Boisterous Filipino parties were a regular occurrence during Leah Cohen’s suburban New York childhood. “I’d go every weekend with my parents to what was pretty much a big potluck,” recalls the Westchester-reared chef-owner of Pig & Khao on the Lower East Side.
The daughter of a Filipina mother and European-Jewish father, Cohen experienced “a broad range of cuisines” from an early age. After taking a six-week cooking class at the age of 16, the “terrible student who didn’t know what [she] wanted” became smitten with the idea of a life behind the stove. “Everyone’s a doctor in my family, so I wasn’t even sure cooking could be a career,” she says.
But it could, and she set out to make it happen by graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, working with David Burke, and heading to Italy to study fresh, seasonal ingredients at the acclaimed Slow Food program. Back in New York, Cohen headed to the kitchens of Eleven Madison Park and Centro Vinoteca. Then, Top Chef catapulted her into the national spotlight.
Five years ago, no one in New York even knew what the fuck a Filipino restaurant was.
“Being on the show definitely got my name out there, and it also made the idea of having my own restaurant attainable,” she says. To help accomplish this dream, she spent a year traveling and eating her way through the Philippines and Thailand. Exploring her mother’s culinary roots firsthand inspired Cohen to open a restaurant devoted to bright, bold Southeast Asian flavors.
Since opening in 2012, Pig & Khao has celebrated under-represented dishes such as green rice-crusted dorade and sizzling sisig (a classic Philippines dish featuring chopped-up pig parts). Having caught New Yorkers’ attention with her unconventional menu, Cohen is now seeking out a second location for the restaurant.
“It’s funny—I didn’t love Filipino food growing up. There were some things I liked, but so much of it was scary to me when I was a kid,” she admits. “Just think: Five years ago no one you met would even know what the fuck a Filipino restaurant was, let alone decide to eat in one. It’s awesome how that’s changed.” Along with restaurants like Maharlika and Lumpia Shack Snackbar, Pig & Khao has been instrumental in spreading the gospel in recent years.
From labor-intensive duck at Eleven Madison Park, to crunchy noodles fit for a Thai king, here are the 10 dishes that inspire her to keep pushing her food forward.
Like chicken soup, this is a Filipino cure-all my mom would make for me every time I was sick. It has a sour tamarind base, but it taught me how Southeast Asian cuisines are all about balanced flavors. When I go to the Philippines, it’s one of the first things I want to eat. (Photo: filipinofood.ca)
This was the first Filipino dish I ever had in my life, and now it’s something we do a lot of in the restaurant. People flip out over them. Every Filipino I know serves this to their kids because they love it. Pork spring rolls with a sweet chile sauce…what’s not to love? (Photo: Alex Denis/CBS Local)
Braised Short Ribs with Chambord Sauce
This dish won me $5,000 in culinary school. I entered a recipe contest just for the free bottle of Chambord and ended up having to go against a handful of my classmates. It was tough—and I had uncut short ribs—so in the middle of a timed competition I found myself using a hacksaw on bones for the first time in my young career. At the end of the day I was the winner and walked away with a big check. At 21, it was inspiring.
Lavender Duck at Eleven Madison Park
One of the tastiest dishes I ever ate while I was at Eleven Madison Park was also one of the most challenging to make. When I worked the meat roast station I was responsible for [making it]. The ducks were dry aged for 25 to 30 days in the walk-in. When an order came in, I would rub the duck with honey and spices, roast it in an oven 15 feet from my station, go back and spin it halfway through, then pass it off. The pick-up was almost 20 minutes and if I was ever down one it would destroy my night. (Photo: The Wandering Eater/YouTube)
After graduating from culinary school I enrolled in the Slow Food program in Italy, where I learned to cook food from all of the country’s different regions. Vincisgrassi, a special version of lasagna from Le Marche, was one of my favorites because it taught me how important it is to use good ingredients and make all parts of a dish from scratch. To this day my friends, family, and staff at the restaurant are excited anytime I decide to make it. (Photo: cipollerosse.it)
Ricotta Cannoli with Orange Sauce and Pistachios at La Madia
I wanted to understand all parts of the kitchen, so I was staging at La Madia and working pastries. I had to fry the shells that we made and was unsuccessful in getting them to bubble up for two straight weeks. The other cooks kept teasing that I could not do it properly because I was not Sicilian. When I finally achieved the correct results I had such a sense of accomplishment after sticking with it for so long. (Photo: La Madia)
Chilled Asparagus Soup
It was the Quickfire Challenge on Top Chef, and I had to use an ingredient that I absolutely despised: white asparagus. I made a cold soup out of it with a tuna tartare and olive tapenade, transforming it in a way that Grant Achatz, the judge, would enjoy. He picked it as the winner. He’s one of the biggest fucking deals as far as chefs go to me, so that was pretty awesome. (Photo: familyfeatures.com)
While traveling around Thailand, fermented sausage was one of the favorite dishes I encountered. It’s a street-food snack, but what’s really interesting is the fermenting process. Essentially, you are keeping meat out in hot temperatures unrefrigerated, so it’s difficult if you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s an awesome dish that we sometimes do as a special at the restaurant. I made it when I competed in Cochon555, and although I didn’t win, it was everyone’s favorite. (Photo: Palmi Snaer Brynju)
When I was in Chiang Mai I ate khao soi at all the top places. I even went to the restaurant that is the king’s favorite for the dish, and I thought that was pretty cool. I knew immediately this was something I was going to put on my menu, and it’s been there since day one and will probably never leave. It has a lot of flavor going on between the coconut curry soup, the chicken, the egg noodles, the fermented mustard greens, and the crispy noodles on top. It’s difficult to make, but I wanted as much of it as possible—even the curry powder and paste—to be from scratch. (Photo courtesy Pig & Khao)
Red Curry Rice
When I opened the restaurant, I wanted one thing on the menu that was really, really spicy. The red curry rice is no longer served, but it’s probably my favorite dish. Basically, we use the same curry paste as we do for the khao soi and combine it with day-old jasmine rice and ground pork to make little patties. It has fish sauce and kaffir lime leaves, and it’s crumbled like pork larb, meant to be scooped into lettuce cups. It probably has 15 different flavor components, and I just love all the different textures. (Photo: Foodspotting)