Setting the Table with Chef Leah Cohen
Bringing a Southeast Asian flare to New York City, Leah Cohen introduced her heritage to an entirely new community through the medium of food. Setting the table with a mix of adobo and pad thai, her restaurant, Pig & Khao, has paved the way for the emergence of Filipino cuisine. From spending a year in Southeast Asia, competing on Top Chef, and opening her own restaurant, to figuring her way through the pandemic. Giving Caviar props for being the original platform that supported Pig & Khao for delivery, and helping to put Leah on the map, she emphasizes the importance of delivery and takeout during this time. Especially for the upcoming winter.
We virtually sat down with Leah to talk with her about her journey from Thailand to New York City and everything in between, what it was like to turn her restaurant into a takeout window, eating out of boxes, her new cookbook Lemongrass and Lime and being on Top Chef.
You’re ordering takeout from your favorite place—what is something you need to make it feel special?
Leah: Honestly, I usually just eat out of the boxes because I don’t want dirty dishes. But we always sit at the dinner table and we have especially been trying now that our son eats real food. We always try to have him eat at the same time so we’re all eating together.
How was the experience of cooking in Southeast Asia? Which location and style of food there was your favorite to cook?
Leah: Thailand was my favorite country that I visited. It’s a toss up between two restaurants, Nom and Bo.lan. Actually the chef at Bo.lan was the sous chef for the chef at Nom so I feel like they are very similar. Those two were the most interesting and the most educational places that I cooked at. I absolutely loved being in Southeast Asia for the year I did not want to come home.
What were the first few days after pivoting Pig & Khao to a street food window like?
Leah: We closed initially for four months, and we were really slow in the beginning. It took us two to three weeks to get the word out there, but we had our customers that already knew we were on Caviar and I think that really helped. I’m not going to lie, it was definitely hard. We changed the menu around to make it a little less prep-intensive for the back of the house so people were not familiar with some of the menu items. They were excited initially when we reopened, but they didn’t see some of their favorite dishes on the menu, which may have set us back a bit.
What does sharing your Southeast Asian and Filipino-inspired meals with New York mean to you?
Leah: To me, it’s really great to pay tribute to my mom and her heritage and my heritage growing up. I didn’t really know how to embrace that side of the family or that culture, but I always found it important. And so, through food I was able to express that. When we first opened Pig & Khao, there weren’t that many Filipino restaurants out there and there weren’t really any known chefs who cooked Filipino food. And now, there’s so many more and I like to think that I had something to do with that to help spread the word of Filipino cuisine. I think it’s great and I am very proud that the Filipino community has embraced me and I’m just happy that people kind of get a glimpse into what Filipino food is all about.
I usually just eat out of the boxes because I don’t want dirty dishes.
What is something positive you took away from having to temporarily close, then reopen?
Leah: I would say from a personal standpoint, I got to spend four months at home everyday with my son which I would have never been able to do. I went from working a lot of hours to essentially not working at all and just being home with my son, but it was amazing to be able to get that time with him that I would have never have gotten.
Was Lemongrass & Lime something you had been working on prior to the pandemic or was that something you chose to devote your time to as a result?
Leah: That was three years in the making. The pub date got postponed because of the pandemic because they were printing the book overseas. That started three years ago and it was supposed to come out in June and then got pushed back to September. But hey, it’s out now.
What’s in store for the restaurant next?
Leah: I would say for any restaurant, the number one focus is getting through the winter. And I do think that takeout and delivery will be as crucial as it was when this whole thing started. It’s going to be very important to keep our delivery and takeout business steady through the winter because a lot less people will be wanting to leave their house which I totally understand. But it’s very hard to make longterm decisions when we really have no idea what’s going to happen even a week from now.
It’s been pretty cool to see the restaurant industry come together during this time. What else can people do to help?
Leah: Gift cards, buying merchandise from people who sell whatever swag they have like shirts, hats, etc. Obviously ordering take out and delivery, and eating at the restaurant if you feel comfortable, whether it’s indoor or outdoor. Trying to promote your favorite restaurants either on social media or just with your friends. And of course, tip. It’s important for people to appreciate and tip their servers and the people who are putting themselves at risk to feed everyone and keep their business afloat.
When we first reopened everyone was tipping like crazy and then it kind of stopped.
What did being on Top Chef teach you?
Leah: It made me aware that I had no idea what kind of food I wanted to cook. Even when I was on the show I felt like I was cooking food that I had learned from chefs that I had worked for and I wasn’t necessarily cooking my own food. I didn’t figure that out until I was in Southeast Asia. But, it did teach me about discipline, how to deal with stress, because that was an extremely stressful situation, and it taught me to believe in myself. It also taught me how to problem solve on the spot because you really don’t have a lot of time to figure things out while you’re competing on the show.
What is your go-to delivery order after a long day?
Leah: I love Prince Street Pizza. The pepperoni one, they put so much pepperoni it’s amazing. I’m obsessed with pepperoni. And they have thick cut ones so it’s real greasy, full of pepperoni, and it’s delicious.
Who’s inspiring you in the restaurant/culinary world right now?
Leah: José Andrés because of all the charity work he does. He’s just an amazing person and he really tries to help as many people as he can through the power of food. I’ve never known of anyone who really helps out people in need like he does.