Meet the Fil-Am chef of New York's Pig and Khao

Joko Magalong

Posted at Apr 12 2016 06:21 PM

Chef Leah Cohen presents her quail adobo dish. Photo by the author

MANILA -- Chef Leah Cohen of the well-reviewed Pig and Khao restaurant in New York City proudly showed off her Filipino roots when she meet several food writers and bloggers during a recent press event in Manila.

“My mom will taste test anything. Well, any Filipino dish in the menu. It has to be mother-approved," she joked.

Cohen was in the Philippines as part of this year’s Michelin-star-studded Madrid Fusion Manila line-up.

The half-Filipino Cohen received most of her formal culinary training in Italian cuisine, even joining a Slow Food program in Italy, and working for celebrated chefs like David Burke, David Humme and Ann Burrell.

After joining Season 5 of the hugely popular cooking competition,
"Top Chef," Cohen took a break and traveled in Southeast Asia for a year to learn more about her Asian roots. She returned to New York to put up Pig and Khao ('khao' is rice in Thai), which was voted as the Best Asian Restaurant in New York by Zagat, and as the Best Southeast Asian Restaurant in New York by the Epoch Times.

During the press conference hosted by family friend, chef Ed Bugia of Backyard Kitchen and Brew, Cohen gave a shortened version of her Madrid Fusion Manila demonstration of one of the more popular dishes in the Pig and Khao menu -- Quail Adobo, wings battered and fried with an adobo sauce using Quezon coconut vinegar, coconut milk, and light soy sauce, served over white rice, topped with crispy garlic bits.

Her take on the adobo definitely featured Filipino flavors but interpreted in a different way. Instead of stewed, the quail wings were fried in a light batter, and drizzled over with an adobo sauce. I enjoyed it, especially the sauce on white rice. It was spicy, sweet and bold, with a unique fruity vinegar note from the coconut vinegar and a richness from the coconut milk. The punch of fried garlic in the end was a treat as well.

Quail Adobo is one of the more popular dishes in the Pig and Khao menu. Photo by the author

Cohen talked with ABS-CBN News about Filipino food, her experience as a contestant on "Top Chef" and the possibility of opening a Pig and Khao restaurant in Manila.

ABS-CBN News: Why the move from Italian food to Southeast Asian food?
Cohen: I fell out of love with cooking Italian food, and I wanted to challenge myself by doing something that I really didn’t know that much about. I knew that I liked eating Southeast Asian food. I found it really intimidating because there were a lot of ingredients that you can’t get in the States, or is hard to get in the States, and that I just didn’t know how to use. So it was kind of a challenge for myself. And of course, at the back of my mind, I figured, why wouldn’t I try to explore my Filipino roots?

ABS-CBN News: What’s your favorite Filipino food?
Cohen: I would say my favorite is sinigang. I don’t like pork sinigang. I like either shrimp or fish. Tamarind. That was my comfort food, and the dish that whenever I didn’t feel well, my mom would know to make me. We have a seafood one, it has fried fish, shrimp and clams, with okra, morning glory, long beans, daikon, and tomato.

ABS-CBN News: Majority of us really learned first about you in "Top Chef," and then you completely fell off the radar. What happened Why didn’t you go in the celebrity chef route?

Cohen: Looking back, I thought, maybe I shouldn’t have competed because I was so young as a chef. I still am but I had so much more to learn. I think did myself a disservice because I had to, after the show, prove to people that I could actually cook. But I was 26, and when someone asked, “Do you want to be on TV?” I was like, “Sure, why not? Okay!” And you don’t think of the negative effects that it might have on you.

So, I kind of wanted to fall off the radar, and really focus on getting back in the kitchen and cooking, and find something that was unique on my own. Trying to find myself as a chef, I guess.

I didn’t do anything for three to four years after the show, and I think there are some people who go the opposite route. Then they realize I want to do a restaurant or I just want to be on TV. But me, I want to do it all. But in order to do it all, you have to first and foremost be a good chef, and you have to find yourself as chef, and find your niche. And figure out what sets you apart from everybody else.

Chef Leah Cohen met with a few food writers at Backyard Kitchen and Brew in Circuit Makati. Photo by the author

ABS-CBN News: How would you describe your food?
Cohen: I would describe my food as Southeast Asian food and flavors. I don’t like the word fusion because I try not to fuse any of the different countries together. I try to keep all of the dishes from Vietnam to be just very Vietnamese, or the Filipino dishes to be very Filipino.

ABS-CBN News: That’s a typical misconception, that you do fusion cuisine.

Cohen: Yes, that’s the misconception because no one really does that. I didn’t want to do that. I visited all of these countries, and I saw how unique and how different and delicious all of their food was from each other so I wanted to be true, and I wanted to keep it somewhat authentic.

ABS-CBN News: Was Pig and Khao an immediate hit?
Cohen: I would say that the people who ate there definitely enjoyed it off the bat. But it has taken us time to get to where we are now. We’re not always full, but we are very, very busy. From the beginning, people were always aware and enjoyed what we were doing.

ABS-CBN News: What do you do to keep on being relevant?
Cohen: I think the way you keep them coming back is through the food and through the service. Repeat customers are what makes a restaurant successful. And so, we have a very, very high amount of return customers. And of course, doing media stuff, and TV stuff.

ABS-CBN News: So how was the Madrid Fusion experience?
Cohen: It was really good. Madrid Fusion in Spain is a huge deal, and I think, it is amazing that they have partnered up with the Philippines, and I think it says a lot. And I think to have been invited -- they came to my restaurant, and they thought that my food was good enough to bring me here – it made me feel really good. To be invited with the caliber of chefs -- these guys are crazy -- and to just even be in the same line-up was really amazing and shocking. It was really great and I got to meet Joan Roca yesterday, so I can die a happy person.

ABS-CBN News: What’s next for you?
Cohen: After all this, I’m going to go home and work on the cookbook. I have to start that. And of course, I’m getting married in July.

And after that, go full steam on opening up a second restaurant. We want to open multiple locations. I would like to do another one in Philadelphia, I think there’s a huge Filipino population there. And then we would love to do one here because my parents are semi-retired, and they’ll start spending more time here, and it would be nice to be able to see them.