Asked to explain his food, Chef King Phojanakong said, “It’s my own interpretation. I would not use the word fusion. I’m not just throwing things together. Although a lot of the ingredients are Filipino-Thai”，Phojanakong’s interpretations produce dishes like pan-roasted sea scallops with bacon shreds, steamed shumai filled with wasabi spiked pork, and seared Chinese sausage with caramelized onions and sticky rice. Phojanakong’s dishes, as described by New York Magazine, “…are boldly seasoned, tart and piquant or reeking delectably of garlic, melding the flavors of Chinese, Thai, and Philippine food with refreshing vigor.” “I [wanted to do tapas] because I liked that you can share these dishes and get a variety,” said Phojanakong, “that way, you’re not stuck with seared tuna all night.”
Historically, tapas, literally “covers,” were small food bowls, frequently containing delicious tidbits such as olives or almonds, placed on top of wine glasses in Spanish wine bars to keep flies out of the wine. The tapas small-plate tradition, long a part of Spanish culture, has expanded through the years and now represents a full-blown dining trend encompassing many types of cuisines.
Living the Dream
Being a chef, however, was not an obvious career choice for Phojanakong. Phojanakong worked six years working as an engineer helping low-income families throughout New York City, where he would work – and eat — all over the five boroughs, “eating in different parts all the time, [meant eating in] different ethnic neighborhoods.”
It was finally then that he decided to go cooking school. Decided on his passion for food, Phojanakong, went to culinary school in his late 20’s, received his associate degree from the renowned Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in upstate New York where he graduated with honors and honored by Food Digest as one of the Top Ten Best Student Chefs in the Country. “I really enjoyed going to school [this time around] because I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” said Phojanakong, “[Although] it was a risk, especially since my parents said I was crazy, [they said] ‘What?! You want to be a cook!’” But his risk paid off, and soon, not even out of school, Phojanakong was training in New York City’s gastro four star shrines like Daniel and Jean-Georges.
He caught these big career breaks simply by standing at the back door, waiting out the chefs so that he can give them his resume and talk to them. Relating his meeting with Chef Daniel Boulud, Daniel’s owner, Phojanakong said, “[Boulud] told me, ‘I yell, I swear, I throw things [and] we’re not going to pay you. Are you willing to go through this?’ and I said ‘yeah give it to me!” Working at Daniel tuned out to be Phojanakong’s baptism under fire, where he trained under its celebrated executive chef, Alex Lee, and learned one of cooking’s most important lessons: pay attention to details.
Phojanakong next became one of eight chefs at David Bouley’s critically acclaimed high-class Danube when it launched in 2000. It is here, under the tutelage of Chef Bouley, that Phojanakong fine-tuned his skills and mastered flavoring and how they worked. After five years of working 16 hours days, six days a week in New York, Phojanakong went to California to be the executive chef for at Fat Apples, a restaurant chain in Berkeley and El Cerrito, where he immersed himself in the business of running a restaurant.Armed with new knowledge, he came back to New York to open his own restaurant. He found a landlord who had a hard time renting out the second floor of a building in the Lower East Side (LES). What attracted him to the location was the narrow staircase that opened into the room, an effect which Phojanakong said would let his customers feel like they were escaping the city as they climbed the flight.