Meet the London chef who made it cool to be vegan
Chef King Cook has been at the forefront of the UK capital’s vegan revolution since he opened his east London pop-up in 2015. But he wasn’t always into a plant-based lifestyle
I used to be a big meat eater. I’m from Laos and our national dish is larb, traditionally made with buffalo intestines, which has bile in it. Just a drop of it makes your mouth explode with bitterness, and I used to love it. Growing up, my family all worked in kitchens – so being a chef was in my bloodline. My father, Boundy, was a chef at London’s Gloucester Hotel. He would bring home cuts of meat while my mum, Sounath, worked at a butcher’s in Victoria and would take home black pudding.
When I became a chef, I was exposed to every type of animal – from Wagyu beef to freshly shot game. I used to work in a five-star Spanish hotel, and I’d pluck the pellets from the bodies of pigeons whose blood was still warm. It was normal, but now I don’t even like watching cooking shows where meat is being prepared.
I became a vegetarian shortly after I started going to the London Buddhist Centre in 2009 and I went vegan in 2014. I now have four vegan children – London, Indie, Gala and Royal – plus my wife Laurène is also vegan, and we love planning trips around eating. I remember going to Berlin for my birthday in 2016, back when it was the global hub of veganism. Literally all we did was jump in a taxi, show the name of a plant-based place to the driver and go eat.
I’d opened my Shoreditch restaurant, CookDaily, the year before and it felt like a crazy time. Things were moving fast with veganism but also not: you still had to travel to explore the newest food and I loved the excitement of doing that. I was constantly inspired. Berlin had the first vegan supermarket, Veganz, and I filled my suitcase with everything its had – pâtés, cheeses, sausages, snacks. I was in heaven! Now every supermarket is stocked with plant-based food.
I love that you can discover cultures through eating new vegan dishes
Whenever I travel now, whether at home or abroad, I’m well prepared, especially when the kids are with me. We carry snack bags of pasta or teriyaki rice because it can be hard, and we don’t want chips and burgers all the time. One place I did struggle to eat, however, was Seoul. I couldn’t speak a word of Korean and hadn’t had time to do much research, and it seemed like everything had fish in it.
I ended up eating instant noodles in my hotel room, until I found a Buddhist restaurant with a Zen garden that served me this huge tray of temple food. It was incredible – perhaps 15 different dishes in one go. Even the rice had seven different grains and every dish had a story. I love that you can discover cultures through eating new vegan dishes.
It’s the same when I cook. My home cooking style is definitely ‘world foods’ and it’s not just about eating – every dish is an introduction to a different culture. So, when I cook Indian, depending on the dish, we won’t use cutlery but eat with our fingers. Or when we cook Japanese udon, we’ll eat it with a slurp because that’s what they do in their culture (even though it’s considered rude in Laos).
My family back in Laos is impressed with my veganism. I had my first vegan fried egg there, which was a combination of tofu and yellow bean. It blew my mind. I’d missed fried eggs because stir-fried meat, chilli and holy basil with an egg on top is a classic Thai dish.
It’s now been nearly a decade since I went vegan and things have changed so much in the last five years. My pop-up restaurant Cookdaily was the birth of plant-based food in London. We created a subculture – a place people travelled to because I didn’t cook the standard menu of burgers or hot dogs. When international stars like Ghostface Killah and Donald Glover started turning up, I knew something big had happened. And as for my old ways? Honestly, eating meat is like a past life to me. Now I make my larb with soya mince.
The new King Cook Daily Pop-Up opens in east London in January 2023
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