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LAFW 2013: Jet Tila's Big Plans for Thai Fest

By Lesley Balla  |  August 24, 2013
Credit: Jet Tila

When you talk to chef Jet Tila, his enthusiasm is infectious. But get him talking about Thai food, and he practically bounces off the walls. Having grown up in LA's Thai Town, home to the largest Thai population outside of Thailand, Tila learned the culinary traditions from his Cantonese grandmother while helping at his family's Bangkok Market and Royal Thai restaurant. He's shown Anthony Bourdain around the neighborhood on No Reservations, gave Morimoto a run for it on Iron Chef America, opened Wazuzu at the Wynn, and recently opened Snow Cream, a new frozen dessert shop, in Las Vegas. But his love is always LA first (he's often referred to as the Mayor of Thai Town and gives walking tours) and the Thai community, just one reason he was named the Culinary Ambassador of Thai Cuisine by the Royal Thai Consul-General. In short: if you need the best pad Thai or the most authentic khao yam anywhere, Tila knows where to go.

He's putting that knowledge to good use and curating LA's first Thai Food Festival, set to take place this September, with hopes to take it across the country. We chatted about the festival, Morimoto and more while he served plates of curried noodles at LAFW's Asian Night Market last night.

Zagat: LA's getting its first Thai Food Festival. Tell us about it.
Jet Tila: It’s on September 29 in the front of Paramount Studios. Ten of the best Thai restaurants that I’ve curated will be there, and five amazing non-Thai chefs cooking Thai food. Sang Yoon! Susan Feniger! Kris Yenbamroong, although he's kind of Thai. And we have Andy Ricker from Pok Pok coming. And we might have someone really big from the Food Network making an appearance, just coming in to help do the panel and hang out.

Zagat: And who would that be?
JT: Someone who might have a food show from back in the day that rhymes with “Mood Heat.” I can’t say anything more. You’ll have to figure it out. He's been on the network for a long time and MC'd a lot of shows. [ed. note: We're guessing Alton Brown]

Zagat: How did this come to be?
JT: Part of my ambassadorship with the Thai government is to pull this event together. They want an annual event that has never been before done nationally. And if this thing goes off, which I know it will, it will just get bigger every year.

Zagat: Will it always be in LA?
JT: No, we want to start in LA. Well, let me change my mind. The Thai Consul-General is based in LA, so we’ll be here. New York already has enough festivals.

Zagat: How is this different than the Thai New Year celebration that takes place in Hollywood?
JT: No one’s ever pulled together nationally recognized non-Thai chefs to cook Thai food with the Thai chefs. I do the Thai tours, and people always ask me about all of the restaurants. But with this I’m bringing it all to one place, with all my chef friends.

Zagat: If you had to pick one favorite Thai restaurant in the neighborhood?
JT: Oh, why do you do this to me? I can’t pick one! Ok, do this. I want you to start at Ruen Pair, then go to Yai, then graduate to Pa Ord. See, I’m going to just get them all in there.

Zagat: Do you do the festival circuit a lot?
JT: I don’t get to too many because of my time, but  LA’s my home. I’m always going to support home first.

Zagat: Anyone here you’re excited to meet?
JT: I know just about everyone here. Nguyen [Tran, from Starry Kitchen] is always dressed the best. And Morimoto pulled me out of the crowd and said, “Come here and take a picture with me.” Because I gave him an almost ass-whipping on Iron Chef America years ago, and he still remembers that to this day.