A Pinch More from Chef Tila

Although a newcomer to the world of school foodservice, celebrity chef Jet Tila definitely “drank the Kool-Aid,” so to speak, through several school-focused initiatives and an appearance at SNA’s 2018 Annual National Conference (ANC). In the article “Adding a Dash of Fame,” written by Kelsey Casselbury and published in the April 2019 edition of School Nutrition, the chef discusses how he came into school foodservice and why he became passionate about feeding hungry, school-aged children.

In this extended interview, Tila describes how he reached celebrity status with Food Network, how more students can be introduced to a career in school nutrition, the upcoming publication of his second cookbook and more!

School Nutrition: How did you become affiliated with Food Network?

Chef Jet Tila: I created the first Thai web store, Bangkokmarket.com, in 1998, and Food Network featured it during the holidays in 1999 as a one-off on this show called “The Best Of”—but I was about 20 years too early [to have success with the website].

As a regular player, though—when I was executive chef at Wynn Hotel Las Vegas, I was asked to battle [Chef Masaharu] Morimoto on “Iron Chef.” It was supposed to be one of those battles where they bring a chump in for Morimoto to beat up on, and I didn’t want to look like [expletive] in front of millions of people. I challenged him, and the secret ingredient was seaweed, which is the worst thing you can cook against a Japanese chef. But, you know, through stubbornness and preparation, the score was 48 to 50; it was that close. I understood at that point: It’s not just television, it’s also entertainment.

Based on that appearance, Giada De Laurenti became a frequent guest of mine and said, “Let’s get you in front of an agent.” I was raised by Giada, Alton [Brown] and Bobby [Flay], in that order. My first regular role was on a hit show at that time called “Cutthroat Kitchen,” and then, through that, Alton and I spent hundreds of hours together and hit it off. We are very, very close friends.

I have judged almost every single show on Food Network. I did “Food Network Star;” then I met Bobby Flay, and he took me under his wing and put me on “Beat Bobby Flay.” He’s still truly one of my mentors. I get time one-on-one with Alton and Bobby a few times a year, and we just look at the board—what are we doing right, what are we doing wrong?

SN: If Schwan’s stopped the Chef Collective, do you think you would find another way to support school meal programs?

JT: I try to allocate a bunch of time to fundraising—it’s a “have to” for me. I’ve told all the foodservice people I’ve met, “I am a free resource for you. Do you need recipes? Do you want me to Skype-in on a school competition? If I’m in the area, if you give me your schedule, would you like me to pop by?” I’m personally all-in.

SN: How can culinary students be encouraged to consider school foodservice as a viable career path?

JT: There are a lot of different answers there. We can be marketing that during the training of chefs in culinary school but, first, we need to raise awareness that this career path exists through school channels and through media channels. We need to stop calling them “lunch ladies,” you know what I mean? Lunch ladies are amazing, and we love them, but you make all men go, “What, I can’t be a lunch lady?” You’re diminishing the profession down to a dish-and-serve situation. And it’s a profession; it’s a trade. We need to have more “trades” in schools.

JT: Have you seen any opportunities that can build a bridge between professional or celebrity chefs and schools?

JT: Not enough. I think school districts should start thinking about cultivating chef’s collaboratives—or whatever you want to call them—in their city. Most chefs have kids going to school, and it’s all community-based. I’d do it in a heartbeat if there was a Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) initiative.

There could also be honorary school district celebrity chefs. For example, here in Houston, you have multiple James Beard award-winners. This should be something the chefs should be doing to give back to the community. If the community is supporting the restaurant, the chefs should be supporting the school districts.

SN: What was your experience at ANC 2018 in Las Vegas?

JT: I was there for two or three days, but I didn’t have a lot of time. For the next time I’m at ANC, my goal is to do education sessions and such. I saw members’ interest in the power of food celebrity. I saw how excited school nutrition individuals—be it directors, managers or line-level workers—got, saying, “It’s amazing that you’re taking time for school lunch!”

SN: What’s next on your professional agenda?

JT: My second book is coming out in April. My first book, 101 Asian Recipes, came out last year, and it’s still crushing. This one is 101Epic Dishes.

My wife worked for 15 years in LAUSD’s special education department, but her passion has always been food. Two years ago, I said, “You know what, why don’t you go to culinary school?” She went to pastry school in her 40s, and now she’s doing incredibly well. We do these social media videos together. We’re a team—we’re Team Tila.

I had taken some time off from restaurants to raise my kids. I’m definitely going to go back into the restaurant business, and I’m starting to film “Family Food Showdown” on Food Network with Valerie Bertinelli. [Editor’s note: The show premiered on March 3.] I continue to host regular shows on Food Network, though I would like to have a regular show that I host, so we’ll see if that materializes. Food Network has treated me really well.

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