Shopping and Noshing With Chef King Phojanakong

The native New Yorker is Chinatown royalty.

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King Phojanakong has a lot going on. He’s best known for being the chef-owner of Kuma Inn, a barely marked second-floor restaurant on Ludlow Street that serves Asian small plates like Chinese sausage with a Thai chili sauce you’ll want to friend on Facebook as soon as you get home.

But King is also co-chef at the Harlem Latin-Asian fusion spot Talay, working on opening the third floor of Kuma, looking at a new restaurant space near Pratt and trying to renew a lost liquor license—no small feat.

The afternoon I spend with him in Chinatown is punctuated with calls from purveyors, frazzled cooks, lawyers, his parents and potential landlords (cross your fingers, Brooklyn residents). He excuses himself politely when he takes a call or answers an e-mail. This time it’s HBO; they want to shoot a Flight of the Conchords episode at Kuma.

“I don’t have someone doing my PR,” he explains, “or an assistant. So I basically do everything myself.”
This I find hard to believe. Chefs who do everything themselves are usually fuming little gnomes. King is quick to laugh, calm and probably the most attentive lunch companion one could ask for. When I’m down to my last noodle at Pho Grand, negotiating basil, bean sprout and brisket into my plastic spoon, he’s already filling our bowls back up with hot broth and accoutrements. When he notices a renegade spring roll, he wraps it in mint leaves and lettuce, then cuts it precisely in half to share. King grew up on the superblocks of Stuy Town, where he and his parents still live near each other. The baby book King’s mother made in his infancy reveals “Baby’s First Restaurant Meal”—a page devoted to beloved Sun Lok Kee at 13 Mott Street, which burned down in 2002 and relocated to Flushing, where King still visits. “It’s a lot of the same staff still so I don’t even order. They know to send the chicken.”

King grew up hanging out in Chinatown with friends who lived there, and, like a lot of second-generation kids whose parents had the means, he was shipped back to the motherland every summer—in his case, to the Philippines. And, though his summer self lived a life centered entirely on eating with his cousins, King didn’t always want to cook. He started working toward a music degree, then switched to psychology and archaeology just in time to help excavate the colonial African burial ground around Duane Street in the ’90s. After eight years in nonprofit and energy management, at age 27 King decided to go to the CIA. He had the honor of giving the graduation speech in 1998. And then the lurking commenced. King wanted to work at the best restaurants in Manhattan, so naturally he waited outside the back doors of Jean Georges and Daniel. He spent three weeks trailing Wylie Dufresne at Jean Georges before he met Alex Lee at Daniel, where he stayed on and picked up some of the French technique he’d later apply to Asian ingredients at Kuma. By 2004, King was out in California, about to take a job at Chez Panisse, when a friend called to tell him about the second-floor restaurant space back in New York. Construction lasted about five months, during which King’s parents were convinced he was unemployed. When the space was nearly ready, he offered to show it to his mother.

Ludlow Street. Five years ago. Late at night. “No thanks,” she said.

Still, she and King’s father (also named King) were very supportive, with King Senior tugging people off the street and encouraging them to the upstairs restaurant. “He did my PR,” jokes King, “and it was all word of mouth from there.”

Kuma is closed on Mondays, which makes Tuesday King’s big shopping day (although he buys certain ingredients fresh every day). We meet for midday pho, then wander the drizzly streets visiting King’s favorite sources and sampling his favorite snacks. He knows everyone, nodding and smiling politely to each fishmonger and sandwich maker.

“Business here is really old school,” he says. “It’s all about a handshake and cash.”

Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

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