Jet Tila on the Evolution of Thai Food in America
Tila's family is credited with opening the first Thai grocery store ever in the United States—and possibly the first Thai restaurant, too.
“Before tamarind was readily available, it was vinegar, sugar, and ketchup,” Jet Tila says. That was the state of early Thai cuisine in the United States, on the heels of the first wave of Thai immigration in the 1960s. And his family was part of it.
Before he was a celebrity chef on Cutthroat Kitchen with BFF Alton Brown—Tila was just texting back and forth with him before our interview, and the two got tattoos together last year (more on that later)—he was teaching Thai cooking classes out of his mom’s backyard and helping his family run Bangkok Market in Los Angeles. Opened in 1972, it’s the first Thai grocery ever in the United States.
“It was confirmed that there were no Thai businesses ever created before that,” Tila says. “We can track it through business licenses, PR, it’s always been reported as the first Thai market, and never contested.” Given that there was virtually no Thai immigration to the United States before the '60s, this makes sense.
His family also opened one of the first Thai restaurants in the U.S., although this fact is a little more fuzzy—it was definitely one of the first three, and very possibly the first, depending on whom you ask.
Tila’s parents, of Hainanese Chinese origin, had immigrated from Thailand to the United States in 1966 thanks to a change of immigration rules that year. They were among the first wave of Thai immigration to the U.S., ahead of the Vietnam War—in which, significantly, Thailand was an American ally. And with this wave came ingredients like fish sauce, coconut milk, galangal, kaffir lime: All signifiers of the “Orient,” that exoticizing word so prevalent in decades past.
Before khao soi was Tuesday night takeout in metropolises like L.A. and New York, pad thai was the approachable symbol of Thai cuisine. A lot has changed since then, Tila reflects—and his family was a huge part of that, given that L.A. is in many ways the country's forerunner and bastion of Thai culture. In this city’s Thai Town—the only one in the country—critically praised restaurants like Jitlada offer hyper-regional takes on Southern Thai. 15 minutes away in North Hollywood—okay, like 40 in traffic—sits Wat Thai, the first and largest Thai temple in the country. And it’s still L.A. that has the largest Thai community outside Thailand itself.
“I feel like Chinese food has been ubiquitous in America for so long, and I feel like Thai food has finally achieved that status,” Tila says. “I think there’s this romance of Thai culture because it’s exotic, non-political. China obviously will create more political feelings with people, given what’s in the news and communism, etc. But there’s this automatic romance with Thai food… I can’t think of another Asian culture that has this halo effect that Thai culture has.” Cue images of Siam, to the soundtrack of The King and I.
“Also, America’s relationship to Thailand goes back to Vietnam,” he says. “Anyone who lived through the 1960s and 1970s, especially military who served, they did their time in Thailand.”
These days, despite the proliferation of chef-driven Thai restaurants—exemplified by Kris Yenbamroong’s Night + Market in L.A.—Tila’s professional travels to Middle America offer contrast.
“[Some] of my responsibility is to expose people who’ve grown up with a certain view of Asians, maybe a stereotypical view… to break that stereotype,” he says. “They’re like, wow, Jet has no accent, he’s really cool, I could get a beer with that guy.”
He goes on to say, “There are communities that are not very diverse, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s just the history of that community. And a lot of [their] exposure to people of color is going to be in media. And I understand my responsibility is to represent that. To some people I’m Thai, to some I’m Chinese, and some may not know the difference between Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese. At the end of the day, I represent many different things to many different people.”
Not that Tila’s only function is to be an ambassador of Thai cuisine—although that’s been his job description, literally, as appointed by the Thai Consulate General in L.A. Currently, he’s working on a June deadline for his second cookbook, which expands well beyond Asian cuisine. It’s going to be called 101 Dishes Every Good Cook Should Know. (His first book, released last fall, is called 101 Asian Dishes You Need to Cook Before You Die. At this April’s L.A. Times Festival of Books, he cooked a couple dishes from it.)
Tila, a culinary schooled chef in his own right, probably enjoys teaching more than most. It’s actually his cooking classes—initially publicized by the L.A. Times, which heralded hundreds of calls the following day—that earned him his first T.V. spot. It was the dawn of the 2000s, before the Food Network would herald in the era of the celeb chef.
For the next decade or so, through the aughts, Tila worked in corporate gigs for Intel and working a night for free in the kitchens of chefs like Neal Fraser. “I had the most atypical chef upbringing there is,” he says. “I married a preschool special ed teacher and her mom’s a child psych, so I wasn’t diagnosed until recently with my ADD, and I really attribute that to my success in this field,” he says. “Taking on multiple projects in different facets of cooking, and hitting them really hard; I really need that stimulation.”
A huge chunk of these projects are media appearances these days, of which Cutthroat Kitchen has been a part. “Alton and I became very tight friends during Cutthroat Kitchen,” he says. “You can almost hear the moments when it went from a Hollywood friendship to a real friendship. Look, I think we’re both in real life slightly introverted, and we click. We spend time together when we’re shooting together or we’re in the same city. We were like, we should tattoos, and he said, ‘Hell yeah, let’s do it.’ And I thought he was kidding, but he wasn’t.”
So they found a tattoo artist to come to one of their houses—must be a Hollywood thing. The best part? They decided to Facebook livestream the whole thing, and you can watch it here. They both ended up getting a tattoo of a Hemingway quote: “Never be daunted.” (While Jet has sleeves, it also wasn’t Alton’s first.)
“He’s obviously the more cerebral one of us,” he says. “I wanted an octopus with a bunch of different kitchen implements in each tentacle. That might be our next one together.”