Young Chef Draws on Heritage and Travel for Inspiration

She always wanted to be her own boss
December 6, 2018 Updated: December 6, 2018

NEW YORK—Leah Cohen wasn’t always the owner and executive chef of Pig and Khao on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Piggyback Bar in Jersey City, New Jersey. She’s had a long journey to get to where she is today, which started when she was 8 years old.

Cohen first developed an interest in the culinary arts when she helped her mother and grandmother with the family and holiday dinners. During school snow days, she would spend her time cooking instead of sledding in Westchester, New York.

She worked as a pizza delivery girl before she got her first opportunity to cook for real. Her parents were dentists, and one of their patients owned a local restaurant in Harrison, New York.

the interior
The interior of Pig and Khao. The word “Khao” in the name of the restaurant means rice in Thai, and is significant because it is a main ingredient is South East Asian Cuisine. (Georgina Richardson)

There, she learned how to cook in a real commercial kitchen. She was also exposed to the harsh reality every novice and veteran line cook faces: prep work.

“I also learned how to prep, and I absolutely hated it because they would give me like a huge sack of potatoes and I had to peel like 50 pounds of potatoes, and I was like ‘Oh my god this sucks,’ but I still did it, I didn’t complain. It taught me how to keep my head down and do what I’m told, which was good,” Cohen told The Epoch Times.

An Italian Experience

After attending culinary school at the Culinary Institute of America, Cohen did an externship at David Burke’s Park Avenue Café, the first time she had worked in a fast-paced, fine dining kitchen. It was a demanding, aggressive environment, but the experience taught the young cook how to be tough.

At this point in her career, Cohen had an affection for Italian cuisine, and was urged to attend Italy’s Slow Food program.

Sizzling Sisig
Leah Cohen’s interests shifted from Italian cuisine to southeast Asian fare, such as the Sizzling Sisig dish at Pig and Khao. (Georgina Richardson)

After the program, Cohen embarked on a yearlong trip to Sicily, and continued to pursue her passion for Italian cuisine, working at the Michelin-starred Ristorante La Madia in 2007.

“It was amazing. I was fully immersed, I thought I was Italian. It was an unforgettable experience professionally, personally. It was challenging. Sometimes I got homesick, but overall I think it made me a really good traveler. I think it made me open to the world, and to different cultures, and it was an amazing experience,” Cohen recalled.

Fine Dining

Cohen returned to the United States and began working for Daniel Humm at the esteemed restaurant Eleven Madison Park. It was here where the young line cook refined and honed her skills.

“Eleven Madison really taught me how to cook food. It taught me really great cooking technique, how to properly cook duck, steak, fish, vegetables, everything you could possibly think of. It taught me how to really line cook. It taught me speed. It taught me knife skills … it taught me everything,” Cohen recalled.

The experience also made Cohen realize she didn’t want to continue with fine dining. After working at Eleven Madison Park for a year, Cohen took a month-long vacation to the Philippines to figure out what she wanted to do next. Her subsequent travels and Filipino heritage would ultimately shape her vision for her own restaurants.

The logo
The Pig and Khao restaurant logo. (Georgina Richardson)

After returning to the United States, she began working at Anne Burrell’s Centro Vinoteca where she was promoted to sous chef, and eventually earned the chef de cuisine position. She took a hiatus from the restaurant to compete on season five of “Top Chef.” While Cohen had a enjoyable, valuable experience on the show, she grew tired of people talking about her in the media.

“I just wanted to get back to what I do with cooking, and I wanted to figure out who I was as a chef. So I wanted to go somewhere where no one knew who I was, and literally packed a suitcase and left the U.S. for a year,” Cohen recalled.

A Cook Abroad

Cohen traveled to Thailand, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. She shadowed cooks and chefs at a variety of restaurants, went on food tours, took cooking classes, and visited a plethora of markets. She brought home all the knowledge she had gained on the trip, which would extensively influence her first restaurant.

Halo-Halo, a dessert dish at Pig and Khao. (Georgina Richardson)

Wanting to open up her own restaurant when she returned to the United States, she looked for an apartment and a restaurant location on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where her brother lived at the time.

After passing on a space that didn’t have a liquor license, she returned months later and chose the location for her first restaurant, Pig and Khao, in 2013. Her extensive travels as well as her Filipino heritage have defined the restaurant and the menu.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but it was my training for the food that I make now. So I think I like to pay respect to my mom’s side of the family by doing obviously Filipino food, and I think that my palette really does understand all those strong, pungent flavors that other people aren’t used to because they weren’t exposed to it at a young age.”

At Pig and Khao, Cohen’s favorite dish is Khao Soi, which consists of red curry, coconut milk, chicken, egg noodles, pickled mustard greens, and red onions—the first dish on the menu that has never come off. The restaurant is also known for its Sizzling Sisig, an elaborate pork head dish beloved by diners.

Having experienced several successful years, Cohen opened Piggyback Bar in Jersey City, New Jersey, to expand the Pig and Khao brand. Once she saw the location and the view of Manhattan across the Hudson River, her mind was set. Piggyback Bar opened in 2017 with a focus on American bar food with an Asian influence.

“The most satisfying part is that people enjoy and want to come back and eat over and over again,” Cohen said. “You give people an insight into who you are through the food that you cook, and I think we do it at both restaurants well.”