Jet Tila makes you hungry just speaking to him—for the 101 Thai-inspired dishes in his new cookbook, yes, but for more than just food. His words make you hungry for an answer to where his love for Thai cuisine stems from, hungry for a menu of his nonlinear pathway to education, hungry for how it all shaped him, but most of all hungry for his insights on Southeast Asian representation in media.
Tila’s first-generation immigrant family had a special role in carving a space for Thai culture and tradition in the Los Angeles food scene. Credited with opening two community anchors—grocery store, Bangkok Market, and later what is believed to be the first Thai restaurant in the city, Royal Thai Cuisine—Tila learned the importance of hard work from a young age. Though he dropped out of high school, he later enrolled in culinary school, finding comfort in teaching family recipes close to his heart. Eventually, he reflected that passion to millions on TV.
His accolades would come to include being named culinary ambassador of Thai Cuisine by the Royal Thai Consulate General and many wins on “Guy’s Grocery Games.” Now, he’s a Food Network regular, with memorable appearances on “Cutthroat Kitchen,” “Chopped” and “Tournament of Champions.”
Despite his notable culinary fame and success, Tila is an innovator who leads with gratitude at his core. As a proud Southeast Asian American culinary creative, he has a deep respect for those who came before him and paves a pathway for those to come.
I caught up with him at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books that took place on USC’s campus for the first time since the start of the pandemic. He performed a cooking demonstration for hundreds of audience members proudly known as the “Team Tila” fanbase. Tila whipped up mouth-watering cotton candy fish and quizzed the crowd on the five flavor profiles of Thai dishes—sweet, salty, sour, spicy and savory. With his help, we passed the test. The magic of his live cooking carried into the backstage Q&A following the event. Below is our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.
I was curious about how being raised by strong Southeast Asian immigrants shaped your drive.
The stories of all immigrants really resonate with me, wherever [they’re] from. I would not be as successful as I am today if it wasn’t for the modeling of my parents and also the culture that raised me. You know, one of the many beautiful things about America is that we all create our small villages here, and those villages raise us all. But on the flip side of that, it is equally important that we share our cultures domestically. I’m a Thai-Chinese son, but I am also an American son, and I feel really proud about that.
Could you describe your nonlinear pathway to education and how it shaped you?
I was a non-traditional learner. Ninety percent of people are going to need a traditional path. But, we cannot forget the kids that benefit from trade schools, right? Some of us learn visually; we can’t read books. I think everyone needs to find their own path.
I just cook food. I dropped out of high school, [and now] I cook for my life. I’m very thankful. I got really lucky. Preparation, meet opportunity.
Getting to the cookbook, I’m curious about how the process was writing this one in comparison to the one you wrote with your wonderful wife, Ali Tila?
I think people logically wanted me to start with this book, but I didn’t feel like I was ready yet. I was not ready to write this book until the pandemic. It took being down for a year and getting that time to reflect. I wanted the book to be authentic, yet broadly applicable. It was important for me to know that Thai food is a spectrum.
Once I got rolling, it was easy, but it really took a lot of reflection in terms of family recipes [from my home country]. I have worked with some amazing chefs around Thailand who are amazing at what they do, so this is a collection of all of those stories.
Is there one specific memory you recall while writing this book that really stuck with you, positive or negative, that shaped the course of the book?
About three-fourths of the book are family recipes, and a quarter are recipes from families who have made these meals for the last hundred years. In the pandemic, by sitting around the kitchen with my wife Ali and my writing partner Tad Weyland and cooking these dishes multiple times, I discovered the different ways there are to cook a dish. It was brilliant to understand how someone else’s grandma did it another way, and that journey was really profound for me. Every Asian grandma is going to argue with another Asian grandma because we all cook food differently. So I saw my grandma do it, but a lot of these recipes are from other grandmas that did it their way.
I can’t believe I get paid to do this. It’s amazing what I get to do. I get to share it with you now. I get to translate that—put it into very succinct digestible words—and someone else gets to take it upon themselves.
Now I want to talk about Food Network and how these recipes translated to the screen. What changes in the public eye?
TV is a double edged sword. I was a chef for 25 years before being on television, and then the next 10 years is when people discovered me through TV. So I think there’s a point there when people don’t want the origin stories, they want the TV stories. And that’s okay, but it took me a while to adjust to that. I think because naturally I want to spread culture, but I also realized how important it is to entertain, my personal cooking has gotten more complex, which is why I am writing the book. But when I go on TV, meals tend to be on the easier side. I embrace both of those sides.
What are you doing off-screen to take care of yourself?
I come from three generations of cooks and restaurateurs, and no generation before me found balance. When you spend 80+ hours a week focused on business, it’s hard to cultivate a healthy environment. So, I left full-time cooking a decade ago to get married. In this phase of my life, I wanted to be a father, husband, son and an entrepreneur, in that order. I’d rather say no to some opportunities in order to find some balance so I spend some time with my family. I’m an outdoors guy—I travel. Turning off my phone and being in nature are important.
With it being APISA Heritage month, I’m curious what you think is the significance of having representation in the media?
It is paramount to all of those that come after me. Ming Tsai came before me, and Martin Yan before him. It’s cliche but so true that you have to really see it to be it. For younger Asian Americans to see me on TV, it gives them hope and validates that they have opportunity, but also my job as an Asian American is to open my culture to non-Asian Americans, too. I want to celebrate APISA month and also embrace American culture. Food can bring us together. [It’s] non-political. Nothing to fight about.
One piece of advice I want to give the APISA community is: We work so hard. But I think a lot of us feel like we don’t deserve a seat at the table once we get there, so I think we need to embrace being humble and working really hard—it’s gonna get us 90% of the way. We’re taught to conform and behave, but we also have to believe in ourselves and know that we deserve a place.
I’m just grateful that there is an audience out there that appreciates what I do. I did not get into cooking to be in the media or television, but it’s opened many doors and I feel thankful every day.