Keegan Fong of LA’s New Favorite, Woon Kitchen
Keegan Fong of LA’s New Favorite, Woon Kitchen
INTERVIEW BY : NOAH PHAM | PHOTOS BY : ANTWAN VU
Woon Kitchen opened its first brick and mortar in the heart of Los Angeles’s historic Filipino District earlier this year. Its grand opening welcomed friends, family and a dedicated cult of fans, garnered over the length of four years doing pop-ups at underground parties, markets and bars.
Woon Kitchen started as an idea thought up by founder Keegan Fong, a Los Angeles native, whose background is deeply rooted in marketing and consulting — he works with surf lifestyle brands such as Vissla, Insight, DC Shoes and D’Blanc. This understanding of culture and design translates seamlessly into the new restaurant venture.
We were able to catch up with Keegan to talk about his beginnings, his mom and her recipe, as well as all the work and friendship that it took to build his business from the ground up.
So tell me about the pop up. How did this all come into fruition?
We all worked full-time, my whole family, and there’s always been a desire to own a business. My mom had always dreamt of a restaurant and I always knew I wanted to build something and to have food be involved with it. Then an event came up called Parachute Market in LA that we did a pop-up at. We started doing our own pop-ups in Koreatown in this alleyway behind Pico Studio at a time before it was called Pico Studio. A lot of my friends and my brother-in-law worked out of there. They had this courtyard in the back alley where they would throw parties. We asked if we could sell food at them. So it was like a big underground, BYOB, party with a DJ. My mom, myself and my brother in law, were cooking noodles, and selling noodles and baos.
At the time you were working in marketing?
I was living in San Diego, working full-time for a surf apparel company called Vissla and an eyewear brand, D’Blanc. So whenever an opportunity came up or we all had a free weekend we’d plan it out — I’d drive up for a day and do the events.
How did you decide you wanted to use your mom’s home cooking? I feel like there are so many avenues where you could have made this fusion, but your food is very traditional.
It’s always a very complex question. But going back, I grew up on all this food — since I could remember. I never really thought anything of it until I went to college.
What province is your mom from?
She was born in ShangHai. So we serve a lot of ShangHai-based foods, but she grew up in Hong Kong, so she’s very familiar with Cantonese food as well. It’s kind of both. I asked myself what the one thing that I crave the most is and it was always her stir-fry noodles. That’s when I realized no one does it the same way that she does. That’s when it clicked.
Can you elaborate? What makes them special?
They’re really chewy. She uses a flank steak, as opposed to a loin, which is a shitty cut. And then she uses a marinade that she made up from before I was born. She would just put shit together from the kitchen and that’s what we would marinate the beef with. Then we have a sauce that we cook the noodles in. She uses ching chang choy instead of bok choy, which is greener and more dense. We also use shiitake mushrooms. I think it’s just the simplicity and also the chew and textures that bring people back. We call it Mama’s Way. It’s the only way to eat it. It’s the white vinegar and chilli garlic sauce together. Growing up she was always like, “Eat it with white vinegar and chilli garlic sauce!”
From research you guys secretly sourced the noodles?
Haha yeah, one thing my mom’s really good at is finding and sourcing ingredients. She’s been getting the noodles from the same place since before I was born. It’s kind of a thing where one thing lead to another. It started out literally with an unmarked storefront door. She knocked on it and spoke in Chinese and made friends. Then, they lead her to another place that lead her to another place. So, now we source it from the main spot and the thing is we buy them raw and parquet them. We boil them then cook them in the wok so we’re able to control how well-cooked they are.
Is your mom here everyday?
How’s working with your mom? What’s that dynamic like? Are you guys really close?
We were really close growing up, but once I moved away I kind of grew out of it. We’re still super close but essentially I’m her boss now. So it’s been hard managing my mom but for the most part she has been a huge help. I mean it’s her food, so I couldn’t have done it without her. She’s doing a really good job. It’s really cool that I get to work with my mom and cook all the food that she made for me growing up. It’s kind of weird too, seeing other people eat it, haha.
How did you come across this location? I love how it captures golden hour during dinner time.
This was actually a last-minute choice. I almost closed a deal on a spot in Eagle Rock but that fell through. The only downside was that this place was in really bad condition. But by that time Porridge and Puffs and Doubting Thomas had just opened so I knew that this area would become something.
Well it looks amazing. Who designed the space?
I did everything myself. The design was by my roommate/best friend Peter Wilday. We designed it together he taught me how to build a lot of stuff.
You built all the tables and benches?
Yeah everything! He built all those stools. We live together in Silverlake. He pretty much helped me with every single thing. I had a lot of friends come in and help out demo the place, help paint it. Peter threw the ceramic pendants lights in there. My friend Monica Galan did the tabletop cylinders. My friend Ty Williams, who’s an artist, does a lot of our event flyers. He flew in from Florida and stayed with me for three days and did all the art on the walls and hand-painted signs.
So this is a very community-built establishment.
Yeah all my friends and family. My friend David has a lighting company called Human Home; he did some of the pendant lights in there as well. My uncle, J.F. Chen donated me a big black-and-white photo. In the bathroom the Mao Zhe Dong posters are originals.
Yeah they’re all from my uncle. My girl does floral so she helped with the flowers and the plants. My mom is really into feng shui so in the different corners you’ll see different weird gold lion heads and dragon heads. We had a feng shui master come in and tell us what to do.
It was really annoying at first but it actually fits the aesthetic, having all those different things around.
What’s next for Woon besides pop-ups and special dinners? Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
Right now I’m literally just focused on this place. We’ve been asked to do a lot of events but I’m just picking a choosing. We’re doing a collab with this store Kuarto in Long Beach. It’s like a Japanese goods and homeware store. We’re doing collab branded chopsticks and a t-shirt, and a pop-up at their shop. The most obvious goal is to expand to multiple locations, but at the end of the day I really want to create a brand. I think it’d be really cool one day to have a Woon cooking oil, just some commodity items. We’ll see where it goes. I’m not trying to put any pressure on it.
Still got your own baby to take care of.
Yeah, we’re working on our own chrysanthemum tea. We’re going to start selling socks and stuff. Just get the word out to see how it goes.