Photo by Justine Dungo
Leah Cohen credits her heritage for giving her the wherewithal to think – and cook – outside the box. Half Filipino, half Russian-Romanian Jew, she started cooking and being creative at age 10, mostly because her working parents never had any food in the house. When her parents did cook, Cohen says it was nothing like the hamburger and hot dog cuisine of her peers and was, instead, the Southeastern Asian items of her mom’s heritage.
Always an adventurous eater, the craft of food as a profession didn’t turn into a passion until college when she headed to the University of Arizona and, after skipping a few too many classes, was told by her parents to get a job. Getting work in a local restaurant, surrounded by the hustle bustle and the innovative dishes coming out of the kitchen, made her realize her true calling. And so she left Arizona and enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
Post-graduation, she started cooking for Chef David Burke at Park Avenue Café where Burke became a valued mentor. He persuaded her to attend Italy’s Slow Food program, which she then followed with an additional year in Sicily at Michelin-starred La Madia.
Back in New York, Cohen joined Chef Daniel Humm’s kitchen at Eleven Madison Park, quickly moving up the ladder to tournant. In 2008, she earned a sous chef position at Centro Vinoteca, eventually taking on the chef de cuisine role after competing on season five of Bravo’s “Top Chef.”
Being on TV brought her recognition and confidence, but it also made her want to get away from the spotlight. Her next move? Heading to Southeast Asia to explore the region’s flavors and cooking techniques. It was here her Filipino family and friends welcomed her with open arms – and into their kitchens – showing her the traditional foods of her ancestors along with their own special dishes. Cohen also spent time doing guest stints cooking at some of the region’s top rated restaurants, such as Hong Kong’s BoLan and David Thompson’s Nam in Bangkok. And, she traveled across the Philippines and Thailand wandering into restaurants she respected, meeting with local chefs, and digging deep into their craft.
The absorption of cultures and introduction to new and exciting flavors led Cohen back to New York with a mission to meld her background and culinary knowledge into her own unique venture. Pig and Khao ("khao" means “rice” in Thai), a pork-themed eatery, opened in 2012, and was dubbed two stars, by the New York Times as offering visitors “bright, clear flavors” that feel as if you’re “poring over an album of carefully edited postcards from Chef’s Cohen’s travels.”
Symrise sat down with her to hear more about her journey.
Symrise: How has your background influenced your cooking?
Leah Cohen: Growing up, being exposed to Southeastern Asian food at a young age and my Filipino heritage has helped shape my cooking. I'm sure I didn't realize at the time, however.
Symrise: How would you describe your cooking style?
Leah Cohen: Unique, balanced, specific in flavor and taste.
Symrise: What are some of your favorite ingredients to work with and why?
Leah Cohen: I love working with fish sauce, lime juice and chilis. They are the base of most of my dishes and fun to figure how to balance everything out.
Symrise: Do you have a personal favorite dish on your menu?
Leah Cohen: My favorite dish is the Khao Soi [red curry, coconut milk, chicken, egg noodles, pickled mustard greens, red onions]. The first time I had it was in Chian Mai Thailand, and the second I ate it I knew I wanted to put on the menu. It’s something I will never take off the menu.
Symrise: Do you see any trends in the restaurant industry?
Leah Cohen: A lot of people are jumping on the fast casual bandwagon.
Symrise: What do you like to cook when you're "off duty?"
Leah Cohen: I live to try to make desserts. My newest addiction is trying to make horchata ice cream and churros cookie ice cream sandwich.
Symrise: Where do you get your inspiration for new dishes?
Leah Cohen: From my travels to Southeast Asia. I go on an R&D trip every year.
Syrmise: Do you eat out a lot? If so, what are some of your favorite cuisines to try?
Leah Cohen: I don't get to eat out as often as I would like. Usually when I go out I eat Italian food. I used to live in Italy and cook Italian food and fiend out on it. My favorite spots are Vic's [on Great Jones St. in NYC] and Lilia [on Union Ave. in Brooklyn].
Symrise: Who are the chefs you admire and why?
Leah Cohen: Anito Lo [chef and owner of Annisa in New York City] and Missy Robbins [of Lilia in Williamsburg, Brooklyn]. These women are in the trenches with their crew. They are hands on chefs that are teaching the younger generation what it means to be a Chef.
Symrise: If you could cook for anyone, who would it be and why?
Leah Cohen: Either Tupac or Biggie...I wanna know who shot them!