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Lessons in becoming your own brand from chef Jet Tila

Chef Jet Tila

Celebrity chef Jet Tila learned the importance of diversification in business early in life, and that’s made the difference in his ability to make it out of the pandemic intact, rather than going under.

Tila grew up in the family business, which encompassed some of the first Thai restaurants in California, the first Thai grocery store in the United States, an import company, and an agricultural business. It was his first experience with the benefits of building multiple revenue streams. That diversification mindset has made him not only a great chef, but a household name. 

Most recently, Tila partnered with quick-serve restaurant Pei Wei to create new recipes, one of the many ways Chef Tila is spreading the “Team Tila” brand around the country.

In this episode of Full Comp, host Josh Kopel and Tila talk about what it takes to build a brand from your own name: choosing the right mentors; taking chances and saying yes to opportunity; and winding up at the right place at the right time. Tila’s branding lessons come from master chefs who cook as well as they build their own brands: Bobby Flay, Alton Brown, and Guy Fieri.

But some of his success is due, he says, to “inserting yourself politely and making things happen,” and a willingness to learn every aspect of brand building, including marketing and public relations.

The two restaurateurs also talk about the effect of the pandemic on restaurants, who will survive, and if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. (Spoiler alert: Tila thinks so.)

Listen to the full episode below, and listen or subscribe on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.

Ready for more? Check out more episodes of Full Comp:

Episode 1: Building a Restaurant Empire in a Recession: Tender Greens’ Erik Oberholtzer

Episode 2: Creating Opportunity from Tragedy: Serial Restaurateur Darin Rubell

Episode 3: Redefining Cocktail Culture: Death & Co’s Alex Day

Episode 4: The Art of the Pivot: Iron Chef Eric Greenfield

Episode 14: The Benefits of Community Building: Chef Nina Compton, Chef/Owner of Compère Lapin

Episode 22: The Art of the Pivot: Mark Canlis, owner/operator of Canlis

Episode 26: The Future of Restaurants: Dean Alex Susskind, Cornell University

Episode 36: Fighting the Good Fight: Celebrity Chef Rick Bayless


Full Comp, episode 34 transcript
Becoming a Brand: Celebrity Chef Jet Tila

[Josh Kopel]

Today’s episode is brought to you by Yelp, whose mission is to connect people with great local businesses. They’re also helping me connect with you, which is totally awesome. Now, here we go.

[Jet Tila]

I couldn’t really crack the code, so it was really about mentorship to be very honest with you. I tapped into people that I knew and either studied their brands or with them directly and asked them questions. I would read business books and I would work hard. I knew that one person can’t be everywhere at once but one as a brand, you can be.

[Josh Kopel]

Welcome to Full Comp, the show offering insight into the future of the hospitality industry, featuring restaurateurs, thought leaders and innovators served up on the house.

If hosting this show has made one thing incredibly clear, it’s that teamwork, data and resources will be what help us thrive post pandemic. Understanding that, Yelp and I have created a cheat sheet, offering insight into consumer behavior, popular trends and free tools and resources to help you get open and stay open. You can download that guide at joshkopel.com/resources, didn’t write that down there’s a link in the show notes as well.

I’m not selling out, I’m buying in. Branding experts like Chef Jet Tila, have created an all-weather strategy for ensuring they’re able to provide for their families no matter what happens. Secret is in creating multiple revenue streams through diversification. It’s not an easy process. The end result looks pretty good these days. On this episode, Jet Tila takes us on his journey from executive chef to household name.

Anyone that knows you, knows you have an entrepreneurial spirit and your parents were entrepreneurs as well. Can you talk to me about their path after immigrating and what it was like for you growing up in their businesses?

[Jet Tila]

Yeah, for sure. I come from very working class people, I mean my father was poor, my mother was middle-class barely, they both immigrated to the United States in 1966 separately, they didn’t know each other. And my father came from a food background, so his family comes from a place in China called Hunan, it’s a very specific Chinese place with its own food culture. They moved to Thailand, everyone was moving away from communism, both of my family went from China to Thailand. So they had a little Hunanis cafe in Bangkok. A little gathering point for Hunanis, Chinese people.

