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One of NYC’s Pioneering Southeast Asian Chefs Has Died

King Phojanakong, of Kuma Inn on the Lower East Side, dazzled customers and colleagues with his food and positivity

Two chefs work behind a table lined with small plates as they greet diners at a food festival.
King Phojanakong, right, at the Choice Eats event in 2013.
Robert Sietsema/Eater NY

Beloved chef and owner King Phojanakong of Kuma Inn on the Lower East Side for 15 years, died on January 2 at the age of 54; Grub Street reports it was from a rare infection of the brain and nervous system.

A New Yorker born to a Filipina mother and Thai father, Phojanakong’s Southeast Asian small plates spot Kuma Inn would have been as dynamic today, if it were still open, as it was in 2003 when it debuted on the Lower East Side.

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, he trained at fine dining establishments like Danube, Daniel, and Jean-Georges, the Times reported, finding inspiration for dishes — from skewers to mussels in sake-garlic broth or seared sausage with sticky rice — from “his mother’s side of the family, so he mines the larders of Spain, China, Southeast Asia, and Japan, all of which have historically seasoned food from the Philippines.” Nearly two years in, the Times noted, “it was as good as ever.”

In addition to Kuma Inn, which closed during the pandemic, in 2009, the chef opened Umi Nom in Bed-Stuy and cooked for Tito King’s Kitchen at Jimmy’s 43; he also became an instructor at New York’s Institute for Culinary Education in 2017. “We teach and learn every day in the kitchen,” it reads in his bio. “I just wanted to do it in a more formal setting where everyone is on the same page sharing the same passion.”

Friends and colleagues on Instagram expressed an outpouring of grief and appreciation for his work in the restaurant community.

“You are a mentor and the most humbled, kind chef I met,” Augelyn Francisco, of Kabisera on the Lower East Side, wrote on Instagram. “Working with you was one of the most fun days of my life. Cooking with you is cooking like a King. Your legacy lives on.”

A classmate reinforced his positivity that’s emphasized across the internet in reference to his passing: he was relentlessly positive and prioritized giving back.

Phojanakong last posted on his own account in September, a reel displaying cooking from a Philippines visit.

Visitation hours are Friday, January 6 from 4 to 8 p.m. at Greenwich Village Funeral Home, 199 Bleecker Street, near Sixth Avenue. The service is Saturday, January 7, at 10 a.m. at Church of the Epiphany, 375 Second Avenue at 22nd Street.

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