Having grown up in LA, the name “Jet Tila” wafted around a bit like an urban legend. I kept hearing his name, but had never tasted his food or even known what that food might look like. Until one day I had the opportunity to attend a private dinner put on by KCRW host and Angeli Caffe chef/owner Evan Kleiman. She and Jet took over a small, unassuming Thai restaurant in a strip mall on Vermont Avenue. With two long tables, the 30-or-so of us consumed the entire space and what ensued was a crazy parade of intense, unfamiliar flavors shepherded by Jet. Sure now he’s got his million-dollar Thai Vegas temple and has his hands in several large-scale commercial ventures, but to me he’ll always be the pied piper of Thai food.
I caught up with Jet after his recent Bistronomics 1.0.
Carrie Kommers: Where are you now? What are you up to?
Jet Tila: In Vegas as we speak. I bounce around between Vegas, LA and New York. I work on two projects in New York. One is a home base for a company that I partner with called Café Spice. We do white labeling for Whole Foods. If you eat Thai or Indian food from the Whole Foods hot bars, that’s mine. The other one is Schwan’s Home Service frozen food. I know a lot of chefs would say it’s a sell out, but I think there are essentially three waves of Asian food: Middle America’s still in the Lo Mein-teriyaki territory; there’s the bleeding edge where things are changing and evolving (like in LA); and then there’s something in the middle. I’m trying to keep relevant in all three and be a businessman about it.
CK: Tell me what the term “Bistronomics” means to you?
JT: Bistronomics is relevant modern fine dining. Modern, not nouveau. Modern is where the American dining palate is right now. The category of food people know as fine dining is in decline. No one wants to spend two-to-four hours and hundreds of dollars per person any more. Bistronomics is the technique, the history, the connection to Escoffier, but without the expense of the pomp and circumstance. The two things that restaurant operators worry about are food cost and labor. When you have truffle and lobster and 100-year-old oil and a giant front of house brigade, you need to charge the customer $100 to $200 a head. Bistronomics is bringing it down to a bistro setting—a menu, a server, local ingredients, reasonable prices. An affordable way to dine “finely.” Only a select few can execute Bistronomics. It’s almost a birthright; you almost have to have grown up in a French or fine dining kitchen, working under some amazing chefs.
CK: For the March 6 and 7 stint, how much involvement did you have on the menu?
JT: I’m the muse and I’m also the master. Alex will come up with a bunch of ideas and stick them on the wall and I’ll take them and refine them to what’s relevant right now. I would say 60/40—60% Alex, 40% me.
CK: What does your version of the Bistronomics menu look like?
JT: Alex and I will always spearhead Bistronomics because it’s so close to our hearts. This serves my ADD. I believe in the concept. As we evolve this you’ll be seeing more of my hand in this, food-wise. In summer, we’re looking at doing our spin on global barbecue. Chinese red -cooked barbecue, Thai barbecue, American, European. It’s a chance to tell my audience that this kid’s relevant.
CK: What was it like collaborating with Alex now after all these years?
JT: He was the opening chef de cuisine at Sinatra’s at the Encore when I was opening Wazuzu. We became eating buddies. We worked about 100 yards away from each other. That’s how we met and hit it off. We’d cook in each other’s kitchen. I was writing quite a bit at that time for Vegas weekly and we’d get into these intense food conversations. Preopening we’d spend a lot of time together. He was the young, angry chef and I was the mid generation guy coaxing all these ideas out of him.
CK: What would you tell the other future exec chefs out there by way of guidance or advice?
JT: It takes more than a really great cook. A little bit of humbleness goes a long way. Always attach yourself to amazing people and stand on their shoulders.
CK: Who did you attach yourself to?
JT: I had some really great mentors. My literary mentors were Barbara Hansen and Russ Parsons of the Los Angeles Times who forced me to write my first article. Jim Dodge from Bon Appétit Management. Neal Fraser of Grace. Marc Zammit, the head of sustainability for Compass.
CK: For the younger foodies out there that may not know about your culinary background, tell me about your time cooking in LA restaurants.