So my father moves to LA and creates a little gathering point for Thai people, right? Because he grows up code switching between Chinese and Thai. And we started, he started the Bangkok Market, the first Thai Grocery store in the country in ’72. So I think he did what his father showed him how to do, because he was not educated at all. And moving forward and you can stop me at any point because it’s a long story and I don’t want to bore anyone. My upbringing was basically everyday steeped in my family’s business, because it had been started in ’72, I was born in ’75 just to get some context. So I was this little baby in this whirlwind of starting a tiny little grocery store but then it quickly became an import company times two, a one restaurant in ’78, that became seven restaurants by ‘90, within 12 years.

And then we were also in the agribusiness, were in the produce business, so my entire childhood was basically being babysat by employees and the businesses. And so my entire upbringing was concurrent apprenticeships as a grocery store kid, as a restaurant kid, as an import company, flying to Mexico and the Central Valley. There’s no effect it was my upbringing, it was no choice either, it’s very difficult to explain to people. I never had to wonder what my path was going to be, it was one direction.

[Josh Kopel]

How did that feel?

[Jet Tila]

Limiting. As a child, also claustrophobic as a child, often neglected as a child. So it came with its own traumas and I don’t think it really… I don’t feel like the benefits really revealed themselves until probably my 20s, maybe my late teens. Because I went to high school, dropped out, worked a lot of odd jobs outside the business because I just wanted to do anything I could to escape my family, which was almost impossible. Worked on a fishing boat for years to never be with my family. So it started to feel interesting in my late 19s, early 20s, when in my group of peers… I was a book cook, so direct reflection of my family’s upbringing. And then I felt that I had a lot of skills and I didn’t realize until that point that, wow, I knew commerce, I knew a little bit of accounting. I knew customer service, I actually could cook. It started feeling good around my 20s. So my parents really gave me the springboard to become who I am today but at the cost of the relationship with my family, So it’s bitter and it’s sweet at the same time.

[Josh Kopel]

Right on. Let’s fast forward a little, you got written up in the Times, years later for hosting cooking classes at your mom’s house. That’s really where you saw your career path in hospitality, right? I was going to say what I found interesting about that was after that you decided to go to culinary school. And there are so many chefs that skipped the formal education at that point, right? You had already been written up at the Times, it’s only up from there. Why was that formal education a priority for you?

[Jet Tila]

I always felt like the Asian kid that couldn’t quite assimilate and I knew that I knew Asian food, like Thai food and Chinese food very well. The world was a big place and in order to be taken seriously by the broader culinary world, I needed to formalize my education, I even knew it then. Again I am a dropout and a troublemaker but I always had context, I really consider myself self-educated. In order to ever ascend further than a normal hospitality job, like even getting to an executive chef level, I knew I needed some credentials, formal credentials. So I knew culinary school was the next logical step for me.

[Josh Kopel]

And you have this dream life because of it, right? Cookbook, TV appearances. You branded yourself as a product and it’s been a while since you’ve captained a restaurant, do you miss it especially in light of the pandemic? Could you ever envision yourself going back there?

[Jet Tila]

And again, it goes back to childhood trauma. The restaurant created an environment where I never had felt a safe and loving familial kind of circle. So restaurants then translate to a means to an end for me. So, no. Your simple question is I ran restaurants up until I was 36, I was at the Wynn for my last five-year big push and I’m good, man. And in light of the pandemic I have friends now losing their businesses but I saw from then. I mean in my 20s, running P and L’s on restaurants, none of it ever made sense. And that was the reason actually I went to Wynn Las Vegas because I needed the protection of an institution, on top of learning things. So no, I don’t miss it. I’m trying to give you short, concise answers.

[Josh Kopel]

You certainly don’t need to, because the reason I brought you on the show is because you’ve done such an effective job of branding yourself. And I said just before I started recording, I feel like it’s made you recession proof, right? You have multiple streams of income, you’re not tied to a physical location. When did you have that idea and what really started you on that path? Because if we flash back to Vegas, you’re working at the Encore, I believe, right? Super corporate job, you’re clocking in, you’re clocking out, working your 80 hour work weeks. How do you go from that to high fiving Bobby Flay on a regular basis?

[Jet Tila]

You’ve put so eloquently, that’s exactly right. So let’s go to Bobby Flay, right? I was constantly studying the brand, the chef brands as I was coming up in the industry. I worked for Neal Fraser in LA, he battled Cat Cora on Iron Chef and so Neal was one of the first brand studies, who also was a mentor and a good friend. And then I moved forward, I wanted to be Bobby, and I was thinking to myself as I was coming up in restaurants, how does one transcend? How does it get up there? A person needs to become an institution and the person needs to be able to clone themselves, not literally but how do I put my imprint on something, get paid for it while I’m sitting here with you doing a podcast in Los Angeles, with my family at home. So I couldn’t really crack the code and so it was really about mentorship to be very honest with you.

