New York Chef King Phojanakong's Death Has The Food World Shaken

King Phojanakong's career and imagination mark a distinct before and after in New York City's already-iconic food scene. The son of a Thai father and a Filipina mother, the New York native chef allowed the city to glimpse his unique brand of Thai-Filipino culinary fusion, and the city hasn't looked away since. King Phojanakong passed away on January 2, 2023, reports Grub Street. The chef was 54 years old. Although the time was short, it was enough for the chef to leave fingerprints on the food world that will last forever.

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, says Eater, Phojanakong cut his teeth at such prestigious, world-renowned restaurants as Daniel, Danube, and Jean-Georges. Phojanakong's restaurants included Kuma Inn in Manhattan's Lower East Side, a tapas spot that opened in 2003. The chef was perhaps best known for Umi Nom, an elevated bar food joint that opened in Bed-Stuy in 2009. In 2015, he took over the long-standing East Village spot Jimmy's No. 43.

In 2017, the chef took on a pedagogical role at the Institute for Culinary Education (ICE) in New York. According to Phojanakong's personal ICE profile, the chef appeared on "Cutthroat Kitchen," "Food(ography)," "The Rachael Ray Show," and "Mike Colameco's Real Food." His personal Instagram is filled with photos of his immaculate creations, philanthropy work, and images of the Philippines and New York. The profile effectively celebrates culture and humanity — a fitting capsule of Phojanakong's life's work.

Fans and friends celebrate Phojanakong

Phojanakong had been visiting NYU Langone's Kimmel Center since the summer of 2022 with symptoms of double vision and headaches, reports Grub Street. In December, he was diagnosed with a rare infection of the brain and nervous system called granulomatous amoebic encephalitis. Phojanakong has been remembered by his friends and colleagues for his famous generosity, kindness, and personal policy of radical inclusivity.

Rick Smilow, ICE's CEO and chairman, paid tribute to the chef, writing, "He was a talented chef, a dedicated father, and in our kitchen-classrooms, emanated a high degree of friendly wisdom that helped make him a highly regarded teacher here at ICE." No Kid Hungry named Phojanakong a "Champion" for his work hosting "Cooking Matters" videos for Share Our Strength, a national campaign that offers tips for cooking budget-friendly, healthy meals. Phojanakong's hot sauce company, Small Axe Peppers, partners with local community gardens for sourcing.

Phojanakong imparted a lasting impression on fellow chefs, as well. NYC-based recipe developer Jenn de la Vega took to Twitter to mourn Phojanakong, calling Umi Nom "the first place in Bed Stuy that felt familiar to me." Chef Yana Gilbuena also posted to Instagram in Phojanakong's honor, writing that the late chef "saw me as a young colleague and treated me with respect ... This person carved out what Filipino/Filipino American food can be in New York."