The Next Generation: Jet Tila, The Charleston LABy Kathleen Squires
September 27, 2013
People might know Jet Tila from restaurants such as The Charleston in LA, or his Las Vegas dessert shop Kuma Snow Cream, or from the Wynn Las Vegas’s Wazuzu. Or they may recognize him from seeing him, as a child, doing his homework in the back of one of the classic Royal Thai restaurants around town. But what they might not know is that his family, which stretches back three generations as restaurateurs, is largely responsible for bringing the flavors of Thailand to the US. “I was really lucky to be born into what I call the ‘first Thai food family in America,’” Tila says.
“My dad’s side of family is from Hainan, China, originally, and his mother - my grandmother - had a little Thai Chinese coffee shop in a Bangkok neighborhood where a lot of Hainanese people lived,” Tila explains.
Jet’s parents both came to LA in 1966, settling in the city’s “Thai Town,” the largest Thai enclave outside of Thailand. They met in the US, and became a part of the first group that started a “Thai Association,” of sorts. “They were part of the group who started the first Thai temple in the late 70s,” he explains. “Our family was responsible for a series of Thai firsts.”
The Tila family then opened Los Angeles’s Bangkok Market, which many say was the first Thai-owned business in Thai Town, in 1971. The supermarket imported goods from the homeland - everything from fish sauce to packaged rice noodles. The business was already well established when Jet was born in 1975, and two years later, the family opened the first Royal Thai restaurant. “Both businesses have endured,” Tila says. “The original Bangkok Market still is in East Hollywood and my mom is still there every other day.” The Royal Thai eventually opened six branches, migrating as far down south as San Diego.
Jet has one younger brother also in the business. While his brother stayed on the importing/grocery side, Jet decided to explore the restaurant side. “We were all encouraged to stay in the business. My dad has six brothers,” he says. “So I have a ton of cousins, too. We were absolutely expected to all go in the business. In the summer, we all had to work a restaurant month and we all had to work a market month.”
Having recently been named the first culinary ambassador of Thai cuisine by the Royal Thai Consul General in Los Angeles, Tila attributes his success to his family’s teachings. “My grandmother from my mother's side was my cooking mentor. Actually, she taught me that if you were going to eat, you had to learn how to cook, because you had to understand where your food came from. So as soon as I could stand, she put me on a chair and she'd be chopping vegetables, but she'd give me the easy part like peeling or washing vegetables,” he recalls. “So it was really ingrained into me at a young age that you have to really understand that food doesn't just appear on the plate in a restaurant. That gave me a real respect for food from a very young age.”
While his grandmother was his culinary mentor, he cites his “Uncle Lucky,” his dad's brother, as his restaurant mentor. “He put me in every position - I worked my way up from dishwasher to prep cook, prep cook to cook, and then up through the stations in the kitchen. And then we had to transition to the front of house. There I had to bus tables and serve as well.” Yet another uncle became Tila’s market mentor. “I had to do everything from sweeping the parking lot to bagging groceries to working produce, meat and operations.”
And then there was the example that Tila’s father established. “My father was definitely a trendsetter. He found multiple revenue streams and he monetized every segment of this business. Basically, our produce companies would support our markets, which would support our restaurants. And our import company would support our markets and support our restaurants. So he definitely made me understand that there are a lot of revenue opportunities in different parts of the business.”
Despite such a background, the moment Tila decided to make a career out of cooking came in a somewhat roundabout way. “I was bumming around during my early college years, and there was a collection of diehard customers at the grocery store where I used to work,” he explains. “They would always ask me to do a cooking class. This is pre-Food Network or any kind of Cooking Channel situation. I had a collection of non-Asian guests that just came back from Thailand and they wanted to learn. I would always write recipes and teach them how to cook things verbally. I'd walk them through the store and say, 'Hey, this is how to make pad thai.' And they finally said, 'Just do a cooking class. We'll support it!” In 1998 he took them up on their offer, and started to teach small classes out of his backyard.
A reporter for the Los Angeles Times snuck into his class, unbeknownst to Tila. After the class, he got a call from a photographer for a feature story in the newspaper. It made the front page of the paper and it put Jet front-and-center as the new face of Thai cooking in Los Angeles. “That was the tipping point. I got about 500 to 1,000 phone calls over the course of three weeks,” the chef recalls. “That's when I knew I had to formalize education and I went off to culinary school. That was the pivotal moment where I knew coming up in this Asian grocery/restaurant family could convert into a larger brand.”
He feels that anyone working in a family business needs to spend some time learning outside of the clan. “Otherwise, you only see things done one way,” he says. “That's a major problem with family businesses. I think in my 20s I started getting a little tired of the way that business was being done and I felt and I knew in my heart that I needed to find new systems and new ways because we were doing the same thing for 30 years. That's when I decided to go off. I consulted and worked with Bon Appétit Management, which was later acquired by Compass Groups. I spent a lot of time with them and I still do. I also went off and worked at Wynn Las Vegas for four years. So these two companies really shaped who I am as a culinary businessman, of which my family is the foundation.”
Family legacy has especially been in the front of Tila’s mind recently as he just had his first child. “My daughter is two months old. I find myself, even now, moving her little baby chair into the kitchen. We go to farmers’ markets together, we come back, we prepare food, and she's absorbing it all.” And while he wouldn’t mind seeing her get into the culinary business, he claims that his biggest fear is that she would want to become a chef. “My hope is she wants to be an entrepreneur, a culinary businessperson, because I think there's a clear distinction between the two. I don't want her to slave away in the kitchen. I really don't. If she does she should only do that for a short time. I'd love her to go to Cornell, maybe, and get a degree in restaurant and hotel management or become an MBA and understand the really high-level of operations. That would be my dream.”