“This is shrimp paste fried rice,” explains chef Jet Tila, who seems comfortable being interviewed while simultaneously cooking a six-course tasting menu for dozens of guests at a pop-up lunch in downtown L.A. Multi-tasking clearly comes easily to the chef who has had careers as restaurateur, television personality and journalist.
“I worked with Russ Parsons from 1998 to 2000,” he explains, referring to his stint at the LA Times.
Now Tila has added the title Culinary Ambassador to Thailand to his resume.
“It’s a position that the Thai Consulate General in L.A. and I came up with,” says Tila. “I don’t think there’s a singular spokesperson for Thai food and I think we need that. We need someone that has media experience, that has journalism experience and has operations experience. My job is to wave the flag for Thai food. When people like yourselves [food writers] that have an audience that want to know, 'What is Thai food?' we’ve got a voice that understands it and that can address it,” says Tila.
But don’t expect him to open up a Thai restaurant in Los Angeles anytime soon. The L.A. native, who was born and raised in Silver Lake, sees cooking Thai food here as conflict of interest.
“It would be weird for me to open a Thai restaurant in the city I live in to compete with Thai people. L.A. has got some of the best Thai food in America, hands down, and we’ve had so much Thai food for so long. There is a natural price resistance in L.A. to ethnic cuisine. I don’t know if I agree or disagree with it. But it is what it is.”
That said, Tila has a deep-rooted relationship with Thai food in L.A.
“My family, when they moved here from Thailand in the sixties, moved into Silver Lake. In the sixties,” he reiterates. “So we’ve been around a little longer than hipsters have.” Upon arriving, his family opened the first Thai grocery store in America in 1972.
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“It’s called the Bangkok Market and my family opened that store. We were the first Thai food family in the states. 4757 Melrose. So Melrose between Western and Normandie. So that’s where you start. That’s where you buy all of your ingredients.” But if cooking Thai food isn't your first concern, Tila is equally versed in where to eat it.
“There’s so many,” says Tila, referring to the vast landscape of Thai food options in Los Angeles. “Northern food wise, there’s a place called Spicy Thai BBQ. These are restaurants that I go to, okay? They’re all around Thai town. They might not necessarily be in Thai town. Spicy Thai BBQ is the best Northern Thai restaurant in L.A. in my opinion. It’s on Normandie and Sunset. Isaan Station is phenomenal for North Eastern Thai food. Jitlada for Southern, Ruen Pair, Pa Ord, Sapp Coffee Shop."
When asked about how his native Silver Lake has changed since his childhood, Tila has mixed feelings.
"Everything has changed here in Silver Lake! The only things that look the same are the streets and land markers. I’m torn about the change, I think a lot of people can’t really afford to live here anymore and that sucks. But I’ve evolved from a poor kid from these streets just like the neighborhood has. But overall I love the east side of L.A … there’s way more flavor on this side of town."