Opinion

King Phojanakong, Pioneer of Filipino Food in New York, Dies at 54

King Phojanakong, who in the 2000s led the charge in bringing Filipino cuisine to the American culinary mainstream with his first restaurant, Kuma Inn — an impossibly tiny spot on the Lower East Side that quickly developed a passionate following — died on Jan. 2 in Manhattan. He was 54.

His wife, Annabel Nau-Phojanakong, said the cause of his death, in a hospital, was complications of granulomatous amoebic encephalitis, a rare disease that attacks the spinal cord and brain.

The son of a Filipino mother and a Thai father, Mr. Phojanakong was both classically trained and steeped in the home-cooking traditions of his parents’ native countries. His mother taught him to prepare Filipino comfort food like pancit canton, made with richly spiced noodles, and adobo chicken, the vinegary unofficial national dish of the Philippines. He made them his own by spiking them with some of the sweet notes found in Thai cuisine.

After studying at the Culinary Institute of America and working at top Manhattan restaurants like Daniel, Jean-Georges and Danube, Mr. Phojanakong opened Kuma Inn on Ludlow Street in 2003. (The name is a play on the Tagalog word “kumain,” which means “eat.”) It was only the second sit-down Filipino restaurant in Manhattan, after Cendrillon in SoHo, which opened in 1995.

The restaurant was difficult to find and, at the time, considered far off the city’s beaten gastronomic path. Tucked between two nondescript shops, a simple red door opened onto a vertiginous staircase that led up to the studio-size dining room.

“It felt like someone’s apartment; the room was dark and cramped,” the chef Neil Syham, a former owner of Lumpia Shack Snackbar in Greenwich Village, said in a phone interview. “But what I remember most is the smells that came out of his restaurant: the smells of fish sauce, Chinese sauces, soy sauce — those just smacked you in your face, and it just brought me back to Southeast Asia.”

The Kuma Inn kitchen in 2004. Mr. King used traditional Filipino ingredients like calamasi, a type of citrus, and coconut vinegar, but often added a touch of sweetness to his dishes, an homage to his father’s Thai heritage.Credit…Lars Klove for The New York Times

Mr. Phojanakong’s menu, built around small plates, was stocked with Filipino favorites like seared sausages and lumpia (which is similar to a spring roll). His cooking was detailed but unfussy. He used traditional Filipino ingredients like calamansi, a type of citrus, and coconut vinegar — though he was no purist, and he occasionally substituted Western ingredients like apple cider vinegar if he felt it would help the dish.

Occasionally he would push further, cooking foods that even many Filipinos find challenging, like dinuguan, or pork-blood stew, and balut, a partly fertilized duck egg.

“He had a really great palate and a really great sense of flavor,” Anne McBride, the vice president for programs at the James Beard Foundation and a longtime admirer of Mr. Phojanakong, said by phone. “He brought a subtle and balanced approach to flavor that created very people-pleasing food that you wanted to eat over and over again.”

Mr. Phojanakong was not just a pioneer in bringing Filipino food to the city. He was also one of the first chefs to trade the safety of a haute-cuisine career for the chance to explore their passion without a net.

Kuma Inn was a shoestring operation. Mr. Phojanakong and a friend did the décor. The music came from a CD player loaded with his own playlists. When the heat from the kitchen made the dining room a bit too toasty, Mr. Phojanakong cracked the fire-escape window.

It was, Dana Bowen wrote in The New York Times in 2004, “an auteur restaurant if there ever was one, sprung entirely from Mr. Phojanakong’s imagination.”

The early 2000s were a time before social media, before Instagram influencers, before the rush of food-centered public relations firms, before buzz was something you could buy, back when word of mouth was literally just that.

Yet somehow word did spread about this garrulous, talented chef dishing the fiery, florid flavors of his mother’s homeland somewhere on the Lower East Side — though no one could ever quite explain where; you just had to look for it.

“To me that choice speaks volumes about King,” Nicole Ponseca, the former owner of the Filipino restaurant Jeepney and a co-author of the cookbook “I Am a Filipino” (2019), said in a phone interview. “It says, ‘My food is good. I think you’ll enjoy it. And I’m going to pick this obscure location on top of another obscure location knowing that you’ll find it.’”

Celebrities became regulars. So did many of the city’s young Filipinos. And aspiring chefs came to see Mr. Phojanakong do what had once been considered impossible: make the once-derided, even feared, cuisine of the Philippines friendly, approachable and hip.

“What was good about it was, he wasn’t pretentious about it,” said Amy Besa, who co-founded Cendrillon and is now an owner of the Brooklyn restaurant Purple Yam. “It was just good home cooking.”

Mr. Phojanakong outside Kuma Inn in 2017. Aspiring chefs came to see him do what had once been considered impossible: make the once-derided, even feared, cuisine of the Philippines friendly, approachable and hip.Credit…via Phojanakong family

King Phojanakong, a lifelong resident of Manhattan, was born there on Aug. 18, 1968, and grew up in Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village, the sprawling East Side residential development. His father, also named King, owned a series of small retail businesses, and his mother, Zosima (Arceo) Phojanakong, known as Emma, was a nurse.

Along with his wife, he is survived by his parents; his children, Phebe and Eduard; and his brother, Paul.

After graduating from the Bronx High School of Science in 1986, he studied at the State University of New York at Purchase and the City College of New York, but he did not graduate from either. He received an associate degree in culinary arts from the Culinary Institute of America in 1998.

In 2009, six years after opening Kuma Inn, Mr. Phojanakong opened Umi Nom, on the border of Clinton Hill and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. Like Kuma Inn, it was intentionally nondescript, located in a former laundromat whose awning still hung over the door. This time he focused on skewers, egg noodles and other Filipino drinking food — “uminom” means “drink” in Tagalog.

Mr. Phojanakong closed Umi Nom in 2015, and the pandemic forced him to close Kuma Inn in 2021. He pursued other projects: a pop-up menu in the basement of Jimmy’s No. 43, in the East Village, and more recently Cook Like King, through which he offered custom-designed cooking classes.

He was especially proud of Bronx Hot Sauce, a venture that bought serrano peppers from community gardens around the Bronx to make into a garlicky, fiery condiment.

“He wanted to invite people into the food,” Ms. Ponseca said. “He was using his skills, his memory, to invite them into whatever kitchen he was cooking.”

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