June 18, 2024

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How Food Helped Chef Jet Tila Embrace His Asian Identity

4 min read

Walking into the backyard, it feels like entering a closed set of “The Kardashians” — except instead of the reality stars, chef Jet Tila is slinging barbecue.

The celebrity chef is filming a new YouTube series in partnership with Coyote Outdoor and RTA Outdoor Living at his Calabasas, California, home. Amid the gorgeous backdrop of his recently renovated outdoor kitchen and built-in TV set, Tila is deftly whipping up meaty dishes for the camera. His wife, Allison “Ali” Tila, is helping him bake bread in their outdoor oven for the segment.

Though Tila attended French culinary school in his early 20s, there is no pretense of fussy tweezing or judgment here as he cheerfully prepares his dishes.

“A comfort meal for me is cooking a burger,” Tila tells TODAY.com between takes.

He adds making pizza and pasta for the couple’s two kids — who are nine and 12 years old — to the comfort-food lineup.

Tila says he makes pizza at least once a week, adding with a laugh that “as a dad, I buy dough.” Much like Ina Garten, he agrees store-bought is fine.

“Straight up, man,” he chuckles. “But at least we’re cooking with the kids! We’re having community around our kitchen.”

Image: Today - Season 68
Tila on TODAY with Craig Melvin on Oct. 14, 2019.Nathan Congleton / NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

That kitchen community is one that has long shaped his family.

His Thai Chinese parents were some of the earliest trailblazers to bring Thai food to America in the 1970s. The history isn’t lost on Tila, who says Chinese cuisine is more of a “legacy food” in the U.S. — since it’s been here for hundreds of years — but that Thai food is a more recent import. The chef says he’s been working as an ambassador for Thai culture his entire career.

“You know you’re making an impact when every non-Asian chef is incorporating Asian flavors into their menu,” he says, adding that he’s “proud to be a spokesperson” for some Asian cultures.

Tila says when he appears on TV, it’s often in places that “don’t have a high population of Asian people.”

“So I’m their first friend that doesn’t look like them,” he says. “And it’s important for me to know that as a cultural ambassador, they’re like, ‘That dude’s not working in an Asian restaurant.’ That, ‘He’s not, you know, insert-stereotype-here.’” Tila goes on to say he hopes kids watching also can take his lessons to heart, especially those who are in the minority and are feeling “stuck.”

Tila wasn’t always so confident in his ethnicity. Born and raised in Los Angeles, the chef says he grew up as a “third-culture kid.”

“I was always envious of the food that my friends were eating, like ribs and mashed potatoes,” he laughs. “As a third-culture kid who has immigrants in their family, this is what we yearn for — the things we don’t have.”

Tila says he sometimes felt conflicted about his Asian identity as a child.

“I felt confused and without a place for a long time because I was never Chinese enough. I was never Thai enough,” he says, adding that in the largely white neighborhoods he grew up, “I was just the Asian.”

“You know, ‘tokens,’” he continues.

Tila says the first people to be representatives for anything different from those around them always “have the hardest go.”

“But I think that without them, there’s no introduction,” he continues. “So, we have the hardest go, but it’s our job.”

Eventually, Tila came to realize it was his “job” to represent his culture as best he could and he used his platform as a celebrity chef to do so.

“It’s my responsibility to represent my culture in a very positive way,” he says, noting that globalization has helped introduce different cultures to more narrow-minded communities.

“Television and the internet are making people who are more insular try new things — so foreign, ethnic, global, spicy, is cool,” he says. And something being deemed cool, makes more people want to try it. “So we’re all winning,” he says.

Tila believes food is one of the best ways to bring a divided nation together.

“Food is a vehicle to literally end or dilute or stop discrimination,” he says. “I don’t fault people who are scared of people that are not their culture — we are all creatures who needed community to survive. So we’re just undoing that.”

“We’re getting there,” he continues. “And you know, it’s a Trojan horse for culture. I mean, you’ll be like, ‘You like my food? Then you understand my people a little bit more.’”

“Jet Tila’s Cooking with Coyote” — in partnership with Coyote Outdoor and RTA Outdoor Living — will premiere on YouTube on July 1.

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