From Iron Chef America battles to growing up in the ‘first family’ of Thai food to guiding the late Anthony Bourdain around Los Angeles, acclaimed chef and TV personality Jet Tila knows a thing or two about Asian cuisine. And the proof is on the plate in his exclusive recipe for Freshly—a seared-steak twist on the Chinese-American classic, Kung Pao.
Like most things this year, we sat down (virtually) with chef Jet to chat about everything and nothing in 20 not-so-rapid-fire questions. Think: growing pains, the intoxicating smell of jasmine rice mixed with cigarette smoke (trust him on this one), and his favorite chef’s tool (hint: the answer gets into sword territory).
Freshly: So where are you right now?
Jet: I’m actually on set! We’re on a break right now, filming season 2 of Guy Fieri’s Tournament of Champions.
Okay, we’ll try and keep it quick! One flavor for the rest of your life; what do you choose?
That's hard. If I had to pick just one, I would have to say savory. Umami all day long!
First food memory?
My first deep food memory is the smell of jasmine rice cooking. And it's very distinct...kinda like bamboo and jasmine all at the same time. There was always a hot pot of rice on in the house and that scent really evokes a lot of memories. It's kinda dark but cigarette smoke too, 'cause my Yaya [grandma] was always smoking while she was cooking. She always had ash like an inch and a half long and it would never break. And that was just the most magical thing! So it's between rice and cigarette smoke.
So evocative! Is there a specific dish that transports you to that place? That time as a child, looking on in wonder?
Yeah. It’s something my Yaya used to make. We were poor, so she used to braise pig's feet because they were f——g cheap! And they were full of fat and collagen and calories. It was a very cheap way to get a lot of calories. So stewed up, five-spice pig's feet is my ultimate dish.
Amazing. So how did you get into food?
I was raised in a culinary family, a mom-and-pop Asian restaurant family. I learned cooking early on from my Yaya and I really grew up a restaurant kid, a grocery store kid, a kid playing hide and seek in kitchens & between grocery aisles. But I had no idea what I had. And in my late teens, early 20s, all I wanted to do was rebel and run away, and then I found out as I ran away that I probably had one of the coolest culinary upbringings ever.
What kind of chef are you?
Cooks like me come in two styles...
"you're either an ‘artist’ or an ‘artisan’. I think an artist is always trying to push limits, whereas an artisan captures the essence of the dish, going back in time. I’m from that second school, chasing how my mom made it and my grandma made it and her grandma made it."
I want to understand the history of the dish, and I don't think people do that well.
Favorite unsung ingredient that deserves a bit of press?
Thai soy bean sauce. It’s a very full-flavored soy sauce. It’s not just salt and savory notes. It’s sweet, too.
You’re a regular on the Food Network, how did that come about?
I was cooking in Los Angeles in the late '90s, early 2000s. Back then I would run into producers of shows and they would ask me to fill in, "Hey, do you want to do a segment?" And so the first time I was on Food Network is probably one of the first years it was on, in 1999. And subsequently over the years, I would get more opportunities. The first time I was really consistently on TV was after I left Vegas in 2011. We did a show called Cutthroat Kitchen and that was the first show that I was cast on. But previous to that, I did Iron Chef America, I did a lot of local stuff. It's a really great medium for me because I like to teach and I like to communicate. And that's why I love it so much. It really married the two things that I love the most: being a culinarian and having a platform to teach and cook and talk.
Gear change: a lot of chefs run on coffee. True for you?
Yeah, yeah. Coffee all day. I come from tea cultures, but I definitely drink ten to one, coffee to tea.
Thoughts on breakfast?
When I was a chef full-time, my first meal was when I was setting up the restaurant, as we were spinning up the soup stocks and getting our sushi bar ready. My first meal was always phenomenal because it was always the leftover trimmings of very, very high-end product. And I would either make it into porridge or a rice bowl, or make sushi rolls for myself. Now, as a dad who's transitioned into more of an entrepreneur than a restaurant cook, I eat whatever my kids don't eat. I'm the leftover king!
So you’ve been a full-time chef, and now entrepreneur, if you had the chance to relive it all, what would be your dream job?
Oh, I'd be in the military or police. And I think that doesn't sound like someone's dream job, but that's my dream job. My brother is a police officer. Some of my very dearest friends are military police and they live an amazing life. I would have been a man of action...if I would have made it through all that training!
Your worst kitchen story?
One of the restaurants we opened in Vegas was only 88 seats. (Eight is a lucky number in Chinese culture.) It was Chinese New Year and we did a thousand covers. By the end of that evening, I was...I've never been that tired or delirious, or depressed or angry, just pushing covers. And yeah I don't have any food disasters, but I remember just being this bloody pulp of a person on the line, trying to close my restaurant at like 3:00 AM, on my 18th hour or something like that.
Speaking of kitchens, why did you want to partner with Freshly?
For me, Freshly is an opportunity to feed and to create experiences for such a vast audience. I think we've really turned into a society where we're eating to live again, versus living to eat. You need to slow down, enjoy that meal for a minute with someone you care about. That’s what’s great about Freshly, it’s all done for you, so you can take that time to really savor it.
Can you tell us a bit about your dish? Why Kung Pao?
I always say the idea of cooking Chinese food seems easy but executing it takes a lot of experience. On its face, you think it's five or six ingredients, but there's so many of these little intricate techniques that make really great Chinese or Asian cooking. Kung Pao is about balancing deep savoriness with a really nice acidity and heat; it captures the brighter side of Chinese cooking for me.
Do you have a favorite cooking tool?
Yeah, I'm old school. You know what I mean? I think the knife is your weapon. It's a reflection of you. You have to be proficient at it, and you have to be adept at it, and you have to take it seriously. I don't take myself seriously! But I do take knife skills very seriously. So that's my absolute favorite tool. I use a very large 12-inch chef's knife and it's almost ridiculously large! I'm not a tall guy so it looks like a sword but I can manipulate it very deftly.
Okay, changing pace. Any chef myths or stereotypes that you wanna bust for us?
Yeah, that we all eat fancy food all the time.
"You'll catch me, back in the day when I was a full-time chef, spending 15 hours in the restaurant, never getting a chance to eat and then getting drive-through on the way home. That's a big one."
So chef’s are just like the rest of us! Apart from Freshly, what’s in your fridge?
Well yeah, I have a terrible addiction to diet coke. But outside of that, I'll always have a whole chicken in my fridge. It's phenomenally versatile. I can make chicken soup from the bones, chicken noodle soup for the kids, I could make cutlets, I could roast it, I could...you know what I mean? I think every good cook should always have a whole chicken.
What is your motto?
All I ever say for everyone who has worked with me or for me is,
“The way we do one thing is the way we do everything.”
It really is a mantra that I think I've lived by, and that people should live by because if you aspire to be really great or be the best at something, you should do everything that way. Basically, it’s soul training. Do you know what I mean? You're training your mind and your body to always work at that highest level.
When we can travel again, where’s the first place you’ll go?
Internationally, I definitely have an affinity for Japanese cuisine, so my dream is to retire and just eat through Japan, but...I used to be on the road multiple months a year. So I just miss having regional, local, American cuisine, be it Southern, New England or wherever...This country has phenomenal food.
Final one: there’s a movie about your life. Who’s directing it?
Jeez. A movie about my life...I want Jon Favreau to direct it.
In the meantime, here's a little glimpse at Jet's story with Freshly.
Hungry? Discover chef Jet’s limited-time Kung Pao Steak