Words by Saehee Cho
Photographs by Justin Chung

Keegan Fong, Woon Kitchen

Los Angeles, CA

There’s a built-in generosity to Woon, a casual Chinese restaurant in Filipinotown. At its core, it’s about family. Keegan Fong, owner of Woon says,“ Growing up on my mom’s food, in my mom’s house, my sister and I had this feeling that we wanted to share her food. We just didn’t know what shape or form.” Drunk friends frequented the Fong household throughout Keegan’s teenage years, regularly satiating their late night munchies on Mama Fong’s innate hospitality. “It really solidified in high school. My mom’s house was the place where all my friends would go when they were drunk or stoned. They’d come over at 10 in the night because they knew she’d cook for them. And I’d get pissed because I knew they were coming over, just to get her to make them food. But she’d get out of bed, every time, and make them a meal, on the spot.”
During early childhood, Keegan took it for granted that his mother’s food was special. It wasn’t until he went to college that he realized there was something singular about his mother’s cooking, inflected with her early childhood in Hong Kong and later the sizeable and diverse Asian community of San Gabriel Valley. Knowing she needed a place to share her food and wanting to give her a vehicle to fulfill a dream, he left a career in fashion marketing and has been carefully building Woon, literally by hand, for the last four years with the support of his sister, brother-in-law, and countless friends. In other words, Woon is a gesture of gratitude, for a childhood of late night meals, for the everyday feast that was their home and is now their restaurant.

“She was good at entertaining and loved making people feel good. That was one of her dreams, having a restaurant. She wanted a place where she could cook in the back and make new recipes, come out and talk to every guest and that’s exactly what she does here. I knew I had to make that happen by the end of her lifetime.”

A background in apparel marketing happened to be exactly what he needed to launch Woon. He wasn’t trying to re-invent his mother’s noodles, he knew the food was good. His expertise was in brand building. “It came naturally. I was sick of catering to consumers and wanted to focus on the genuine aspects of my life and be able to share meaningful things--what’s comforting, what’s nostalgic. I wrote down my top ten favorite dishes of my mom’s and that’s everything on the menu.” What originally was conceived as a pop-up featuring a menu populated solely by Keegan’s favorite childhood dishes is now enjoying its first year as a brick-and-mortar. There’s a mix of concrete, light wood, and the feng shui touches demanded by Mama Fong. There’s a cabinet “borrowed” from his mother’s house, family photos, and Chinese antiques acquired through his uncle, a vintage dealer. The airy, geometric design by roommate and friend Peter Wilday is a custom frame for moments of real nostalgia for the Fong family.

Interior details at Woon

Despite their success, the first year hasn’t been without inaugural pains. “Pretty much everything I acquired through the purchase has pretty much broken down within 4 months of operation, water heater, water cooler, deep fryer.” And then there was an admitted lack of professional kitchen experience and needing to scale his mother’s recipes. “I obviously needed to rely on her in terms of food. But she’ll admit that putting down recipes and measuring is not her thing. She’s an Asian mom. They don’t measure anything, they go off the feel, the smell, the experience. So in the beginning it was tricky because I’d have to be by her side.” In some ways he was the exact person to translate her cooking style to a professional setting. “We didn’t have a kitchen manager so it was my mom telling people what to do. I like to think I’m a fast learner so I was able to formulize all of this into spreadsheets, recipes, and prep sheets. It’s very much my mom on quality control and then me trying to create some structure to it. She’s like god back there but she gets along with everybody.”
When talking about what makes Mama Fong’s noodles exactly so addictive, Keegan points to unconventional nuances in their wok technique. He laughs recalling a wok cook who left an interview, enraged by their deviations from wok cooking standards. Their veteran wok master of 20 years jokes that they do everything backwards at Woon. “Without giving away too much, we buy them raw and then we par cook them to a very specific point so they can finish when we throw them in the wok. They are essentially al dente.” There’s also the option to have your noodles made “Mama’s Way,” borne out of the kind of quick substitution a home cook has to do all of the time. “She ran out of red vinegar and used white vinegar and added chili sauce. We loved it and we ended up eating the noodles like that for the rest of our lives.”
These are the specific inauthenticities that create a more personal, complicated authenticity to Woon. Woon, as a concept, aims to calcify what it feels like to grow up in a 2nd generation Chinese-American home and then show that the food is inherently cool. It’s a bastardized, hybridized, customized version of cuisine, specific to mom-home-cooks. It’s universal and specific at the same time. I ask Mama Fong if she’s tired, if the work is hard. She’s 70 and wok cooking is all muscle memory. She says she has “too much water” so being in the kitchen is the fire that balances her and it’s true that she seems happy, immediately vibrant, unmistakably warm. Keegan: “You can’t talk about the restaurant without talking about her.” As a family they are proud that each dish served tangibly represents their home kitchen, the flavors they loved, and the hands that make the food.

Photographed in 2019 – Los Angeles, California.

Woon Kitchen