Jet Tila Keeps It Classic For The Holidays - Exclusive Interview

Jet Tila is all about the holidays. Take one look at his Instagram starting in November, and you'll find row after row of Thanksgiving and Christmas food content, including expert how-tos, delicious and easy recipes, and cooking demos right out of Tila's home kitchen. Like so many of us, for him and his family, it's all about the traditional, tryptophan-filled comfort food.

Before the holiday vacation kick-off, Tila wrapped up some recent projects, making appearances with his good friends Bobby Flay, Anne Burrell, Guy Fieri, and more. He also launched a new partnership with Mr. Bing Chili Crisp — because what better way to end the year with a (spicy) bang?

Tila caught us up on all that and more recently in an exclusive interview with Tasting Table. The chef shared his take on holiday food traditions along with his favorite turkey techniques and must-have side dishes. He also talked Thai food, spicy condiments, cooking with Bobby Flay, and more.

Jet Tila shares his top turkey tips for the holidays

Do you have a particular holiday recipe of yours that you're most proud of?

Based on my Instagram, I'm posting everything that is [turkey]. Right now, we're brining turkeys. But the one I'm most proud of is a Turkey Ballotine. I actually will de-bone the turkey, put the stuffing inside, and make it a roll. [It's] a totally boneless turkey roll, and it's a super fancy, old-school French technique, and that seems to always be the hit every holiday ... Every slice is basically turkey [and] stuffing perfectly on a plate. It's a beautiful and not-so-difficult turkey.

That sounds like it might be more accessible because you're dealing with boneless turkey, but then I'm thinking about the process of trying to prepare that, and that seems a little intimidating.

Ironically, it's the one recipe that I think most nonprofessional chefs will want to try. Once you get into it ... Most of us are A — off for the holidays, and B — wanting a therapeutic kitchen task. That seems to be the one that resonates every single year.

What are some of the biggest mistakes that you see people making with turkey?

There are a lot. I believe that your first few turkeys should be spatchcock turkeys. [You] should be cutting the backbone out and flattening them. It is the most bulletproof way to have a stress-free Thanksgiving — there's a few reasons. When you spatchcock a turkey, as it sits flat in the roasting pan, the thighs are on the outside and the breast is in the middle. The breast is what tends to dry out first, so you're actually cutting your roasting time in half, and you're also kind of guaranteeing you're going to have a moist thigh and a moist breast.

I could go on all day because Thanksgiving is one of my favorites. Also, don't undercook turkey. 165 F is the best temperature to pull the thermometer out and pull the turkey.

Where you stick the thermometer also matters for getting that correct measurement, as far as cooking.

[That's] another reason to spatchcock. Once you spatchcock a turkey, it'll splay out deep inside the breast. Once you hit bone [with the thermometer], pull out about half an inch. Use the thickest part of the breast, and it makes it real simple. Spatchcocking a turkey makes a 12- to 20-pound turkey cook in three to four hours. You're not worried about roasting it all day. If you do the Ballotine, actually, you have all the bones to make turkey stock now.

The holidays are the one time of year that Jet Tila keeps it classic

Every year when the holidays roll around, we have this great debate about whether we should even be eating turkey at all. But the one thing we never debate about is that it's all about the sides. What are your favorite Thanksgiving sides or holiday sides?

Everyone must at least make cranberry sauce from scratch. For some reason, they've made it mysterious and difficult. It is really one of the easiest things. It's five ingredients, you bring it to a boil, you turn it off, and you can make it a week ahead. I've already made mine for next week.

Other sides ... I'm a sweet potato person. My wife is a pastry chef, so she makes all the desserts. I'm pretty old school, man — good turkey, dressing, gravy's [a must], cranberry sauce, a yam, and I'm pretty good. I could probably have a five-part Thanksgiving and be super happy.

What do the holiday food traditions look like in your house this time of year?

I spent most of my life not having any of these more traditional holidays, coming from a restaurant background. When I was in culinary school, my first job was working at the LA Times, and my first assignment was testing turkeys. I jumped head in. Before I was 22, the oven in my house was to store woks. We never roasted turkeys or did traditional things that a lot of people take for granted, like mashed potatoes. Since those days, my wife and I take it very seriously. We're all about the holidays, and this is the beginning of it.

Do you have any tips for putting a Thai flavor spin on popular holiday dishes?

Thanksgiving and Christmas is the one time I don't mess with it too much. Instead of putting a Thai spin on it, it's about finding an ingredient or a technique that you've never done before and incorporating it. It might be as simple as, "I love chestnuts a lot, and this is the season of chestnuts." You could buy them already roasted. Throw chestnuts in your potato dishes, throw them in your dressings, in your stuffings. This is a time of year where we all want some comfort.

What cold weather Thai comfort food means for Jet Tila

In general, a lot of people who aren't as educated with the cuisine tend to see Thai food as being great for hot weather months. Even some of the soups like Tom Yum are more bright and acidic, and they're a little lighter in their flavors. What Thai dishes define the fall season for you?

