(Originally published January 3, 2013 on Examiner.com).
America has often been described as a melting pot, a crucible in which different cultures have been fused together; this metaphor for assimilation though no longer best describes the American mosaic where all the different pieces add up to a larger whole though still retain their respective identities. Yes out of many we are one, but still it’s our diversity that strengthens, rather than divides, us by providing an ongoing opportunity to continually learn from one another’s differences.
Food has always been a gateway to learn about another culture. A culture’s cuisine reveals a lot about that culture’s history, politics, identity, and community as well as too often its commercialization. Thus maybe a more apropos metaphor for America is a stew pot rather than a melting one: a bouillabaisse, cioppino, mariscos, jjigae, suki or some other dish reflecting the diversity of those who’ve relocated to this country. In such a stew, the flavors of all the ingredients can be savored separately, but still taste better together in the shared broth of first the collective pot and then every individual’s bowl.
Los Angeles is one of this country’s most flavorful stew pots. This diversity is one of the city and region’s greatest strengths especially from a culinary perspective. In Los Angeles, you can pretend you’re Anthony Bourdain without having to renew your passport, as you travel through all of the region’s different ethnic enclaves.
Born in San Gabriel Valley and raised in the restaurant and grocery stores of his parents in Los Angeles’s Thai Town, Chef Jet Tila‘s youth was spent eating his way through these different ethnic neighborhoods honing his palate for what would ultimately be parleyed into the national spotlight in Las Vegas at Steve Wynn’s Encore Hotel & Casino’s restaurant Wazuzu.
Wazuzu, with its Pan Asian menu, was in large part a reflection of this time Jet spent eating or cooking in areas of Los Angeles like Little Tokyo, the 626, Chinatown, Thai town and Korea Town. Like Wazuzu, Chef Tila’s more recent endeavors continue to reflect Jet’s roots. These endeavors (including those with the Compass Group, Schwans and a soon to debut dessert concept) also demonstrate his business acumen as he expands both his business and personal brands across the country via these outlets, retail sales, and various media appearances.
Totally unknown nationally in 2007, Chef Tila was recommended by former LA Times OC writer Max Jacobson to Elizabeth Blau, Steve Wynn’s exclusive chef finder. As told in an old Las Vegas Food & Restaurants blog, when Jet first received Blau’s phone call he thought some one was messing with him. He didn’t believe it was Blau who actually called. Though after preparing nine Pan Asian dishes for a tasting for Steve Wynn, drawing upon his culinary experiences in many of Los Angeles different Asian communities (as well as his Chinese/Thai ancestry), Jet no longer was so incredulous. He had beaten out a number of nationally and globally recognized chefs who tested before him for this prestigious gig in this new restaurant Wazuzu in Wynn’s newest hotel & casino on the Vegas Strip.
Wazuzu under Chef Jet Tila’s direction was three restaurants in one with Japanese, Chinese and Thai chefs serving both Middle America and million dollar credit line players from Asian. He had to make both groups happy with both Americanized Chinese food alongside top of the line Asian cuisine. It was a tight rope he walked daily, and one of the hardest challenges of his career since service needed to be continuously done at a very high level. Only in Vegas, at that time, because of the costs could such an elaborate restaurant be built. Wazuzu has a $1.5 million dollar dragon sculpture on its dining room wall to wow and to attract..
Many of Wazuzu’s Chinese and Thai recipes were from Tila’s family and his many years in Asian kitchens. His mother’s mother was his first cooking teacher and inspiration. Most of his Chinese cooking comes from her. Then there was one cook his family had at their restaurant named Lek who taught Jet most of his Thai cooing. Tila describes his ancestry as both Northern Thai (from the Chiang Mai region) and Southern Chinese. He speaks both Chinese and Thai.
The respective recipes for both of Chef Tila’s current ventures with the Compass Group and Schwans draw from his Vegas days and thus also hearken back to his roots and familial core; though the fifty or so recipes for the Compass Group’s branded Chef Jet’s Modern Asian are completely different than those recipes for the always expanding line of packaged retail items sold through Schwans.
Those fifty or so recipes for Chef Jet’s Modern Asian will be rotated through multiple build outs of this concept throughout Compass’s different divisions including Morrison (hospitals), Eurest (business & industry) and Bon Appetit (cultural & specialty) in these different food service sectors. This is an exclusive agreement with Compass. What distinguishes Jet’s concept from other Asian concepts out there like Panda is that this is a Pan Asian (not just Chinese) “evolved” concept meaning that it’s reflective of what people are eating today with vegetarian, vegan and whole grain options.
The Charleston’s kitchen thus serves several functions. Obviously one role is to put out the new updated menu that Chef Tila’s team created for the New Year (see related story “A New Menu a New Charleston”), and to also function as a commercial test kitchen for Chef Tila’s other ventures. Here at the Charleston, he’s developed those many different recipes for Compass and Schwans with a lot of menu testing and tastings. Additionally for the Compass Group’s concept, he shot the training videos at this location. Those videos establish comprehensive training standards for the Chef Jet Modern Asian’s operations.
Though The Charleston, a gastropub, isn’t part of Chef Tila’s Pan Asian brand, it falls under his umbrella and thus provides him an opportunity to be more flexible as well as diverse with his oversight of and input on The Charleston’s menu.
If all of the above wasn’t enough on the chef’s plate, Jet also does a lot consulting for national brands and is working on a new dessert concept that will debut “somewhere on the West Coast, maybe not LA” this year.
Chef Jet Tila’s brand isn’t limited to the wide array of projects he’s working on. Jet has increased his statute and broadened his exposure through his participation in numerous videos and on several major television cooking shows. He’s also extended his presence and personal brand through his outreach to others within the culinary community where he’s continuously learning from the knowledge that these other people have to share.
Tila’s appearances on shows like “Iron Chef”, “No Reservations” and, more recently, on “Chopped” have added to his celebrity. Tila’s relatively recent new radio show that he hosts, the SoCal Restaurant Show, on Saturday mornings from 10:30 AM to Noon on AM830 has already featured interviews with prominent national chefs like Thomas Keller and Scott Conant as well as talks with local luminaries like Ricardo Zarate and Neal Fraser.
But his conversations aren’t limited to just chefs, rather Jet talks to a wide array of people in the food service industry from suppliers and sommeliersto journalists and publicists on a wide variety of issues; some light heartened, and others quite serious.
Promoting the community is one of the many ways that Jet gives back to the community that has provided him with so much. Additionally continuously learning from this community as well as through his travels Jet believes is essential to being able to be considered qualified as an expert to either cook or talk about food.
“You have to understand what’s out there right now and you have to understand what’s delicious. How are you going to make food or talk about food or be qualified as an expert if you don’t have an understanding of what is happening nationally and globally?” Jet continued, “You can’t live in one city forever and claim to be an expert on cuisine. If you have not traveled the world and eaten at all different levels, how is any one qualified to talk about cuisine?”
Though recently the addition to Jet’s family of his beautiful baby daughter has slowed the pace of his travels, Chef Tila’s schedule normally has him on the road any where from two to four times a month for either an opening, teaching event , or consultation in some capacity.
Thus even with the incredible diversity that Tila has been exposed to here in his home city of Los Angeles, Chef Tila is continually broadening his knowledge of food and the business of food to both further his brand and increase his awareness of culture and their cuisines. For through food in the metaphorical American stew pot, so many cultures in this country have come together as one dish to enhance each other’s flavors yet still have retained the individual identities of their ingredients.
Such is the beauty of culinary art. Such is the beauty of America.