Falling in love on a first date is a dream for many, right? But what happens when you fall in love with the food and the chef who makes it rather than your actual date? I'll tell you. You go back to the restaurant again and again...alone.
The restaurant is Kuma Inn and the Chef is King Phojanakong. A native to New York City who grew up in a Filipino and Thai household, he has mastered the fusion between his multiple culinary experiences. Accessing the freshest ingredients the North East has to offer, he prepares a menu based on the Filipino community style of dining. A Filipino version of tapas, if you will. Each dish and ingredient (yes, I have tried them all) has clearly been thought out and prepared by a skilled chef; however, the genius of Chef King's food stems from the fact that his food feels like home cooking (granted no food I could ever make). It's unpretentious, tasty, and is obviously made with passion and love.
Recently Chef King opened Kuma Inn's sister restaurant Umi Nom in Brooklyn and on my first visit I prepared to fall in love all over again. He did not disappoint. With the same approach to the menu, Umi Nom has a similar feel food-wise and again is victorious in placing renowned food in an unaffected location. This time next to a Laundromat.
Having had the opportunity to shake his masterful hand once, I finally had the pleasure of asking Chef King some questions.
Q: When did you know that you wanted to become a chef?
King Phojanakong: Growing up my mom cooked mostly every meal for our family so I always loved eating. We also always ate together which I think has been lost in today's culture. At first though, my career was in energy management at the Community Environment Center. I was involved with what is now the Green Movement, but this was in the 90's. I traveled around New York City and became the guy people would call to ask where they should eat. At the time, I was also bartending at the World Yacht Club. There I inquired about the kitchen and the cook let me work weekends without any prior experience. I loved it, so I applied to the Culinary Institute of America. I did my externship at Daniel at the height of its popularity. Working in that intense kitchen was quite an experience. I saw grown men cry because they over cooked one steak. I survived, though, and the rest is history.
Q: What's the hardest challenge in creating your own menu and restaurant?
King Phojanakong: Opening Kuma Inn was the hardest challenge. When I first opened seven years ago, I did it all by myself. I maxed out my credit card and had some friends from culinary school come help out in the kitchen because I didn't even have a full kitchen staff. At first I didn't even have the spray painted sign outside so it was easy for people to just walk by. My dad actually would go downstairs in front of the restaurant and literally grab people and say, "go upstairs and eat, my son is cooking!" I think he drove in a lot of my first customers.
Q: Talk to me about the Chinese Sausage that is on the menu at both of your restaurants-it's my absolute favorite.
King Phojanakong: It's funny. That wasn't even on the menu when we first opened. That was just something I grew up eating and so it became a staff meal when I cooked for my employees. They all went crazy for it so we added it as a special and soon it began selling out. Now it's the only staple on both Kuma Inn and Umi Nom's menu.
Q: How do you see the food world changing in 5 to10 years? How will you impact and/or change it?
King Phojanakong: People just have more access to the food world. It has become trendy and easier for the masses to eat and talk about food. Also, it seems that everyone seems to be a self-certified "foodie" and become critical to a fault some times. I am happy cooking with good products and am always passionate about the food I serve. I don't see myself getting caught up in the hype of the food crazes (i.e. the burger craze).
Q: When you're not cooking, what do you like to do?
King Phojanakong: Eating of course. I also like to make music and go fishing.
Q: What is your favorite restaurant in New York City right now?
King Phojanakong: I really enjoy Recipe and Land, both under Chef David Bank. He cooks authentic Thai, using the best ingredients at an affordable price. I also like the noodles at Minca.
Q: What’s your take on frozen yogurt? I know this isn’t something that’s a culinary feat, but it is something many of us (yes, maybe even superhero chefs) take pleasure in eating and right now it is an absolute indulgence in my life.
King Phojanakong: Frozen yogurt is a tasty trend that will come and go.