We're all familiar with warm and fuzzy stories about spending time in the kitchen alongside mom. But imagine turning that sweet, syrupy story into a business plan. Keegan Fong did just that. Woon Kitchen in Historic Filipinotown is his collaboration with his mother Julie Chen Fong, a.k.a. Mama Fong.
Keegan's background in fashion marketing, combined with Mama Fong’s creativity behind the wok, has made Woon a destination for craveable beef noodles. But then COVID-19 threw some curveballs.
Keegan and Mama Fong share their journey for this week's In The Weeds.
From side project to brick-and-mortar
Keegan Fong: “The journey of opening Woon is quite long. It at first started as kind of a passion side project. I would go home and want something to work on other than my day job. So I just came up with the concept of my mom's noodle shop, and I would work on a business plan. Every night I came home just to keep my wheels turning. And eventually that became a reality when we were presented with an opportunity to become a pop-up.
We hosted pop-ups throughout LA on the weekends, whenever we had time. We'd be in different bars and venues. And we frequented this alleyway in Koreatown, behind our friend's studio called Pico Studio. So we'd host random noodle pop-ups [with] BYOB and DJs and everything. And that kind of turned into a little underground thing for us that we did every other month or so.
Eventually, I felt like I wanted to … make Woon an actual brick-and-mortar. And I convinced my mom, or actually forced her, to be the executive chef behind this concept and built Woon from the ground up with friends and family, and obviously my mom at the helm with her recipes.”
A big leap of faith for Mama Fong
Mama Fong: “My involvement actually started when we had the cart and everything. So yes, I was involved in the beginning with my noodles when we were doing the new noodle pop-ups. But as far as the concept of having a restaurant is concerned, I'm pretty skeptical, because I've never been working in a restaurant before and kind of had reservations about it. But finally Keegan's determination convinced me that it’s going to be okay, that I could do it in a professional kitchen. Because I’ve always been a home cook, behind the kitchen at home, so it's a big leap for me.
As a boy, Keegan was not really involved in any of the cooking or anything. He was skateboarding, going snowboarding and all that. But he would always come home and ask for food. He wanted my comfort food. So I would make him some kind of a Chinese dish, like a wrap that he could put in the fridge and just come home and take the bite out of when he's hungry. So there was always food in the kitchen available for him and his sister. Wherever mama is, there is food. So it’s a comfort thing for him.”
Mama Fong’s extra care
Keegan Fong: “I remember my mom just being in the kitchen all the time. Whenever I think back on the house I grew up in, I was always looking for my mom, and she would be in the kitchen. I remember opening the refrigerator and just coming back from school and finding a Tupperware full of the tofu cucumber salad that we serve, and I would just eat.
And then also waking up, my mom always said breakfast was the most important meal of the day. And if I had a test that day, she would make me a giant bowl of instant ramen. But she would add her fancy things in it. For lunch, too. I was known for having the most extravagant lunches amongst my friends. She would go above and beyond by providing us these beautiful lunches that weren't only Chinese food, but also like beautiful sandwiches that she wrapped in wax paper and then twine. And all my friends would just be like, ‘What the heck is that?’ But I’d open it up, and then they'd steal half of it and ask my mom to make them one too.”
Conflicts and trust
Mama Fong: “He's been a very good kid since day one. But the thing is, going to work with him is another story. I admire him now because of his persistence and his intellectual side of the business that I have never seen before. I'm really proud of him and what he’s doing.
And then, of course, we do have conflicts because I would nag sometimes. … I’ll say, ‘I've been gone one day, why does the food taste different?’ and ‘Hey, he's not doing a good job, why has my dish changed a little bit?’ So things like that. He would think that I'm nitpicking. But actually, this is how I see food, the sweetness, the saltiness, whatever it is that I'm accustomed to. So my palate already knows what is wrong with the food.
But then on the other side of the business, I let him do what he does, because he is doing a really, really good job. And he knows what he's doing. I think it actually gets us closer together. And I know him better than before. And he knows me. So we kind of try to get to know each other more and more.”
Mom’s always there
Keegan Fong: “At the end of the day, they're my mom's recipes. And she's very protective of them. And I try to respect that as much as possible. Because at the end of the day, I wouldn't have Woon without Mom. ... When we first opened this place, we had to train the staff, and we had to train them with no specific recipes [or] measurements or anything like that. So we had to do that along the way.
When I first opened this restaurant, my mom was going through radiation because she had been diagnosed with breast cancer right after I signed the lease on this place. So she was coming from radiation, going straight to the kitchen, and training our staff. And she did it for me, and she did it for Woon, which I highly respect and I will never forget. Prior to COVID, she was in the kitchen every single day, like eight to 10 hours a day. And it got to the point where I kept telling her she didn't need to do that. But she was obviously very protective of her recipes. And her name was on those recipes. And she started to make connections with customers. So she felt like if she wasn't there when they came, they'd be missing out on something.
And I remember, March 13 is when we decided it would be her last day in the kitchen until it was safe again. Little did we know that would be over a year later. But, honestly, for me, I think it was a good thing because there needed to be a time for my mom to step out of the kitchen and for the kitchen to be able to run itself. So in a sense, I think it really did help us evolve and it helped us take the next step of the business. She was still very involved during COVID, actually, and she would send me and our sous chef text messages, and she would ask him to send photos of the pork belly and everything. So she wasn't physically there, but I think she was still still there in that sense.”
What to eat at Woon?
Mama Fong: “If you come to Woon, I would recommend, first off, the noodles. It has to be the noodles, because this is very special. I would also recommend having our fried chicken, which is marinated in the special sauce that I do. And many others, like fish cakes are another thing that you don't normally see outside. It’s more like a thing that I created when the kids were little. It’s fish paste that I marinate, season, and stuffed into a little tofu pocket, and then we fry it. And then we have the salads. Keegan's favorite is the beancurd salad with cucumber, with a hint of spice to it, like chili and our own marinade.
And the pork belly is to die for. I would say so. We cook it for three hours on the stove. And so all the umami and the taste is in the pork belly. And then we serve it with a bao and also all the trimmings, like marinated cucumbers, carrots, and also mustard greens. So these are our specialties that people come and eat. And when the summer season comes along, then we will have what we call ‘the smashed radish.’ I’ve eaten it since I was little, because my mom used to make it. We smash the radish and then we put green onions and a special dressing onto it. And so these are all foods that are pretty popular in Woon.”