Christina Pettit and Kuma Inn’s King Phojanakong chat about Mar. 11, the Village Voice’s 9th Annual Choice Eats Tasting Event, and more

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In a city with no shortage of great restaurants, picking a new place to try may seem overwhelming. Fortunately, there are events like the 9th Annual Choice Eats Tasting Event – as presented by The Village Voice – to spotlight interesting, quality-oriented establishments. On March 11 at Metropolitan Pavilion (125 West 18th St.), over 50 acclaimed restaurants will present items to their menu, which all attendees may try. Tickets start at $70 for the three-hour event, which benefits the Slow Food NYC organization.

In advance of Choice Eats, I had the opportunity to speak to both Christina Pettit of The Village Voice and Kuma Inn chef/owner King Phojanakong. Kuma Inn (113 Ludlow St.) is one of the showcasing vendors, along with Luke’s Lobster, The Meatball Shop, Veselka, Socarrat Paella Bar, and No. 7 Veggie. Beyond his two restaurants, King recently launched his own Bronx Hot Sauce, as sold in stores. In addition to Choice Eats, Christina also works on Village Voice events like the 4Knots Music Festival, Brooklyn Pour, and Holiday Spirits.

More info on the event itself can be found via clicking over to www.villagevoice.com/choiceeats, while tickets can be purchased here via Ticketfly.

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How did you first find out about Choice Eats?

King Phojanakong: I think Christina walked upstairs to Kuma Inn about 10 years ago and just asked and I said yes.

What will you be serving at this year’s Choice Eats event?

K: We’ve participated in each one since the inception and I like to serve something different each time. Right now I’m leaning towards serving some spicy Kuma-style nachos — some nachos covered with pork and beans, sautéed with fish sauce, oyster sauce, fermented black beans and Thai chilies.

You’ve received great accolades from the Michelin Guide, Zagat, Time Out and The New Yorker. What role, if any, do reviews play for you as a chef-owner?

K: Reviews are like trophies. They’re great to have and display, but each day at the restaurant is a new show, a constant grind. You can’t rest on your reviews. You have to keep pushing. Reviews are great — good or bad — but of course as a chef you always want a positive one. These days with social media, chefs and restaurants have a medium to answer back with.

Is there an accomplishment that you’re most proud of with regards to your restaurants?

K: Opening the doors to Kuma Inn in 2003 was a big deal for me. I was living in the East Bay at the time and the opportunity came up back home in New York, so I grabbed it! A friend of a friend had a space available on Ludlow Street. It was a six-month build-out and it didn’t phase me until opening night that we were on the second floor. I stepped out onto the fire escape to have a cigarette before service and it hit me. I just kept thinking, “Who is going to walk up the stairs to the second floor to dine in a place they can’t even see or find?” You have to remember at that time the Lower East Side was a ghost town. There were only two bars on Ludlow Street between Delancey and Houston Street, Max Fish and Motor City. And then the questions came: Filipino food, the Philippines…What’s that? Where is that?

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You went to the Culinary Institute of America for your chef training, but where did your knowledge come from to be able to manage and own a restaurant? 

K: (laughs) Great question! That would be around the corner at the school of hard knocks. Like any other profession, there are things you learn in school and then there’s the real world. Working in other amazing kitchens before I opened my own helped prepare me for opening the doors to Kuma Inn. But then again, nothing prepares you for the day they shut down the water to your building for repairs, you 86 your dishwasher, and your friends who helped you open have to return to their full -ime jobs less than a week after we opened. Switching majors from music to psychology to archaeology to energy management helped as well.

But I would say hands-on training had the biggest impact. We built Kuma Inn with an open kitchen which was uncommon back then. It gave me a chance to interact with our guests and see what was happening in the dining room. There’s a reason why kitchens are, or were, built in the back and closed off from the main dining area. But these days with social media and the rise in pop food culture, the chef is in the spotlight along with the food.

Do you have any hopes or plans of opening a third restaurant?

K: I am always open to exploring new opportunities in the culinary world. It may or may not be another restaurant. With the release of our Bronx Hot Sauce, I’m starting to like the retail end of the food world. I would love to get more sauces out on the market.

I understand that music is a big part of your life when you’re not at your restaurants. Have you ever played in a band?

G: I love music! It’s my biggest passion after cooking and fishing! I was in three bands throughout high school, a couple throughout college and one when I first opened Kuma Inn. We used to jam on Sunday nights at the restaurant after we closed, the good old days! I still try to jam at least once a month with some friends upstate. Sometimes you might catch me at the back room of Jimmy’s 43 [43 East 7th St.] trying to carry a tune.

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How would you describe the Choice Eats event to someone who hasn’t attended it before? Is an attendee able to taste food from every participating restaurant? 

