Morning Rituals with Keegan Fong of Woon Kitchen
Keegan Fong is the founder of Woon — a Chinese restaurant that's so much more than a restaurant. Woon's official inception came sometime in 2013, but its roots go back to Keegan's childhood. His mom, Julie Chen (A.K.A. Mama Fong), was always cooking up her original takes on recipes inspired by her Shanghainese & Cantonese roots. Their home in Los Angeles became like a hub for Keegan and his siblings' friends, because Mama Fong would always whip up delicious food — no matter the time of day or night!Julie had always dreamed of having a restaurant, and Keegan wanted to help bring it to life; to share his mom's passion with the world.
After working professionally in marketing for a few years, Keegan saw an opportunity and — in the span of one month — created Woon as a pop-up noodle stand at an annual art market run by his uncle and cousin. It was a true family affair, with his sister designing the logo and his brother-in-law helping Keegan and his mom make the food.
Keegan and his mom have basically been selling out of noodles ever since! They continued operating as a pop-up business until 2018, when they opened their location in Historic Filpinotown. In addition to their story, Woon's menu, brand, hospitality and community involvement all play a crucial part in defining the unique & beloved fixture of LA it has become.
Having first gotten to know Keegan from being in the neighborhood (our old office was down the street from Woon in Historic Filipinotown!) we wanted to learn and share a bit more about his perspective as a creative and business owner. So we headed over to his place in Silver Lake with our friend Justin Chung for some coffee on a recent morning. We hope you enjoy!
Do you have a daily or morning ritual?
I’d prefer to have a more regular ritual, but lately it’s determined by what errands or projects I have in the morning. I definitely try to exercise daily whether it’s swimming laps at the YMCA or going for a run around the Silverlake Reservoir. It’s the only way to clear my head and sets the energy for the rest of the day. Having that one constant thing helps create some normalcy in a crazy day-to-day life.
We know growing your own business (especially a restaurant) can be all-consuming! How do you keep balanced (as much as that’s possible!) and motivated?
I knew going into this business that it’d be a lot of work, but I honestly never imagined it would be this much! I’ve always dreamt of having my own business and I think that is motivation in itself. I asked for the opportunity to build something, so any moment I’m not working on it I feel like I’m cheating myself. It helps that what I do is fun for me…whether it’s sharing our story, creating new products, or even solving a problem in the kitchen to make things more efficient. Those are all challenging problems that are fun to solve. In terms of balance, I try as much as I can to make time for myself and my personal life. I usually dedicate one day a week to golf with friends and we like to play outside of LA so it feels like more of a getaway. Exercising in the mornings is also a form of self-care and meditation for me.
When we think of Woon, we feel it’s about so much more than food. It’s about family, your mom, the beautiful relationship the two of you have, and a story that — 8 years since the first Woon pop-up — has many, many layers now.
And after all that, there is the physical space that is Woon, the creativity and artistry involved in the brand, the music you play, your approach to hospitality… Do you feel there’s a foundation, or heart, of Woon, from which everything is an extension? How would you describe that?
Thank you so much…it means a lot to me when I hear people mention Woon as more than just a Chinese restaurant. I always try to tell people that Woon is literally just a reflection of myself at this moment in time. It’s authentic to me. I’ve always wanted Woon to feel comfortable and to feel like home - whether that’s the physical design of the space, the music, the art, and the approach to service.
I grew up living with my mom and her favorite thing to do was to welcome people into her home, entertain them and make sure they were taken care of. I feel like she passed that spirit onto me. I always want our guests to have fun and enjoy themselves. And the best way to add to that is mixing in good food, good music and a comfortable environment.
The furniture and hanging pendant lights were designed and built by my good friend and roommate at the time, Peter Wilday, and it just reflected how we wanted our furniture at home. A lot of the antiques are ‘borrowed’ directly from my mom’s house along with the childhood photos you find in the wall or hallway. You’ll also see a lot of random trinkets in the corners of the restaurant because my mom is a strong believer in feng shui so they all serve a purpose, they are not just for decoration. The older works of art are on lend from my uncle, who is the owner of JF Chen Antiques and pay homage to our Chinese heritage. The newer works of art are by my great friend and favorite artist, Ty Williams…he also does all of the art for our merch and flyers, etc. It’s essentially a blend of my personal taste and things that remind me of my home growing up - almost how I see my life as an Asian American.
However, that extends beyond the physical space. How our staff interacts not only with customers, but with each other is really important. I think not having any experience in this industry prior to opening this restaurant was an advantage. The way we treat our staff or run the kitchen is very unconventional (this is what I’m told because I wouldn’t know otherwise). We don’t like to take things too seriously as long as we get our jobs done. A great example is our wine program…our great friend and wine queen, Emily Koh is our wine buyer / curator and we have an amazing selection of natural wines. All I care about is that they taste good and they pair amazing with our food…but we’re not going to shove it down your throats with an entire explanation of what makes this wine so special. We’ll just tell you this wine tastes damn good, especially with our food! Now let's get drunk and be happy together!