I tapped into people that I knew and either studied their brands or knew them directly and asked them questions and read business books and I would work hard. I knew that one person can’t be everywhere at once but one as a brand, you can be in multiple places at once and you can diversify. So my father taught me diversification, because I’ve already told you in these last 10 minutes, he had a restaurant, he had a market, he had an import company, he had the farms. So he also taught me about diversification and vertical integration, and so these were all little lessons along the way that were so important that resonated.

[Josh Kopel]

Let’s get granular, let’s pretend I can cook, of which I cannot.

[Jet Tila]

Yeah, sure man.

[Josh Kopel]

So let’s pretend I can cook and I want that life. So I’m standing next to you, I’m working at the Encore. What were your first steps? Because you got to go on a show and compete like a million other people out there, but there’s only one you and everyone else is still a contestant, right?

[Jet Tila]

Yeah. So I would say, “Josh, you need to put your name out anywhere to your restaurant.” So I was in Encore, it wasn’t easy. Small, what we considered casual dining at that time, no casual dining chef ever got any media placement nor national coverage, more television. And that usually holds true across the board probably globally. These institutions want to stuff just Chef Josh in this place because he’s doing a killer job, making a ton of money, but Josh can’t see his way out. So if you’re standing next to me I’d be like, “Every time you do an interview, you specifically need to tell them to place your name next to the restaurant, you need to go out on your days off… What I did was, I’d clock out of work and every time there was a Vegas Best List, I would write the editor.

Personally, you got to go out and press flesh, you got to get to know the PR people and you need to tell… You got to schmooze your PR people to schmooze their PR people and leave a good taste in their mouth. And on top of that, I did people’s jobs for them, my first job at a culinary school was working for Russ Parsons of the LA Times. I learned how to write, he edited me, I learned how to be a journalist at a very small level. And I would be like, “Hey, you want to write a piece on the restaurant? I’ll write, how many words?” “Do you need a thousand words?” “I’ll write it, you take credit for it.” So these are just little tricks along the way that I would give whoever wanted to know, I’m an open book.

[Josh Kopel]

And TV, did you immediately go out, you got yourself an agent, you got yourself a manager?

[Jet Tila]

No, so in ’99 I was teaching at the New School of Cooking here in Los Angeles and Food Network had just started blowing up and I luckily, was at the right place at the right time. I would teach professionals, working professionals, how to relax and cook food at home and I met in this extraordinary group of young producers, soon to be mega or big producers. And there was this one gentleman who was doing a show for Food Network at that time and that was my first break. After that, it was really just being in Los Angeles was at the right place at the right time, working for really great chefs, inserting myself into conversations of, “Hey, no one wants to do this TV bit, I’ll do it. No one wants to get on camera, I’ll do it.”

So my first TV history was ’99 and then after that I did Iron Chef and it was all… I did a decent enough job to where they asked me if I wanted to do more, I said, “Absolutely.” And then that’s networking, and I think one restricted mindset I see from a lot of chefs nowadays is, “Those Food Network dudes are sellouts.” I really cook. I’m like, “All right, be you want to be a jackass and close off this entire world to yourself, then feel free, you know what I mean?”

[Josh Kopel]

Well, and let’s get into food, food production and all of that. Do you actually take an active role? I know that there are chefs out there that are bottling their own sauce with their names on it. Is that what you did or is it more of a licensing deal?

[Jet Tila]

No. So again, we talk about capacity, I talk about capacity all the time, I could tie myself to one restaurant and work 100 hours at it and not be able to do anything else. I could bottle a sauce, and who the hell am I selling it to? Am I slotted in grocery stores yet? Do I have a marketing plan? Do I have a broad liner to distribute? Do I have a co-packer? So no, I will always take less to do more and to have more capacity. So while I was at Wynn, there was a company called Schwann’s and was one of the largest frozen food companies in America, if not on Earth.

And they were shooting Top Chef and… Again, it’s about doing a really great job inserting yourself politely and making willing things to happen. And they had a frozen food line, they had been in Asia and I’m like, “I can make better Asian than you guys can and on top of that, I’ll give you the recipe and I just want a little skin in the game, I’ll take no fees. And if it sells, what does it hurt for you?” And that was the road to creating these big projects nationally, frozen food projects.

