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Meet Chef Jet Tila

By Shelley Levitt

This spring Chef Jet Tila received an accolade no American chef had ever obtained before when he was appointed the inaugural culinary ambassador of Thai cuisine by the Royal Thai Consulate-General, Los Angeles. Tila felt honored; though, he says, the appointment seemed almost redundant: “I feel like I’ve held that position my whole life,” he says.

Coming from anyone else, that might seem boastful. But the 38-year-old celebrity chef was, in fact, born to the role. His parents were Thai immigrants who opened Bangkok Market in Los Angeles in 1972, one of the country’s first Thai groceries and importers. From the time Tila was in grade school, he was working in the market and, later, in his family’s Thai restaurant. Today, between opening restaurants (his latest is The Charleston in Santa Monica) or partnering with the Compass Group, the world’s largest food-service company (he helped create the Asian-style employee cafes at Google, Intel and eBay headquarters in Silicon Valley), Tila leads groups of curious foodies on tours of L.A.’s Thai Town.

With several stops at markets, restaurants and dessert spots, these culinary excursions grew out of the tour he gave Anthony Bourdain for a segment on his Travel Channel’s No Reservations series. “Taking people off-site to experience the flavor of an area is a great thing to do with a meeting group,” Tila says. “People want to know what’s hidden in plain sight, and they want a curated experience like they see on their favorite television food shows.”

Tila is a showman or, as he likes to say, “a culinary storyteller.” He has competed on Iron Chef America, been a celebrity guest judge on the Food Network’s Chopped and was featured on the network’s Best Thing I Ever Ate (Giada De Laurentiis chose his drunken noodles with chicken as the best thing she ever ate with chopsticks). He likes to do things on a small scale (he’s taught cooking classes in his backyard) and on a large one; he holds three world records- for creating the world’s largest stir-fry (4,010 pounds), the largest seafood stew (6,500 pounds) and the longest California roll (440 feet).

“Birth luck” is what Tila calls his good fortune in being born into the “first family of Thai food” in Los Angeles. His luck extended to having a Cantonese grandmother and a Mexican aunt, and growing up in a neighborhood that was a meld of different culinary traditions, including his beloved pupusas, the traditional Salvadoran dish of thick corn tortillas stuffed with fillings like beans, cheese and minced pork. “California is a great place to be a chef,” Tila says. “New York may take the award for fine dining, but we’re the ultimate melting pot, and that’s endlessly inspiring.” Is there anything he won’t eat? “Insects,” he says. “Other than that, I can’t think of a thing.”