronomics preview a few weeks back where I first met Jet, experienced the best scrambled eggs of all time, and got his take on Asian culture, LA cuisine, fusion vs. confusion, and why pit bulls rule.
Whattup, Jet Tila?!! OK. Bistronomics. You say it’s a phenomenon in Europe that’s basically all about high-end fare that won’t break the bank. Is that right?
That’s exactly right. It’s all high-end technique yet the food is much more affordable. But it’s not cheap ingredients—it’s local ingredients, farmers’ market produce. That’s what helps to drive costs down and keep a low carbon footprint. It’s about not trying to fly in lobster from halfway around the world or getting foie gras and all that other stuff.
So does that mean if we’re not in Maine we don’t get to eat Maine lobster?
The concept of this works really well in areas with a big farming community or a huge food community. I think we’ll throw in one or two things because you have to keep things interesting, but you can still keep your carbon footprint down and still provide some incredible food, especially in our city.
You’re a native LA son, aren’t you?
East Los! Born and raised in Alhambra and also grew up in East Hollywood, so yeah, I’m an LA boy through and through.
It’s refreshing to know that Alhambra’s claim to fame doesn’t just stem from Phil Specter’s notoriety.
Wow, you really went there. I love it. Yeah, homicide and Asian food!
You know I’m just teasing. But seriously, why didn’t I know about you sooner? I’ve even eaten at Wazuzu. Am I out of the food loop?
I’ve been living under the radar working for some great people for a few years and I’ve been traveling around a lot, too. I think my popularity has grown with the rising popularity of hole-in-the-wall Asian food and just the whole interest in Asian culture. Thank God for Anthony Bourdain, you know what I’m sayin’?
You’re the executive chef at Wazuzu, which is Asian, but far from hole-in-the-wall. Would you say that fancy is more your flavor?
I was born in the Asian kitchen, then I went into the French kitchen through my studies and working in some amazing restaurants, and wrapped that in some California flavor. No other city in America is like LA. We’re the only city that has such a developed Koreatown, Chinatown, Little Saigon, Thai Town, so I think it’s only natural that kids who grow up in LA are just totally immersed in all these cultures simultaneously. But at the end of the day, I’m French-trained, so that’s very comfortable for me and I’ve got Alex, one of the most kick-ass chef partners in town, so both of us throw it down, you know?
Why is it only until recently was Los Angeles not considered a good food city? I don’t understand that. I’ve eaten all around the country and whether it’s DC, New York, San Fran or Chicago, I see LA right up there, if not at the top.
I’m with you. I think LA has always been a great food city. Going back to the last point, just think about all the ethnic neighborhoods we have. But I think finally LA is on the map in others’ opinion. And that’s because we’re at the most modern evolution of food. I think it starts with food TV. When food on television went gigantic, it started getting people more interested in food, food personalities becoming celebrities, and people could see what LA chefs were doing. I think it’s akin to our craving for wanting to know about our favorite designer or movie star. It’s become part of our pop culture. Chefs are celebrities now and if you think about it, you go to a movie and you see an actor do his thing. But you go to a pop-up dinner, you’re interacting with that “actor” you love. It’s a very direct and personal connection that food gives us.
What are some of your favorite places in LA?
One of my favorite Thai restaurants is Yai. It’s a place I hang out in a lot. Then you can go a mile away and have Korean barbecue at Chung Ki Wa, which is under-appreciated, which means no one is mobbing it yet. It’s one of my favorite Korean BBQ spots. It’s really well-known amongst the Korean neighborhood, but not really beyond that.
Speaking of Thai Town, I love that it shares its ‘hood with Little Armenia.
Oh yeah, it’s amazing. There are more Armenians in Thai Town than there are Thai people. It’s such a great melting pot.
One of my all-time favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurants is Carousel, which is located in Hye Plaza. The muhammara will change your life.
You’ll have to take me there! We can do a little crawl of Armenian, Korean and Thai, all within literally like two miles.
Done. So you said that you were raised in the Asian kitchen and I’m guessing that’s what inspired you to cook. But I think it’s interesting because I can say I was raised in the Mexican kitchen, yet it didn’t necessarily compel me to cook.
Well, my family opened our first restaurant in 1979. I was four years old. I was literally peeling shrimp and washing dishes as a kid and I didn’t even really understand that I was in the kitchen with them ‘cause it was just our family business. I was the kid who came home with a backpack right into the restaurant, did my homework there, and when I was old enough, worked there.
What generation American are you?
I’m the first of my family born as an American, but I’m the third generation of food business. My grandma had a restaurant in Thailand, my parents have restaurants and, of course, I’m in the same business now.