We're in the season of curry. We're in the season of rich, dense [foods and flavors] ... In fall, root vegetables are everything, so it's taking pumpkin and squash and kabocha. This is the season to tie in hardier starches into bigger dishes. I always think about curry — and then Tom Kha, to me, is all year round. The coconut chicken soup really is [an all-year-round dish]. You can do a turkey broth. I've done it with turkey bones, and it works out really nicely.

Family dinner in Jet Tila's house means a lot more than just cooking

Holidays aside, what is your favorite dish to prepare with your wife, Ali?

More than what the dish is, the ritual of cooking is what we prize the most. We have an 8-year-old and a 10-year-old. The rule in this house that we've created is if you like to eat it, you have to learn how to cook it from scratch. We can break down a dish like macaroni and cheese, which is roux, becomes bechamel, becomes mornay, becomes making pasta.

Again, you can take a very simple dish, and even chicken fingers — if you're going to make chicken fingers, we're going to break it down to chicken. You learn the three-part fry technique. More than anything, it's about putting in the hours in the kitchen together, because it's ripping everybody off tech and putting them together. At these ages, checking in with your kids and your wife, and communicating and putting down all the distractions, is what it's about for us. That's what cooking represents right now.

It sounds like dinnertime is very much an entire family affair.

Dinnertime takes a few hours, and it takes no tech — it takes checking in. It should be a very supportive, team-building time. That's what the kitchen should be for. It's one of the last rooms in modern homes where you can actually put down distractions. I'm not anti-tech; this is just the perfect place to take a break from it.

Jet Tila talks cooking with Bobby Flay and the one chef he wants to beat

You recently competed on the "Beat Bobby Flay Holiday Throwdown." What was that experience like cooking beside Bobby Flay under those stakes?

Everyone was bummed that I lost to Anne Burrell, but it was amazing, because Bobby and I are pretty tight. We are very often in touch. As soon as I lost, we made eye contact, like, "It's going to be me and you." It was actually a bucket list moment, and it was nice to have it on TV.

A lot of shows are formulaic, but it was nice to not know, "Am I going to beat Tiffany Faison?" and then yes. "Am I going to beat Anne?" Then to have me, Anne, and Bobby back after "BBQ Brawl," it was nice to cook with Bobby. It was a really fun night.

Did you two both come up with those dishes that you made together?

Casserole was the deal, and it's called "Beat Bobby Flay." I didn't want to be responsible for casserole, so I was like, "Bobby, you come up with the casserole; I will sous chef you. I'll come up with the Brussels and the sides and you sous chef me." Win or lose, I needed Bobby to take the lead on the main event.

Things clearly got intense; there was some bread burning. How often do things like that happen during these competitions?

Dude, that's real life. That's [what's] lovely about this show — we intentionally try to do too much. When that happens, [for] people who watch, it's reassuring that guys like us make mistakes like anyone else. It's about how you recover. It's massively entertaining: You get to see us make mistakes, and you get to see us in our own element as friends, and it's not scripted. You can tell Bobby and I are tight. We go back.

At this point, who feels more intimidating for you to go up against? Bobby Flay or Anne Burrell?

Anne is always out. She is a naturally competitive person. Bobby is a naturally competitive person except when it's buddies, and I'm more that way. I want to beat Anne because I've never beat her on anything ... Wait. Did I on "Chopped?" No — I did "Chopped All-Stars" twice. She beat me once, and I beat Rocco [DeSpirito], so I still haven't beaten Anne yet. It's still on the to-do list.

Do you have a strategy in mind for next time?

Cheating? I don't know. I admire Anne. I know a lot of professional athletes, and she has that killer desire. Maybe I need to work that muscle a little bit more. I think that's what it is.

The funny story behind Jet Tila and Guy Fieri's friendship

You were recently on a Thanksgiving episode of "Guy's Ranch Kitchen." You've made tons of appearances with him over the years. How far back does your friendship with Guy go?

Little known fact — I was on [one of the very first episodes] of Triple G, "Guy's Grocery Games," when it was a pilot. That's how far we go back. Another good bit of trivia is I did "Guy's Grocery Games" and Season 1, Episode 1 of "Cutthroat Kitchen" around the same time. They basically were like, "Where do you want to go? Because you can't do both. Both shows are rating and they're going to hit." 

I picked "Cutthroat Kitchen" because it was at home; it had shot in LA. I didn't have a relationship with Alton Brown yet at that point. In a friendly, angry way, I think it took a few years for Guy to forgive [me].

But [it was] all in friendship. He was like, "Really, man?" I was like, "No, dude." Ali had just had a little baby, and I'm like, "I've got to be home, bro. I've got to stay married."

The spicy condiment you should be putting on everything, according to Jet Tila

Outside of the world of TV, you recently announced a new partnership with Mr. Bing Chili Crisp. How did that come about?

Before television, I was a pretty prolific chef in the world of food service and hotels or restaurants. Products are always very stimulating for me, and I'm always looking for what's next. Sriracha got big — fine. Then Gochujang got really big.

