Jet Tila has been appointed the first Culinary Ambassador of Thai Cuisine by the Royal Thai Consul General in Los Angeles, tasked with spreading awareness nationwide and making official his unofficial -- and long-standing -- role as a guide to the cuisine.
Tila was tapped for the position after a meeting with the consul general, who sought Tila's feedback on promoting the cuisine last month. The chef's duties will include touring the United States on behalf of the Thai government, giving food demonstrations, making media appearances and coordinating events.
Recognizing the number of Thai chefs and cooks in the country, he sees his role as rallying everyone to create an extensive community. And though his scope will be national, the Thai Chinese chef plans to keep his hometown a key part of the programming.
"We have the highest concentration of Thais in L.A., which lends to the diversity of food. You can have a great regional Thai meal in Los Angeles, whereas you couldn't in the rest of the country. There are a lot of stars out there, but they tend to cook one style," Tila says.
"I'd like to get the most notable Thai chefs around the country for one central event here in L.A.," he says. As he notes, the cultural heritage of the chef is less important as the contents of his or her wok.
"A lot of the chefs around the country were born here. It's really about what we grew up cooking and what we learned from traveling," Tila explains. He has observed a common, persistent misconception of Thai cuisine as sweet. "Thai food is neither overly sweet nor overly spicy. It revolves around the idea of yum -- the perfect balance of hot, sour, salty, bitter and sweet."
It isn't the first time the Thai government has turned to gastro-diplomacy as a means to engage the international community. In a Feb. 21, 2002, article published in The Economist, the government drew up a campaign called "Global Thai," designed to increase the number of Thai restaurants around the world from 5,500 at the time to 8,000 within a year.
Last September, the U.S. State Department partnered with the James Beard Foundation to bring food to the diplomatic forefront. According to the official release, this meant "chefs from across the country will serve as resources to the Department in preparing meals for foreign leaders, and will participate in public diplomacy programs that engage foreign audiences abroad as well as those visiting the United States." About 80 chefs, including Jose Andrés, Mary Sue Milliken and Bryan Voltaggio, joined the first American Chef Corps.
Tila has already been a Thai food ambassador of sorts in L.A., giving tours of Thai Town with Melting Pot Tours and introducing Anthony Bourdain to the neighborhood's eats on the L.A. episode of No Reservations. Tila's parents opened Bangkok Market in 1972, followed by Royal Thai Cuisine six years later. Last year, he opened the Charleston in Santa Monica last year.
He's scheduled to appear in a couple of television programs in the next few months, including CBS' The Dish, to speak on the history of Thai food in the United States.
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