Meet executive chef King Phojanakong who is at the forefront of the thriving Filipino food movement. King, who received his formal culinary education at The Culinary Institute of America, is chef-owner of the Filipino-Thai restaurant Kuma Inn in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He is also co-creator of the popular Bronx Hot Sauce and the newly unveiled Queens 7 Hot Sauce. The peppers for the respective hot sauces are grown in community gardens and urban farms throughout the Bronx and Queens and serve as a viable funding source to partner gardens. Read on to learn more about King's collaboration (with GrowNYC and Small Axe Peppers) to produce these popular sauces, what this collaboration means to the local economy and what he says are his main culinary influences.
Tell us about Bronx Hot Sauce and the partnership behind it.
I partnered with my childhood friend, John Crotty (Small Axe Peppers) and GrowNYC to create Bronx Hot Sauce. Basically, we donate serrano pepper seedlings to community gardens throughout the Bronx, buy the peppers back at a premium price once they're grown and then use those peppers to create the sauce.
Bronx Hot Sauce is so unique. Tell us what it means to the local economy and the communities that play host to community gardens.
The Bronx Hot Sauce is a great example of how food brings people together. The gardens are maintained by a diverse group of individuals: students of all ages, retirees, new immigrants, refugees and people who just want to grow. The peppers are grown in over 30 community gardens throughout the Bronx. The feeling is amazing to be part of the process of growing a seed, harvesting a pepper and ending up with a bottle of hot sauce. We all take pride in what we do and it shows. And the money from sales goes back to the gardens, making it a truly sustainable product.
What were some of the major challenges you faced along the way in turning an idea into reality?
Choosing a pepper to grow in New York's climate and short growing season - and the recipe. Luckily we got help from the Cornell Food Science Department in Geneva, New York. They steered us on the right path and we went with their recommendation of growing serranos which grow well in our climate.
At Kuma Inn we make a few hot sauces on a daily basis using a mortar and pestle. I was very pleased with my initial recipe but totally forgot about the pasteurization process which basically entails bringing the sauce up to the boiling point and holding it there for a certain time. The cooking process changed the entire flavor, texture and color of the sauce. It took a few more trials and tastings but we finally hit the right note.
As a parent and chef, what do you see as the most important issues facing our society when it comes to food?
I think many of us take food for granted and don't realize that it is a long process that involves skill, some patience and lots of love to end up with a plate of food on the table. It takes seconds to burn food or waste it but the amount of time to grow the food and the resources available are running out.
Chef King Phojanakong. Photograph by Lambert Parong
What do you see as your role in increasing awareness about sustainable food?
I love teaching kids about food, everything about food - tastes, flavors, how it's grown, how we can transform it. Just bringing them to a farm or a farmers' market and behind the scenes of a restaurant can make our next generation aware of what's happening in the food world.
Given your vast experience in the cooking space/food industry, what should we keep in mind about our individual relationship to the food system and our role in making it more sustainable?
Support your local farm or farmers' market. It tastes better, it's good for you and it helps sustain our farmers who are the most important part of the food system equation to do what they do best...grow. Also, don't waste. I'm guilty of it myself, tossing out leftovers or food gone bad. We definitely need to make less and probably eat less too. I know I have to.
What are some specific smarter/sustainable choices people can make when it comes to their food?
Again, support your local farm or farmers' market, buy and eat things that are in season and try to keep away from processed foods and refined sugars. Even the over consumption of meat has an effect on our ecosystem.
What do you find to be your biggest source of inspiration from day-to-day?
My two kids! It's a love like no other and I just want them to have the same opportunities I had and much more. Like Randy Watson and Sexual Chocolate said, "the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way."
Tell us a little about your upbringing. Any food-related memories that stand out?
How much time do we have? This can be a whole other story but I'll try to keep it short. I'm a New York native first generation born. My mom is from the Philippines and my father is from Thailand. Food plays a big role in both cultures especially in the Philippines. It's part of many life events. There's always food at celebrations, birthdays, after church on Sundays and even funerals. It's common to offer food as soon as someone enters your home. Needless to say I grew up loving to eat and I was lucky to have both my parents cook as well.
I grew up in an apartment building and we lived on the 11th floor. At least once a week my mom would make chicken adobo. Coming home after school, as soon as the elevator door opened on the 11th floor the smell would just hit you and take you away. The vinegar, garlic, soy sauce and chicken cooking aroma were priceless. My mouth just salivated right now thinking about it.
Do you have a favorite food?
Mom's chicken adobo and rice of course!
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