[Josh Kopel]

That’s incredible, man. You’ve obviously made a lot of great choices along the way, that’s how you ended up where you are. Any mistakes, any lessons learned that you’d be willing to share? I know everybody wants to be bulletproof.

[Jet Tila]

No, dude, no, no. Again, I still see myself as a kid who’s just kind of guessed his way up. One major mistake I made was the summer I left culinary school when I was graduating and I asked Russ, who was the editor of the LA Times. I said, “I’d love to work in some of these really marquee restaurants in LA.” He writes a letter to Mark Peel and at that time it was… My God, help me out here. Campanile and so I really made a mistake that summer, I was thinking, dude, I’m killing it and cooking classes, I’ve got five jobs around the city, I’m doing well for 20 something year old kid and I kind of blew off Mark Peel and that was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done. And yeah, I was like, “Mark, I can come work for you but I need this day off.” And he’d go like, “You’re an idiot.” And I could hear it in his voice.

I was an idiot. So looking back I broke one of my own rules, was about find phenomenal mentors and he would have been a great one, because all the great chefs into the last 20 years I went through Campanile and then Nancy Silverton. So that’s a big one that I will regret for a very, very long time. And secondly, I got the job at Wynn the same time I had a loose offer to go to Google in Shanghai. So I’ll always wonder what would my life be like if I took this big corporate job? So those are my two things that keep me up at night sometimes, I’ll think of others but those are two big ones.

[Josh Kopel]

Well, and you bring up mentorship with regularity. What I would like to know, there are a ton of people listening. I’m sure they’ll look up to you. Who do you look up to? Who do you think is doing it really, really well? Whose hustle do you respect?

[Jet Tila]

I am not trying to kiss asses to the dudes that are in my circle that these three men really have taken me aside. So Bobby Flay obviously, we met on set a few times, we literally will regularly check in and I’ll check in. And so he is the chef entrepreneur that I aspire to be, he’s also the most fearless man I’ve ever known. And one day I’d love to get him to tell the stories that he’s told a bunch of us in the inner circle about how fearlessly he’s lived his life as a chef and an entrepreneur. Alton Brown, for his just genius and media savvy. So we would shoot Cutthroat Kitchen together and afterwards he would take me aside and we would spend time and I’d be like, “I want the no BS breakdown of how my performance was, because I know that our jobs we switched on we’re performers.” And he would literally give me hours and hours of true media coaching. And this is one of the best in the world.

And then the last one would be Guy Fieri. And he’s also like that globalized brand, but to get one on one time to understand licensing and marketing, there’s no one bigger in my world. I mean, I wish I knew Gordon Ramsey as well as I knew these three gentlemen, but I know these three men, I text them on a regular basis, they take me under their wing. But I’ve already mentioned a few like, Russ Parsons is a massive mentor, but I look up to those three guys.

[Josh Kopel]

What were your goals Prior to the pandemic? So it’s January 2020, you’re like, “This is going to be the best year of my life.”

[Jet Tila]

We came into this with the most busiest year in Team Tila’s history. What was the plan? We just merged with Pei Wei Group, we’re 120 restaurants, TV we’re looking at pilots to write and create together. The consulting side of it, so I consult with NBC, Universal and Dreamworks and Compass Group, these big global companies, I was on the road for three days, two days every week and our goals are growth. And also social media strategy was, I get to the certain amount of followers by creating content at home at the same time. So half of that business is gone, maybe 60%. Productions are slowed, we’re trying to figure that out, appearances are done, that businesses went from, I don’t know, a 100 appearances a year to maybe 20 via Zoom or Hangout or FaceTime. And the restaurants are actually doing pretty decently because we’ve re-restructured and created some solutions. Our group is going to be down about 60% right now, so maybe a little less than that, but again it’s about creating that recession-proof hopefully, strategy by diversification.

[Josh Kopel]

Now, is that revenue lost or is it postponed?

[Jet Tila]

That’s a good question. I would say appearance is lost because all the corporate partners that we would appear with, they’re having massive revenue shifts. I would say probably half of that is lost. Just the momentum has been really, really impacted. But that’s a good question, so I think it’s mostly lost.

[Josh Kopel]

Now have there been any opportunities, any pivots? You’re a household name, everybody’s in their house.

