Mashing It Up With Jet Tila

Mashing It Up With Jet Tila -- Appetite for Life -- © Microsoft
You heard it here first: According to chef Jet Tila, the next word in fusion is Burmese cuisine.

"I think it's ripe for chefs from other countries to experiment with, to mash up," he says.

Tila would know. Virtually his entire career is distinguished by unique mashups. He learned cooking from his Cantonese grandmother, but finished his education at Le Cordon Bleu. He ran Wazuzu, an upscale Pan-Asian bistro in Las Vegas, but also opened the employee cafe at Google's corporate headquarters in Silicon Valley.

Nowadays, Tila is running The Charleston, a Los Angeles restaurant where his expertise in French and Asian cooking is used to make ... American comfort food. That's right: The French-trained, globetrotting chef is using all his talents, both learned and innate, to cook up corn dogs, burgers, tacos, pizza and chorizo hash. And he couldn't be happier about that.

"Really, it's just things I like to eat," he says. "This is new fusion — and the word 'fusion' is no longer an 'f-word.' It used to be derogatory, but for a new generation of chefs, this is representative of how people are eating now."

There's something inspiring, not to mention profoundly appetizing, in the ways Tila tweaks American diner staples. He serves a French dip, but it's made with lamb. His Cobb salad features lobster, and his shrimp and grits includes a bit of basil mint sauce. Every dish is touched, or completely reconceptualized, by what Tila knows about fine dining. And people, lots of people, are literally eating this new stuff up. The world is plainly ready for a more refined plate of grits.

"There was no better time for an Asian kid to drop chicken and waffles on Santa Monica," says Tila happily. "Ten years ago, people would have laughed at this concept; five years ago, they would have raised an eyebrow. But because of Roy Choi [of Chego], David Chang [of Momofuku] and myself ... we have credibility because we're of another ethnicity, born and raised in the cities and ghettos of America. And we're not the only ones. That's why this new fusion is happening on both coasts.

"All roads have led us here," he says. "When French guys were trying to do fusion back in the 1980s, they were confused because they'd never lived in Asia. But when Asian kids grow up working in Michelin-starred French restaurants, stuff makes sense."

Like, say, how to embrace a certain guilty pleasure without remorse.

"Man, I'll get busted for this, but I'm known to dump a bunch of chicken wings in the fryer and toss in some sweet chili sauce and Sriracha, because I'm a chicken wing nut," Tila says. "I subsist on a diet of about 4 pounds of chicken wings a week."

But even with his passion for mixing flavors, and an appetite broadened by the mass consumption of wings, Tila readily admits that he has a stopping point.

"There are limits to how far fusion can go before it becomes confusion," he says, chuckling. "Chino Latino is a natural pair; Franco Asia is a natural pair. But once we start to get into Turkish Thai, it doesn't make sense anymore."

But a new Burmese fusion place? Does that make sense to chef Jet Tila?

"I will be so there, man," he says.