What are a few of your favorite or most fulfilling aspects of owning and growing Woon?
This is tough…everything about Woon has been fulfilling. Definitely being able to share my mom’s story and her food. She’s always dreamt of having a restaurant, and whether she likes it or not, I threw her into the lime light. I think she’s finally getting the credit she deserves…she is just an amazing and unique woman. There’s a reason why she was called Mama Fong growing up.
The fact that I’ve been able to bring so many of my friends and family I admire into Woon is also really fulfilling to me. I love being able to work with friends and build new friendships and I think Woon has just been this huge web of people that has brought us all together.
Of course, being able to actually create jobs and build a staff that I can pay a living wage to is always going to blow my mind. It still trips me out to think that I actually made something that can pay a team of people to live. I know that sounds so simple and also so dumb. But to me, it still blows my mind. Our staff is so damn cool and every person works so hard…it’s so awesome to be able to have everyone contribute to something like Woon and reward them for that.
I love being able to work with friends and build new friendships and I think Woon has just been this huge web of people that has brought us all together.
What do you feel have been (or are currently!) the most challenging aspects?
It’s hard…all of it. The day to day problem solving will never go away and I think it’s just the compilation of it all that makes it so challenging. Every little problem that comes up just piles into a big one. But that’s also why I love this job because every little problem creates a solution and having that many solutions is pretty damn fulfilling :)
The pressure you have to keep customers and people happy. I always want 100% of customers to have the best possible experience and it’s a challenge to do that.
It’s also stressful to build a long term future and plan for bigger and better things with Woon…but the priority is to always keep the wheels on this car before I can even own a new one. So that’s a challenge…knowing how much more I want to do, but also knowing that I don’t physically have the capacity or resources to do those things yet.
Lastly, it’s just the crazy shit that comes along with owning a brick and mortar in Los Angeles…break-ins (I’ve had several), sinks falling on the floor (happened yesterday), graffiti to clean up (yesterday, too), kitchen equipment breaking down (always).
It seems creating and bringing ideas to life has been a through line for you (prior to Woon, we know you had been working with and growing some brands in the fashion industry). Have you always had that kind of creative drive? Is it something that’s developed over time?
You’ve been doing some amazing work fundraising for and bringing awareness around violence against the AAPI community in America. We’d like to hear about what this moment has meant or felt like for you, and please share any links we can include for people who want to contribute and get involved!
This year was huge for the Asian American community. Unfortunately, it took Asian Americans getting physically harassed and injured for the AAPI community to get the recognition it deserves. As I mentioned previously, Woon is a direct reflection of myself in this point in time. I am an Asian American and I’m telling my story as one. I think it’s my responsibility to share this with our audience and educate everyone as much as possible in order for them to interpret that how they want to. The more stories I can share as an Asian American, the more others will be able to understand all our stories.
As for fundraising…it all started because Emily (our wine buyer I previously mentioned) texted me one night and asked if I had seen what was going on. She asked if I’d be willing to host a bake sale to raise awareness and money against Anti-Asian Violence and I said of course. The response was overwhelming and I think that inspired a lot of others to do the same. We ended up hosting another hugely successful pop up not too long after. It was initiated by my chef friend, Tim Mah. And now, any event we participate in has an AAPI awareness component to it. It just makes sense.
I think the biggest thing for all of this is that Asians are taught to stay out of the drama and not rock the boat. We are always told to just keep our heads down and keep working. Don’t look others in the eye and just do what we’re told. However, this year was a turning point in that we realized we don’t have to do any of that as Asian Americans. We all have a voice and we can do something about it if we want to.
We feel so lucky to be a part of this scene of small businesses that have taken root here in East LA. How do you view the landscape of growing a business in Los Angeles? And how do you view Woon within it?
I’m extremely lucky to be part of this scene. I feel lucky to be even having this conversation with you guys. Growing up in Pasadena, I never would have imagined that I’d be owning a business that has the opportunity to shape the landscape of the city I grew up in. I was living in San Diego prior to opening Woon and I knew I wanted Woon to be in LA. it’s where my roots are, and I knew that if I could do something special in such a diverse and big city, then it would be a huge accomplishment. Woon could close today and I’d still be proud of what we built. However, I have a feeling that the landscape of LA is not going to allow that to happen anytime soon. It’s only getting more and more diverse and new businesses are popping up left and right - even during a pandemic! I think everyone is swarming to LA from other big cities because they are finally realizing what this city has to offer. I’m so excited for the future of LA and I’m very thankful that Woon can be even a tiny bit of the conversation.
I think I started to realize that the only way I could fulfill my creative drive was to build my own business because it fulfills both the creative side of things and also the analytical side. I could never do one without the other…I always need both in order to stay balanced
All photos by Justin Chung!