Filipino Cuisine Pioneer In New York Chef King Phojanakong Passes Away At 54

The New York City culinary scene lost influential Chef King Phojanakong just after the new year, January 2nd.

Born to a Thai father and a Filipina mother, Phojanakong grew up in New York City and worked at restaurants operated by chefs such as Daniel Boulud and David Bouley.

In 2003, Phojanakong opened his own restaurant on Ludlow Street, Kuma Inn, which is a play on the Filipino word that means “to eat.” It is a Filipino-Thai eatery that offers an avant-garde small-plates menu.

In 2009, he created “Umi Nom,” a second eatery in Bed-Stuy that specialized in Filipino skewers, fried chicken wings, egg noodles, and Manila clams. His influence brought to New York a hip and approachable version of Filipino cuisine with a hint of Thai tastes.

In a tweet about King’s death, the writer and recipe developer Jenn de la Vega called Umi Nom “the first place in Bed Stuy that felt familiar” to her after moving to Brooklyn in 2010. She shared how the chef was very kind to her and she addressed him as ‘Kuya King,’ like an older relative.

Celebrities often visited King’s establishments, as well as many of the young Filipinos in the city. Aspiring chefs also came to witness him accomplish what was once thought to be impossible: turn the once-derided, even feared, food of the Philippines into something amiable, approachable, and trendy.

“This person carved out what Filipino/Filipino American food can be in New York. He was steadfast, reliable, and kind. He saw the goodness and potential in people. I’m so devastated to hear he’s gone,” Chef Yana Gilbuena wrote on Instagram.

King is survived by his parents, his brother, his wife Annabel, and their children, Phebe and Eduard.