A Conversation With Jet Tila
Fun fact: Before Jet Tila became a celebrity chef and a household name to those that dig on the concept of a celebrity chef, he was an employee of the Los Angeles Times.
“Not too many people remember that,” he says. “After I graduated from the CIA, I worked in their test kitchen as an intern for a couple of years. I ended up writing a bunch of recipes that were published in the Times. A couple of them landed on the front page. It’s a part of my career that’s gotten somewhat lost over the course of time.”
On April 21, Tila gets to enjoy a homecoming of sorts. On that day, he’ll be a featured speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the paper’s massive annual fete celebrating the sanctity of the written word. Using the word “massive” to describe the 23rd annual affair might be underselling things a bit – over 150,000 people are expected to descend upon the campus of USC to attend the two-day fete, which goes down April 21 and 22. Tila is one of over 500 talents featured at the event, joining Joyce Carol Oates, Patton Oswalt, Vivica A. Fox, Moby, Maria Shriver, and other luminaries from the realm of art and celebrity. Tila’s scheduled to talk about his critically-acclaimed cookbook, “101 Asian Dishes You Need to Cook Before You Die.” His presence makes a lot of sense, and not just because he’s a former Times employee: the paper that once cut his paychecks also dished out some serious praise for his tome, deeming it one of the top ten cookbooks of 2017.
Of course, props from L.A.’s main rag won’t be the main reason people will clamor to see Tila’s 2:00 PM discussion-like “conversation” on the 21st. Food geeks that regularly tune into the Food Network will snap up tickets to his talk because he’s not just a culinary talent sharing his skills in written form. He’s technically a celebrity chef, but calling him such doesn’t fully flesh out his appeal, either. He’s a celebrity chef that’s battled Masaharu Morimoto on “Iron Chef America” and hung out in Vegas with Anthony Bourdain. That level of fame builds up a certain kind of cachet, even if Tila admits to not necessarily seeing it from his point of view. “I’m indifferent about the label,” he says. “I don’t consider myself a celebrity. I’m just a dude that wants to create the best dishes I can. But as Thomas Keller once said, ‘Celebrity is what others bestow on a person.’ If people want to consider me a celebrity, that’s fine.”
The Festival of Books is Tila’s first book festival he’s attending as an author, and he couldn’t have picked a more appropriate place to make such a debut. One of the Festival of Books’ major themes this year is highlighting the existence of storytelling in conversational topics, and cuisine like the food Tila’s dishing about is the basis for prime oration. The recipes shared in “101 Asian Dishes” covers six different Asian cuisines, such as Vietnamese, Korean and Thai. Each recipe provides insight into the differences that exist between the continent’s various culinary sub-genres. These differences can represent accessible gateways to further exploration that transcends the dinner plate, potentially leading the home cook to develop a keen interest in the respective country’s cultures, customs and traditions. Logically, these could lead to the discovery of new story-driven conversational topics just waiting to be told.
Viewing Tila’s cookbook through the Festival of Books’ unique storytelling lens gives it a certain level of headiness to the tome. The cookbook further heightens this sense through a few culinary plot twists, such as “mash-up” recipes that fuse traditional Asian flavors with non-traditional concepts – his way of tipping his hat to the diverse food scene he experienced growing up in Los Angeles. Yet Tila is hesitant to view his cookbook as the work of a literary artist. “I see myself as an archivist, like a historian,” he says. “My goal behind the cookbook is to distill a set of info in a way that can open up a cook’s eyes to various concepts. Hopefully, they can take this information to create the best dishes possible.”
At the same time, Tila’s core philosophy doesn’t mean he views his book’s contents as mere recipes. “Food is a journey,” he states. “This journey evolves differently for everyone. For instance, the first Asian food someone in, say, Kentucky or Kansas may have experienced is classic Asian-American orange chicken, and that’s totally fine. If that gives them a positive experience with Asian food, they may be curious to find out more. My cookbook will hopefully guide people along in this exploration process, wherever they happen to be on that journey.”
In a weekend loaded with exciting tales, Tila and his cookbook may yield one of the most satisfying ones to share.
The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, held April 21-22, is free to attend, but tickets are required to see the event’s conversations.
Please visit www.events.latimes.com/festivalofbooks for more details.