You’re in the same business, but having grown up as a Thai American there must have been some generational or cultural differences about how you do food and what the family expected.
I think most of my family would’ve expected me to take on the family business, open more mom and pops. That’s the only interesting generational conflict, but at the same time they’re happy for my success and very proud of me. I always wanted to run away from that structure of the business, but I think they would’ve loved to see me take on their concept and take it to the next level.
What do you think you would be doing if you weren’t a chef?
I’d probably be a cop in LAPD.
Shut up. So the next question is, would you be a nice cop or a “Richard” cop?
I’d walk the line. I would be a little of both. It would depend on who I’m stopping.
Can you recall one of your most gluttonous meals ever?
In Vegas, there’s a restaurant called Fleur by Hubert Keller where you can order the whole menu. And there’s basically like 60 courses. There are 60 things on this menu, and you can sit down and order the whole damn thing with tasting portions of each dish for like $300. And it’s so ridiculously worth it. So just this past May, five of us went and took down 60 courses and I think four bottles of wine. It took us like five hours.
Would you say that was among your best meals?
My best meal ever is a meal I’ll never have again. It was my grandma’s stew: Pork belly in soy sauce that she’d simmer until it was this thick, rich braise, with plain white rice and her smoking a cigarette bitching at me about something. I miss her and I miss that meal.
Awww, that’s because it had the ingredient of a grandma’s love.
Yeah, that and the chancla! Every once in a while I’d get the chancla for not eating all my food.
OMG, shut up! How do you know about the chancla??
Are you kidding me? My family’s here because of my Mexican aunt who sponsored us all to come over to the United States.
Uh oh. That means you’ve got all the Spanglish down.
Oh yeah. Every other word in my house is an expletive in Spanish.
Do you ever mix up the Mexican and Thai influences in your cooking? I mean, look at what Kogi did for the Korean-Mex fusion thing.
I would love to. I think only kids from the West Coast—guys like me, like Roy Choi–could ever really bring that sort of thing anyway. I’m not a giant fan of the word fusion, but Kogi is fusion done good. And there’s still a helluva lot of room for that, so I’m down. I think that’s something I can definitely bring into the cuisine.
Why don’t you like the word fusion?
I think the generation before me screwed up that word. You had food in the 80s and 90s that was really weird like wasabi beurre blancs and stuff, so fusion just became confusion. But now guys like Roy Choi are bringing back fusion as a good thing.
Would you say the explosion of food trucks signals the “return of street food”? For a lot of people, this is a novelty, but for others who can’t afford fancy restaurants or live in neighborhoods where regular people are selling tamales out of their trunk, street food is just everyday real food.
At the end of the day, people want to eat comfort food. Whatever label you put on it—real food, street food—it’s the shit that makes you feel comfortable or brings you to that place where you came from. And people will always eat that food. I think that’s what it’s all about.
What food is better than sex?
Wow! I’m not gonna lie, I’m a huge fan of food, but sex is pretty fuckin’ awesome. Let’s see … if I had to pick a food that was better than sex … damn! I would have to say … the food that even reminds me of sex is warm, juicy … I would have to say like a braised oxtail. I like that kind of thing. If you take a piece of meat with a decent amount of fat and connective tissue and you braise it down until it just about falls apart, that to me is better than sex. Sometimes! Sometimes!
Do you think you could be a really good chef and be vegetarian?
Oof! Hmmm … if that’s all you know, sure. But can you be a chef that’s accepted by the populace at large? I don’t think it’s gonna happen. You’ll be accepted in your circles, and I have a lot of love for vegans and vegetarians, but that’s a hard one. I don’t think you’re going to be a nationally or globally popular chef by being purely vegetarian. I think it’s tough, I really do.
Speaking of animals, thank you so much for donating your time and talent to the upcoming Karma Rescue fundraiser party. I barely got one word out and you were like, “Yes, whatever you need!” Tell me about your love of dogs, particularly pit bulls.
I have a pit bull named Daisy, I rescued her from a friend in LA off the street and that started my extreme love for pit bulls. It’s probably the only breed I’ll ever own and I think it’s a breed that needs a lot of love and gets a hugely bad rap from a lot of people. That’s my weak spot. If someone says pit bull or rescue, I’m down. I’ll do anything I can. I have a giant love for those dogs.
So um, being that you’re Asian, I have no reason to be afraid that you’re actually going to eat the dog, right?
Wowwww! You really went there. I love it.
I’m totally kidding! You know I’m joking. I realize it was in bad taste, so to speak. You can crack a Mexican joke if you want, I won’t be offended.
No, mama. It’s all good. There ain’t nothing off limits. I love it.
Thanks, Jet Tila. You da man!
No, thank you. See you soon!