New York native Leah Cohen is no stranger to good food. Growing up as a half Filipina and half Russian-Romanian Jew, her childhood culinary background was eclectic to say the least. Cohen’s heritage, plus the pulsing New York City culinary scene, inspired her to pursue the culinary arts. To jumpstart her ambitions, she attended the Culinary Institute of America before working for Chef David Burke at Park Avenue Café. Burke inspired Cohen to attend Italy’s Slow Food program, which she followed with an additional year in Sicily at Michelin-starred La Madia.
Returning to New York City, Cohen began working in Chef Daniel Humm’s kitchen at Eleven Madison Park, where she was quickly promoted to tournant. In 2008, Cohen earned a sous chef position at Centro Vinoteca and eventually took on the chef de cuisine role after competing on season 5 of Bravo’s “Top Chef.”
After her departure from the show, Cohen spent time traveling and staging in Southeast Asia, working at Bo Innovations in Hong Kong and BoLan and David Thompson’s Nam in Bangkok. Craving firsthand knowledge, Cohen then devoted a year to traveling across the Phillipines and Thailand, finding restaurants with dishes she admired and learning the techniques and flavors from the cooks themselves.
Cohen draws inspiration from this worldly knowledge and translates it on the plate at Lower East Side restaurant, Pig and Khao, her first solo venture and the new and exciting center of Southeast Asian food in New York City.
Interview with Chef Leah Cohen of Pig and Khao – New York, NY
Dan Catinella: What inspired you to cook professionally?
Leah Cohen: I always cooked when I was younger, since I was 10. My parents were always working and we never had food in the house. My dad always felt he would get fat if we had food in the house so I had to be creative and make stuff up. I would make pasta and tomato sauce and rice, anything.
DC: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
LC: I originally went to the University of Arizona, but I never went to class. My parents were pissed that I traveled so far and just didn’t try. I had like a one-point-something GPA, and my parents told me to get a job so I started working in a restaurant. When I was at Arizona, I enjoyed going to work more than class, which eventually led to my applying and enrolling at the Culinary Institute of America.
DC: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
LC: One of the problems kids have is that they see celebrity chefs and they think that following school you will immediately become famous. It’s not true and everyone needs to know they have to pay their dues and start from the bottom. For example, I was a prep cook and even washed dishes. Everyone needs to know what its like to be at the bottom. My dishwasher bailed out this week so I was there doing dishes with my sous chef. You have to get over the hierarchy. Furthermore, the first three restaurants I worked in had big brigade systems. It’s good training-wise, and I learned a lot in those kitchens. It teaches you to perform and know your role.
DC: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
LC: I make dishes based on how I would like to eat. All of the food I serve is something I want—either when I go out or something that reminds me of time spent in Thailand and what I ate there and why it made such an impression. For me it’s about using quality ingredients and making sure the flavors are true to whatever cuisine you are replicating. I don’t think it matters if it’s French or Asian, but it does need to be true and honest. It doesn’t necessarily have to be traditional.
No one is really doing the type of food I do, and it means something to me. That's why I was initially drawn to this style of cuisine. I am half Pinoy and spent quite a bit of time in the Philippines and fell in love with the culture and food.
DC: What goes into creating a dish?
LC: I start at the traditional method and flavors and build from there. I’m very much for using modern techniques. I think you can find a good balance between traditional and modern techniques.
DC: What's the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
LC: For us, even though my partners are the Fatty Crew, it’s still a brand new restaurant. In New York City it’s extremely difficult to succeed and win over people. Everyone thinks they're a food critic and blogs and takes pictures and has an opinion. This is completely different from when I first began cooking. The culture has completely changed. There are new restaurants opening all the time and we have to stay relevant, which is so hard.
DC: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?
LC: I would have started OpenTable from the very beginning.
DC: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
LC: Pinoy food seems to be taking off as the next "Korean" flare.
DC: Which person in history would you most like to cook for?
LC: I would cook for Biggie and ask who killed him—and if it was P. Diddy who killed him.
DC: What’s your proudest accomplishment to date?
LC: We'll see next week after the Pete Wells review. But it’s got to be this restaurant. It's not an easy task and it’s definitely takes a lot of energy and time. [Editor’s Note: Cohen and Pig and Khao earned two stars from The New York Times.]
DC: What’s next for you?
LC: I would do another Pig and Khao but maybe in a different state. Maybe Philly or DC. I would like to do a cookbook, and I would like to have kids.