Christina Pettit: We like to refer to The Village Voice’s Choice Eats as a “foodie’s gluttonous heaven.” Choice Eats is New York City’s premiere food tasting event that features 50-plus restaurants that have been reviewed and heralded in the Village Voice by our food critics as the best restaurants in New York City, spanning all boroughs, cuisines and styles. The event is a testament to our extensive and unparalleled restaurant reviews featured in the Village Voice.

Choice Eats is the perfect opportunity for guests to taste a plethora of unique cuisines and dishes ranging from Peruvian to Cantonese to Australian to Filipino to Georgian to New American. In addition to the savory dishes, the event also features several desserts that we profile as “Choice Sweets” participants and includes everything from ice cream to cupcakes to donuts and more. Attendees are able to taste food from each participant — there are no limits here. Some restaurants that will be participating this year include Meat Hook Sandwich Shop, Robicelli’s, Mable’s Smokehouse, and Luke’s Lobster, to name just a few. The event also includes samples from several craft beers, wines and liquors as well, to wash down all of those delicious dishes and DJ sets all night by Little Water Radio’s DJ Delphine Blue.

What is the criteria for a vendor that wants to exhibit within a future Choice Eats event? 

C: Each restaurant must be favorably reviewed in the Village Voice and be selected and recommended for the event by our food critics to be invited into Choice Eats. Since its inception in 2008, the event has hosted over 300 restaurants that have been reviewed, featured on our blog, or a “Best of NYC” award recipient. Each year, we invite new restaurants as well as restaurants who have participated before.

What is the biggest challenge of putting on a major event like Choice Eats?

C: Choice Eats can always be a challenge, albeit a tasty one. How many plates, forks and spoons to order for each restaurant? Who needs electricity to toast buns for their shrimp rolls? How on Earth are we going to get a whole roasted pig through the door? These are tongue-in-cheek challenges, but the real logistics we undertake is pulling off 50-plus restaurants in one space at one time for almost 2,000 guests. It’s always a welcome challenge, but we have it down to a fine science after nine years now! Plus, we’re working with a slew of amazing, har-working, extremely-agile New York City restaurateurs and our great Taste Buds volunteer crew, who know how to act quickly. 

I understand that a portion of proceeds from Choice Eats go to Slow Food NYC. Could you tell me a little more about that?

C: Yes, each Village Voice event partners with a non-profit charity that we are committed to supporting! We have been working with Slow Food NYC for eight years as our charitable partner for Choice Eats. We fully support their mission to sustainability and the slow food movement and this aligns well with many of our Choice Eats restaurants at the event as well as our guests. We share a portion of proceeds with them to allow them to grow and invest in their successful school garden program, Urban Harvest and more.

Once this event is over with, which other Village Voice-related events are on your agenda?

C: The events team is launching a BRAND NEW — and tasty — food festival in May; look for more info on that coming very soon. The best way to stay informed on our upcoming events is to subscribe to our Village Voice Food & Drink Newsletter by visiting www.villagevoice.com/signup.

This year will also feature our other annual events including our 4Knots Music Festival on July 9, an all-day indie rock music festival; Brooklyn Pour on Sep. 24, a craft beer festival featuring 60-plus breweries; Holiday Spirits on Nov. 17, a cocktail dinner cruise offering sips from 25+ local and national distilleries, wineries and more.

Aside from Choice Eats 2016 participants, do you have a favorite restaurant? 

C: Most of my favorite restaurants are Choice Eats participants, past and present! I cannot pick a favorite, but some of my go-to spots include:

  • Café Mogador, for their exquisite Moroccan cuisine
  • The Meatball Shop, for fulfilling all of my pasta, meatball, veggie, cookie and ice cream dreams
  • MAX, for their traditional and perfect Italian dishes
  • Fletcher’s Brooklyn Barbecue, for their remarkable, magical barbecue and awesome staff
  • Veselka, for capturing my everlong love with the East Village and pierogies
  • Ample Hills Creamery, for making the most obnoxiously delicious ice cream that cannot be ignored.

If I can, I’d like to include an honorable mention shout-out to some past Choice Eats alums that have since closed, including SCRATCHbread and 606 R&D. 

Finally, any last words for the kids?

K: Stay in school kids and do what you love. Follow your heart and don’t take any shit from anybody. It’s the main reason why Kuma Inn is still here today.   

C: Choice Eats sells out fast so buy your ticket now while they’re still available for the urban epicurean experience of a lifetime on March 11th! Come hungry, come thirsty, and come curious to meet and mingle some of the most intriguing and friendly chefs in the New York City restaurant scene. For the price of one ticket, you can treat your palate to a trip around the world and compile a list of your new, favorite must-visit restaurants throughout our great city. Snag a ticket for you and a friend now – visit www.villagevoice.com/choiceeats.

-by Darren Paltrowitz