I'm talking about celebrity chef Jet Tila, who today is all over the Food Network, who in 2011 almost beat Masaharu Morimoto on Iron Chef America (he was only two points behind), who opened the dazzling restaurant Wazuzu at the Wynn Encore in Las Vegas, and so much more.
His latest is a cookbook, "101 Asian Dishes You Need to Cook Before You Die." Now he's making the rounds of TV shows and book signings, among them a benefit for C-CAP (Careers Through Culinary Arts Program), where I took the photo at the top. The next morning he was at Melissa's Produce.
How did this start? In 1999, when I was writing about food at the Los Angeles Times, Jet began to teach Thai cooking at his home. This was because non-Asian shoppers at the Bangkok Market, which his parents had opened in 1972, kept asking him how to cook the Thai dishes they loved.
When I found out about the classes, I enrolled in one and wrote it up for The Times. Jet said he expected only a "snippet" in the paper. Instead, it was a full spread (above) that included five recipes--pad krapow, Thai chicken broth, pad Thai, Thai stick (noodles wrapped around shrimp) and tom yum soup.
The story appeared March 28,1999, with a color teaser on page one of the food section (above). The response was enormous. Hundreds of people got in touch with Jet the first day, and by the end of the week he estimates that he had heard from 1,000. (Click here to read the article and get the recipe for pad krapow, which is stir-fried chicken with Thai basil.)
Jet's tom yum soup so wowed The Times food staff that it was chosen one of the best recipes of 1999. (Click here to see that article and the recipe.)
By then Jet was a food section intern, producing amazing dishes, and we never wanted him to leave. He studied at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, building upon his early work at another family enterprise, Royal Thai restaurant, and also enrolled in the California Sushi Academy.
Good karma, great cooking instincts, a desire to learn and a strong work ethic drove him onwards. This is how he rose from bagging groceries at the Bangkok Market to Iron Chef. For that challenge, he trained for a month, adding hours of practice to his long days at Wazuzu.
As a child, Jet learned to cook from his Cantonese grandmother. Pineapple fried rice was "one of the first dishes that grandma taught me to make," he said. Served in a pineapple shell, It became a big hit at Wazuzu and is still on the menu there.
Early on, Jet began to lead tours of Thai Town and still does so, through Melting Pot Food Tours. Here, he shows Thai ingredients in a market.
For a Thai New Year festival in Hollywood in 2008, he prepared the best panang chicken curry I had ever tasted, and I begged for the recipe. Click here to see it on my blog, www.TableConversation.com. It's in the book too, in slightly different form.
In 2013, Jet was named the first Culinary Ambassador of Thai Cuisine by the Royal Thai Consul General in Los Angeles. Here, during a dinner at a festival organized by Thailand's Chang beer in 2016, he's explaining Thai cuisine and the dishes he chose for the menu.
His cookbook is pan-Asian, including such recipes as kimchi fried rice, Korean short rib tacos, Japanese cucumber seaweed salad and Indian vegetable korma along with Thai food.
From a file of about 700 recipes, Jet chose those that he thought were "super delicious," especially popular and that "people can truly accomplish anywhere in the United States."
Using "101" in the title reflects his love of teaching. Always encouraging and never intimidating, he says, "Cooking is like kung fu. The more you do it, the more enlightened you become."