JT: I was an opening chef at The Hungry Cat, I was at Grace, and I was a young cook at Patina at the Music Center. I learned the most working at Grace. It was a really nurturing environment. And it was tough. The relationships I formed and the things I learned there really stayed with me. Working with the LA Times and Grace were the beginnings of the networking and really learning the industry.
CK: What does it mean when a chef leaves his home town?
JT: You have to start all over. Your kitchen is your family and LA is such a tight knit place—you need to start over with new rules. It’s a new playground, or battlefield. Vegas is a whole different animal. Vegas has an interesting learning curve. Most people who float through Vegas are Middle America. I thought I could do Monday night suppers, but there are no locals. My guests come to me six times a year and they want the exact same dish each time. That’s what I miss about LA. When you have regulars you can ideate and spawn menu changes and do guest chef nights and pop ups and get creative. You need locals for that.
CK: Will you come back to LA?
JT: Absolutely. I think it might be premature to telegraph my moves, but my heart will always be in LA. I’m trying to stay relevant back home.
CK: What other passion projects do you wish you could do?
JT: I haven’t done TV yet or done a cookbook. It’s not just about throwing a cookbook out there to say you’re an author. Money affords me the lifestyle to live these projects. It’s not about the flashy stuff, having things, but I can continue to develop and ideate projects and not worry about whether or not I can pay the rent this month. I’d like to really explore media, television, but not for the purposes of just being on TV. I’m an educator. The key is that I’m educating people—Bistronomics, Pan Asian. It’s an adventure. I’m having a great time.
CK: Who else would you love to collaborate with?
JT: I always want to collaborate with my elders to teach me what I don’t know and with the young people to continually tell me what’s coming. I’d love to collaborate with Fergus Henderson, my culinary hero. My whole take on chefs is they’re separated into two groups. Artists create—they push boundaries, actually create something new. Artisans are always chasing how to do things the authentic way. Trying to find what was done previously, how it was done, why it’s done. Alex is an artist. I’m an artisan. Fergus is an artisan because he’s bringing back food that’s fallen out of favor. He’s basically saying, ‘people have been doing this for hundreds of years and it’s amazing.’ Smoked eels and mashed tatties, one of my favorite dishes. Pig jowl. He’s reintroducing things that have been done for a long time.
CK: What’s your food personality?
JT: Really tasty modern Asian grandma food.
CK: What’s the dish you’re most proud of historically?
JT: I’ve built a mini empire on Thai curry and pad Thai. It doesn’t mean I’m proud of them, but they’ve come to define me in business and in life. I do think I make one of the best Thai curries in the word. I’ll throw that down when it comes to Panang. But, personally, the dish I hold closest to my heart that nobody cares about is braised five spice soy sauce pork trotter. AKA pig’s feet. But it has to be the front feet of the pig. This is the dish my grandmother raised me on, I make once a year during Chinese New Year, it‘s my favorite dish on earth. If I knew it would be my last meal on earth this would be it.
CK: Why only the front hooves?
JT: A true pig’s feet connoisseur knows that you get a bit more gristly skin and gelatin on the front that you don’t get on the back hoof.
CK: What would your personal mission statement be if you had one?
JT: To always respect the food for what it is and be a nice guy doing it.
CK: What is it like being a nice chef?
JT: It’s always done great by me. That has been one of the masterful keys to my success. Above all—a little bit of talent, a lot of luck and being nice has really kind of changed the landscape for me. There’s enough attitude in our business at every level but it feels really good to sleep at night. It makes it that much better if you achieve the definition of success is in your mind. It’s nice to know that people want to know you. I only surround myself with really smart people and people who like what they do. I’m the least educated person I know. I hire for my deficiencies.
CK: Choose one: Tokyo or New Orleans?
JT: Has to be Tokyo for me. Easy
CK: San Francisco or Portland?
JT: Again, SF for me because of the token Asian kid thing.
CK: New York or Paris?
JT: At this stage of my life, New York. In the next ten years, Paris. I’m just getting enough of a bank book to hang out in New York. Maturity-wise I’m New York. I aspire to be wealthy enough and mature enough to appreciate Paris. I’ll get there in my forties.