I love chili crisp. It's a pretty perfect condiment. I've known Brian [Goldberg], the creator, and he's like, "Do you want to collaborate?" I was like, "Yeah, man. I want to make it better, and I want to reach more people with it." That's how I got involved with Mr. Bing. It works on my entrepreneurial muscles and it keeps me nice and busy, but it's a phenomenal condiment.

There's so many ways you can use it. Is there anything wild that you put it on that would be an unpopular opinion?

Mac and cheese. But if you think about it — take a second, and you're like, "That sounds delicious."

I'm so down for that.

Any time you want chili and garlic and szechuan peppercorn ... It really is a more perfect ingredient than sriracha. I'm part Thai, and I'm going to get in trouble for saying that, but it really is because it gives you crunch, it gives you garlic, and it gives you spice ... I guess if you put it on something sweet it'd be weird, but I haven't gone there yet.

Jet Tila says this is the key to a good chow mein

In another video you posted recently on Instagram, you were breaking down the differences between chow mein and lo mein. What are your tips for perfecting chow mein at home?

It's about finding the right noodles. In most cities in America, you'll be able to find them now. If you're doing a chow mein, which a lot of cooks would consider crispy noodles, start with a steamed chow mein noodle. You don't want a noodle that you boil — that's more of a lo mein. "Lo" means "stir." Stir usually connotes soft noodles. "Chow" means to "fry." Get the noodles right; get something that's durable. Don't try to "chow" your pasta — it will never work.

Ah, like trying to cook it and then fry it. It's not going to happen.

Don't try to go from wet to [frying it] ... It won't ever get crispy. It's an impossibility.

The most misunderstood Asian ingredient, according to Jet Tila

In general, what would you say is one of the most misunderstood dishes across Pan-Asian cuisine or the one that people get wrong the most?

More than the dish, it's an ingredient. Soy sauce is not the end-all and be-all of Asian food. That's the number one thing people get wrong. I blame my colleagues from the '70s. I won't mention his name, but [you] can't go on TV and say soy sauce is everything, because it's not. If you're cooking Chinese, it's oyster sauce. If you're cooking Thai, it's fish sauce.

Where's the place for soy sauce?

Soy sauce is basically salt with a little bit of umami, but there are all these other seasonings in Asian cuisine that have salt and sweet and umami, more of a balanced flavor, [like] hoisin, oyster, sweet sauce. If you put a little bit of chicken bullion in any Asian dish, you're probably going to get closer to that craveable restaurant flavor, [more so] than soy sauce. Soy sauce was a bad thing that someone did to us in the '70s on public television.

Jet Tila is excited for the future of Pan-Asian cuisine

The Pan-Asian culinary scene continues to grow and expand in this country. As arguably one of the most known faces in that world, where do you see this going, and where do you see your role in it?

Food is cyclical. I'm nearly 50 now, so I've been around long enough to see fads come and go. We're going back to takeout, but we're going back to regional Chinese cuisine. We're going back to regional cuisine, but we're finding regional rock stars to make the foods. Instead of celebrating the fine dining Michelin chef, we're going and finding holes-in-the-walls again, but it's this new generation of Asian kids who are probably first- or second-generation.

If you look at the LA Times' best restaurant, it's Anajak Thai. It's little mom-and-poppers that are putting their spin [on it]. I see that happening. I see Asian food continuing to proliferate. Every single fine dining chef has an Asian technique or dish that they celebrate. Asian food will, as a form of trend point of view, continue to [grow] with Gen Z and the next generation. There's no delineation anymore in Asian being ethnic; it's just something they grow up with — sushi, Chinese, Thai, Japanese.

Along those lines, there's the ramen restaurant in Brooklyn, the first one in the world to get a Michelin star.

Now Michelin [is] going around the world and finding new ways to reward street food. That will also translate back to larger cities all over the world.

What's next for Jet Tila

You said recently that solving puzzles is probably the number one thing that gets you out of bed every day. What is the next culinary or entrepreneurial puzzle that you're trying to solve?

I'm always trying to solve the problem of how do I first teach a lot of people how to cook things, and then how do I get my food into their hands? We've nailed using media and Food Network and YouTube. I've taught probably more people to cook Pad Thai than anyone else on Earth, I'm guessing, and lo mein. We've got the Pei Wei restaurants and drive-in types, so now we've fed people. The next frontier for me is how do I mimic my kitchen in their houses?

We're working on some fun projects to hopefully do more DTC — direct-to-consumer — either foods or products. I want to be a name that people trust on the spectrum of food. "I trust Jet to teach it to me, I trust Jet to feed it to me, and I'll trust Jet's equipment and kitchen to cook it with me." It's about scale, and it's not a selfish thing. My number one passion is to share an experience through food, and this might be the next way I can do that.

Keep up with the latest from Jet Tila by following him on Instagram and YouTube.

This interview has been edited for clarity.