We all know warm, 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, aka Mama Fong.
Keegan’s background in fashion marketing, combined with Mama Fong’s creativity behind the wok, has made Woon a destination for irresistible beef noodles. But then COVID-19 threw curve balls.
Keegan and Mama Fong share their trip to In The Weeds this week.
From the parallel project to brick and mortar
Keegan Fong: “The journey to open Woon is quite long. At first it started as a sort of side project to passion. I would come home and want to work on something other than my day job. So I came up with the concept of my mom’s noodle shop and was working on a business plan. Every night I would come home just to spin my wheels. And finally, it became a reality when we were presented with the opportunity to become a pop-up.
We had pop-ups all over LA on the weekends, whenever we had time. We would be in different bars and places. And we frequented that alley in Koreatown, behind our friend’s studio called Studio Pico. So we would host random noodle pop-ups [with] BYOB and DJs and all. And that sort of thing turned into a little underground thing for us that we did every couple of months or so.
Finally, I wanted to… make Woon a real brick and mortar. And I convinced my mom, or even forced her, to be the executive chef behind this concept and I built Woon from scratch with friends and family, and obviously my mom at the helm with her recipes. .
A great leap of faith for Mama Fong
Mum Fong: “Actually, my involvement started when we got the cart and everything. So yeah, I was involved with my noodles early on when we were making the new noodle pop-ups. But when it comes to the concept of having a restaurant, I’m quite skeptical, as I’ve never worked in a restaurant before and I kind of had reservations about it. But eventually, Keegan’s determination convinced me that it was going to be okay, that I could do it in a professional kitchen. Because I’ve always been a home cook, behind the home kitchen, so it’s a big leap for me.
As a boy, Keegan wasn’t really involved in cooking or anything. He was skateboarding, snowboarding and all that. But he always came home and asked for food. He wanted my comfort food. So I would make him some kind of Chinese dish, like a wrap that he could put in the fridge and come home and grab a bite to eat when he’s hungry. So there was always food in the kitchen available for him and his sister. Wherever mom is, there is food. It is therefore a matter of comfort for him.
Mama Fong’s extra care
Keegan Fong: “I remember my mom was in the kitchen all the time. Whenever I think back to the house I grew up in, I was always looking for my mom and she was in the kitchen. I remember opening the fridge and coming home from school and finding a Tupperware full of cucumber tofu salad we were serving, and I just ate.
And then also when I woke up, my mother always said that 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 stuff to it. For lunch too. I was known to have the most extravagant breakfasts among my friends. She would go above and beyond by giving us these lovely lunches that weren’t just Chinese food, but also lovely sandwiches that she wrapped in wax paper and then string. And all my friends were just like, “What the hell is this?” But I would open it, then they would steal half of it and ask my mom to make one for them too.
Conflicts and trust
Mum Fong: “He’s a very good boy since day one. But the point 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 does.
And then, of course, we have conflicts because I nagged sometimes. … I will say, “I left one day, why does the food taste different? and ‘Hey, he’s not doing a good job, why has my dish changed a bit?’ So things like that. He would think I was nitpicking. But in fact, that’s how I see food, sweet, savory, whatever I’m used to. So my palate already knows what’s wrong with the food.
But on the other hand, I let him do what he does, because he does a very, very good job. And he knows what he’s doing. I think it really brings us together. And I know him better than before. And he knows me. So we try to get to know each other more and more. “
Mom is still here
Keegan Fong: “At the end of the day, it’s my mom’s recipes. And she’s very protective of them. And I try to respect that as much as possible. Because in the end, I wouldn’t have Woon without Mum. … When we first opened this place, we had to train the staff, and we had to train them without specific recipes [or] measurements or something like that. So we had to do it along the way.
When I first opened this restaurant, my mom was getting radiation because she was diagnosed with breast cancer right after the lease for this place was signed. So she would come in from the radiation, go straight to the kitchen and train our staff. And she did it for me, and she did it for Woon, whom I respect so much and will never forget. Before COVID, she was in the kitchen every day, about eight to ten hours a day. And it got to the point where I kept telling her that she didn’t need to do this. But she was obviously very protective of her recipes. And his name was on those recipes. And she started to build relationships with clients. So she felt like if she wasn’t there when they came, they would be missing out.
And I remember on March 13 we decided it would be her last day in the kitchen until she was safe again. We had no idea it would be over a year later. But, honestly, for me, I think it was a good thing because there had to be a moment for my mom to get out of the kitchen and for the kitchen to run on its own. So in a way I think it really helped us scale and it helped us take the next step of the business. She was still very involved during COVID, actually, and texting me and our sous-chef, and asking him to send pictures of the pork belly and everything. So she wasn’t physically there, but I think she was still there in that sense.
What to eat in Woon?
Mum Fong: “If you come to Woon, I would recommend the noodles first. It must be the noodles, because it’s very special. I would also recommend having our fried chicken, which is marinated in the special sauce I make. And many others like fish cakes are another thing that you don’t normally see outdoors. It’s more like something I created when the kids were little. It is fish paste that I marinate, season, and stuff in a small pocket of tofu, then we fry it. And then we have the salads. Keegan’s favorite is the cucumber tofu salad, with a hint of spice, 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 taste is in the pork belly. And then we serve it with a bao and also all the garnishes, such as pickled cucumbers, carrots, and also mustard greens. So these are our specialties that people come to eat. And when the summer season arrives, we will have what we call “the crushed radish”. I have been eating it since I was little, because my mother made it. We crush the radish then we put green onions and a special vinaigrette. And so these are all foods that are quite popular in Woon. ”