[Jet Tila]

Yeah, man. The online virtual beaming into people’s offices… Yeah, that was huge. We’ve done the Googlers, we’ve done Netflix, we’ve done NBC, we’ve done a bunch of private institutions, so that’s been the pivot. We picked up a few licensing and marketing opportunities, so that’s been fascinating. I was doing our Food Network live, that platform. I’ve beefed up the internet backbone here at the house and invested in a bunch of equipment. So, it’s been interesting to watch how food media has adjusted.

[Josh Kopel]

Well, and the loss of momentum is considered a negative but at the same time you slowed down, which gives you time to reflect on your life both personally and professionally. Have there been any “aha” moments for you?

[Jet Tila]

Yeah. Personally, I think it is a common thread in a lot of people like you, me, people in our industry. We have this addiction to work in success and this comes also into the mental health conversation. In my opinion there’s a book to be written, it’s about how mental health has either fueled us to be high achievers but what the downside of that is. The trauma that I came from, in terms of familial trauma, has prioritized finding a balance between family and business. So I’ve said no to a lot of work in my last decade of being married, I didn’t get married until super late. So yeah, so the realization and the positives out of COVID has been really spending quality time with my family and myself, and really thinking about, and dialoguing and finding intimacy and love between my family and myself.

And it’s the boring stuff that no one wants to hear about but if you’re a high achiever and you’re stuck in this cycle of winning, it’s an important conversation because I have a lot of colleagues and friends who are very wealthy and very successful, but unhappy. I prioritize family and I’ve found a lot of happiness in being home now these last five months.

[Josh Kopel]

Me too, man. I look at it as this great shedding. There are so many amazing opportunities that have presented themselves through the pandemic that I’ve just said no to, no, I don’t want to do that. All of these, “Hey, you can have my restaurant for $5 then a high five.” “No, I’m good, I don’t need another job, I got a job.” It’s like this great shedding, this great realization of everything that is non-essential and in that way, it’s a gift.

[Jet Tila]

We used time with myself to reflect on the current state of where… It’s basically like being forced to meditation. Am I going to make the best of this time or am I not going to make the best of this time? So we’ve signed some deals or writing a new cookbook, I’m hanging out with my family and it’s not a choice whether you survive or not because there’s a lot of circumstances where people don’t have that choice, for me I’m making the best of this time.

[Josh Kopel]

What are you most excited about as we come through and out of this pandemic?

[Jet Tila]

The shedding like you said, is unfortunate, it’s not my doing but there’s the people who survive are going to prosper I feel. Fast casual, our Pei-Wei restaurants are going to come out of this. I don’t want to look forward to people not surviving but I have to as an entrepreneur and a strategist, I have to understand how to come out of this. And unfortunately, the people who survive, the pot’s going to be there, bigger. The shares are going to increase because of competition is going to decrease unfortunately. What else do I look forward to? Maybe we’ve also learn how to work from home a little more and if I don’t need to fly across the country every other week, then that would be cool.

But I’m terribly pained for my colleagues that are hurting though. I mean, and I know quite a few who… There’s nothing worse than firstly, a family member being hurt or harmed or sick. And after that to an entrepreneur, the second thing that hurts the most is your business or businesses, hurting. I mean, that’s the stuff that makes you just as crazy sometimes.

[Josh Kopel]

But on that note, there are so many restaurant tours and chefs listening right now. I like to end the show by asking, do you have any words of advice or encouragement for the folks listening?

[Jet Tila]

I’m never the one to think that I’ve experienced so much in my life that I could speak for somebody or to give advice but I’ve been alive long enough to see cycles come and go, and this will pass. And if you can find a way to get through this, there is light at the end of the tunnel. And we’ll take the lessons from this and ’08 and the double zeros and the internet bubble and hopefully you can sack it in to your memory banks and move forward, learning of its lessons and it’ll get better, it really will.

[Josh Kopel]

That’s Chef Jet Tila. To see what Team Tila is working on next, go to chefjet.com. If you want to tell us your story, hear previous episodes, check out our video content or read our weekly blog, go to joshkopel.com. That’s J-O-S-H-K-O-P-E-L.com. Thank you so much for listening to the show, you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and while you’re there, please leave us a review. A special thanks to Yelp, for helping us spread the word to the whole hospitality community. I’m Josh Kopel, you’ve been listening to Full Comp.

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