10/05/2012 11:59:00 AM

Leah Cohen Talks Top Chef, Her New NY Eatery and More

Top Chef alum Leah Cohen has been flying under the radar since she left her post at NYC's Centro Vinoteca four years ago, traveling around Southeast Asia and occasionally manning a few pop-up projects in NYC. But recently, Leah's been back in a big way as her first solo project, Pig & Khao, a partnership with NY's Fatty Crew, opened last week to some early critical fanfare. We recently sat down with the Westchester-bred chef to talk about the new project, what she thinks about food TV and why exactly she made the leap from Italian to Southeast Asian. Check out our chat with her below.

Zagat: Pig and Khao has been in the works for awhile, tell us about your inspiration for the project and the road to getting it open. 
My inspiration for Pig and Khao was basically I got really bored doing Italian food - I'd been doing it for I don't know how many years. Whenever I went out to eat I always went to Thai or Vietnamese and I'd been going to Southeast Asia since I was four years old since my mom is FIlipino. So once day I decided to just pack up my bags. Well...I had a suitcase. Hong Kong was the first spot that I went to. I set up one trail there. I worked at this restaurant called BO Innovation and that was the only job I had set up and then from there I decided to go to Thailand. I had no agenda or schedule, I tried to learn as much as I could about the culture and the food and try to just immerse myself.

Thailand was my favorite place in Southeast Asia, I just love the food and the flavors. I decided to do Thai but I had to pay some respect to my Filipino roots. Pig and Khao was an idea that my brother and I came up with and then I was introduced to Fatty Crew and that collaboration just made sense and that's kind of where it started.

Zagat: What were some of the challenges you faced going from chef to now running a restaurant?
I think the challenge was that I've never opened up a restaurant before, there's like ten problems a day and not even food-related and I just didn't know about any of it. I had Fatty to help with the day-to-day activities but when they're not here, there are things that happen that go on and it's challenging. And I think eventually once we're open for a a month, all those little problems will settle down. Problems surface every day you just have to roll with the punches and get through service. As long as people are having a good time that's all that matters. And If I have to work 20 hours a day that's fine too.

Zagat: Making the transition from Italian food to Southeast Asian must have required learning a lot of new techniques, was it an easy switch?
It wasn't a hard transition switching cuisines because the way I learned Italian food was that I moved to Italy, lived there for a year and a half and I was immersed in it and that's the same thing I did with Southeast Asian food. Even if you're not cooking every day but eating the food every day and you learn the flavors so well, and you just get it.

Zagat: Are you interested in doing more food TV or is that a phase in your life that you'd like to leave behind you?
I mean I loved doing Top Chef, I wouldn't have this restaurant if I didn't do it. I don't know if I'd want to do another cooking competition. I would definitely like to do a show of some sort, like a travel show. Competition was really stressful I was like losing my hair. I  felt like I was going to throw up every time we shot or did a challenge. I wouldn't say I wouldn't do more food TV but I would rather not do another competition. 

Zagat: It must be hard to think about the future right now, but do you have any long-term goals after opening Pig and Khao?
If Pig and Khao is successful I'd like to open one up in Westchester where I grew up. I think that there's not a lot of good restaurants out there and I think it's perfect for someone my age to go on date night with your boyfriend. Somewhere you can go and eat an drink and there's not like wasted 21-year-olds who are obnoxious. I love where I grew up and I think it would be a good addition to Westchester to have a Pig and Khao if this does well. I would like to do TV things, like a cooking show, cooking and or travel. Travel is another one of my passions. 

Zagat: Would you ever do a cookbook?
Maybe if I had a ghost writer do it, because I'm awful at writing. Eventually I want to have kids so one day I wouldn't be in a kitchen all the time so maybe then. 

Zagat: Who are you still friends with from Top Chef?
I'm still friends with a couple people from the show, if I see anyone else from the show it's kind of like a sorority or fraternity, you've been on the show and you've been through it so even if you don't know the person you feel like you know them. So anyone I see from other seasons -  we hang out. I am close with Ariane and Jeff McInnis and Hosea whenever he's in town and I think that's it. I loved everyone on the show but everyone's busy doing their own thing so it's really hard to keep in contact with them. I haven't even spoken to my parents in like weeks.

Zagat: Where to you love to go in NY?
I like Edi and the Wolf, and he's opening up a new bar in that area and so that's going to be fun to check out. Also Talde in Brooklyn and I want to go to Pork Slope. I haven't really been able to get out of the neighborhood very much. I go to X'ian as much as possible for take-out.

Zagat: In a few years could you see yourself switching to another cuisine, and if so, which one?
I get bored very easily so three years from now I mean I might decide I want to move to Morocco. Yeah...that's be cool. So yeah I'd be down to learn any type of cuisine. I wouldn't do a particular cuisine unless I felt confident doing it. 


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