King Phojanakong, who helped popularize Filipino food in New York and beyond, has died at the age of 54.
The chef had visited the NYU Lange’s Kionmmel Center multiple times last summer after experiencing a series of headaches and double vision. He remained in the hospital in September 2022, and in December, he was diagnosed with a rare case of granulomatous amoebic encephalitis, which is an infection of the nervous system and brain.
Phojanakong died on Jan. 2.
The chef was born to a Filipino mother and a Thai father. He grew up in New York City, where he studied at the Culinary Institute of America and worked at top restaurants like Daniel, Jean-Georges and Danube.
In 2003, Phojanakong opened his own restaurant on Ludlow Street.
Kuma Inn, which is a play on the Filipino word that means “to eat,” is a Filipino-Thai eatery that offers an avant-garde small-plates menu.
“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, told The New York Times. “He brought a subtle and balanced approach to flavor that created very people-pleasing food that you wanted to eat over and over again.”
In 2009, Phojanakong opened another restaurant called “Umi Nom” in Bed-Stuy that specializes on Filipino drinking food such as skewers, fried chicken wings, egg noodles and Manila clams.
His influence brought on a hip and approachable version of Filipino cuisine with a touch of Thai flavors to New York.
“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.
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Phojanakong is survived by his parents, his brother, his wife Annabel and their children, Phebe and Eduard.
His family and friends have set up a GoFundMe page to help raise money for his wife and children.
Phojanakong previously launched the hot-sauce company Small Axe Peppers, which is made with peppers grown in community gardens and urban farms across America.
He appeared on shows including “The Rachael Ray Show,” “Cutthroat Kitchen,” “Food(ography)” and “Mike Colameco’s Real Food.”