In a few short years, Jet Tila went from a newspaper intern to world record fame and running his own glamorous Las Vegas restaurant. Read about his quick move into the world of gourmet culinary arts and his thoughts on living in glitzy Sin City.
et Tila is something of an enigma. A down-to-earth Los Angeles native, in 2008 Tila was transported to the sparkly, neon lights of Las Vegas. How did this happen? How did the son of two immigrants who created the Bangkok Market, the man who used to teach cooking classes in his backyard, become the face of Asian cuisine in Las Vegas?
It all started because of his parents, of course, and his Thai-Chinese background. Tila credits his Cantonese grandmother for teaching him about family traditions and recipes, and his love of Asian food.
“In my early 20s, I came to a realization,” Tila tells me, as we dine at his now famous restaurant, Wazuzu, the Pan-Asian bistro at the Encore. The Encore is the sister hotel of the Wynn, opened by the legendary king of Las Vegas, Steve Wynn. Wazuzu is a vibrant, elegant restaurant, located on the casino floor of the Encore, the ringing of the slot machines substituting mood music. A 27-foot-long Swarovski crystal dragon swoops over the plush booths, chopsticks being encompassed by mini dragons. No detail has gone unnoticed at this beautiful place, which fits in perfectly with the aesthetic of the hotel.
Tila has invited me here to have lunch and discuss his career. He’s open and easy to talk to, his charisma and charm are undeniable – you can tell he’s made for T.V. Tila begins by telling me about those now infamous backyard cooking classes.
“I was working in my parents’ store, and I saw this huge opportunity in non-Asians coming in, wanting to know how to cook Asian food. Now, this was in the late ’90s, and it was pre-Food Network, pre-Anthony Bourdain, there were no Thai cookbooks, nothing. I saw an opportunity and I went for it.” Tila essentially started the Thai cooking trend with his classes, which sold out almost immediately. Barbara Hansen of the Los Angeles Times noticed, and sat in on one of his classes. The next week, Tila’s face was plastered on the cover of the L.A. Times’s Food Section. From there, his life changed drastically.
“After that article ran, I literally got 500 phone calls the next day,” Tila says, reminiscing. “And it was just me and my phone! There was no business; it was just me and a spread sheet, trying to work it all out.” Tila says he had an epiphany then. He realized there was an untapped market in visual, hands-on cooking classes, which ultimately translates to food T.V.
The success of his classes prompted Tila to go to culinary school, to learn not just about Asian cuisine, but to gain a fundamental knowledge of cooking food from around the world. He interned at the L.A. Times while at school, and later went on to cook at many L.A. eateries, including Patina, Grace, and The Hungry Cat.
Bon Appetit Management Company was next. Tila would go into large scale corporations, which at the time coincided with the tech boom, and therefore included AOL, Netscape and Google, and would set up Asian food training with the companies. He was with Bon Appetit for five years, traveling around the country teaching every day Americans how to cook Asian cuisine. Tila says this is where he learned production cooking, or large scale cooking. He made pad thai for 5,000 people, he made a stir-fry for 10,000. That garnered him his first Guinness World Record, for “World’s Largest Stir Fry,” which came in at 1,805 pounds.
And what about his current, glitzy Las Vegas gig? How did that happen?” It was the summer of 2008,” Tila begins, “I was living in LA, teaching, consulting, I was a private chef; I had a great little life.” As fate would have it, that’s when he got the call. It was from one of Steve Wynn’s top food and dining representatives, asking Tila to come to Las Vegas to present a mock menu for them. “I thought, ‘How do you know me?’ I didn’t have a national presence at that point,” Tila says. He was flabbergasted by the offer, but of course pounced at the opportunity. He created a mock menu, which consisted of nine courses, with all different Asian ethnicities included. The Wynn people loved it. They loved him. Now all they had to do was convince him to move out to Las Vegas.
“The director of food and beverage literally put me in a car and picked my brain for two hours,” Tila says, laughing at the memory. The director took Tila on a tour of the many residential areas in the suburbs of Las Vegas, hinting at the low housing prices and safe gated communities. Tila hesitated, but in the end realized what a huge opportunity it was. “I knew these types of things only happen once in a lifetime” Tila says about taking the job. From there, Tila’s life was forever changed.
Tila was hired Sept. 1st, 2008, and had 12 weeks to open the restaurant in time for the grand opening of the Encore hotel in December. He says those first six weeks were pure hell. “It was like I was giving birth!” He says. He had to learn how to work in a corporate environment, about the union system, not to mention having approximately 10 bosses above him. “I came from a family business,” Tila says, “so it was hard to learn the corporate structure, and learn how to work under multiple bosses.” But in time, he learned how. Tila handpicked his entire staff, and credits his general manager Andrea Ung for helping him through those rough first few months.
I ask Tila if the whole experience was what he expected. He pauses to think about it. “It was basically what I expected, but the biggest learning point for me was that I expected Vegas to be this cutting edge food city. And our guests are such a mix of people. Some want amazing creations, others just want traditional standards.” Tila says he imagined he’d be cooking lavish meals for every guest, and the reality was that people from Ohio just want something they can pronounce – something that isn’t too spicy or weird.
Every day from then on out involves a lot of meetings, a lot of politicking, a lot of P.R., and interviews (like this one). Tila says the executive chef is responsible for the entire restaurant. Each restaurant at the Wynn is its own business, so the chef and general manager are responsible for absolutely everything. An average day is about 10 hours. Wazuzu is a two service restaurant, meaning they are open for lunch and for dinner. Tila usually comes in at around 12 p.m., and since it’s a giant corporate structure, he attends many meetings throughout the day. I ask how much actual cooking Tila does.
“Not a lot,” he says, “I’ll cook maybe 10 meals a week – and only for VIP guests. If Steven Wynn’s coming in, you know I’ll be making his meal. But most days, I shouldn’t be standing on the line, making sure every dish is perfect. That should be working seamlessly. I need to have a global view of what’s going on in the restaurant, so I’m not usually on the cooking line.” Tila has over 30 chefs in his kitchen, three managers at the front of the house, and three chefs under him.
I ask about the food. Where does it come from, exactly? We all know Las Vegas is located in the middle of the desert, where cactuses can barely grow, let alone produce. Tila says that Las Vegas is one of the most influential food cities in the world, and it has tremendous buying power. He gives me an example. “Say a fish is caught in Japan. We can have it within 40 hours. A king crab is caught in Alaska. I can have that, in my salt water tank, alive, within 30 hours. The amount of money flowing though Las Vegas, the level of players and guests who expect the best, makes it a great environment to be a chef. And we always get the best of the best. Some of it is trucked in from California, mostly produce. And everything else is flown in.”
And what about Las Vegas’ reputation for being this ultra glamorous party capital of the world. When you live here, is that a reality?“It can be,” Tila says, “but there are two different lives you can live here. An off strip life, or an on strip life.”
The strip which he is referring to is the stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard that houses all the famous hotels regularly seen in movies and on T.V. In reality, Las Vegas itself is like any other Western metropolis in the U.S., with malls and schools and hospitals and suburban sprawl that crawls all the way up into the mountains, as far away from the strip as possible, where many of the wealthier residents live.
“You can either party like a rockstar and burn out, or you can try and find some peace outside of that,” Tila says, “that’s what I do. There’s a lot to be said about being mature enough for this position.”
Still, he says, there are perks. “Mr. Wynn will come in with [country superstar] Garth Brooks, then hand out free tickets to his concert. Beyoncé and Jay-Z have both eaten my food (although in the privacy of their hotel room) and there are all kinds of celebrities, from pro basketball players to movie stars, who come to Las Vegas. It really is a city of fantasy. There’s no place like Las Vegas anywhere in the world.”
“It’s everything I wanted it to be. People make their own destinies. And I was missing this on my resume. I wanted to show people that I can open a restaurant on this major national scale, and I did.”
I can only imagine what else Tila has up his sleeve in the future. One thing’s for sure: the only place he can go from here is up.