Yummy Chats with Top Chef Alum Leah Cohen
We caught up with Top Chef alum and chef-owner of the popular New York City restaurant Pig & Khao after her stint at last weekend's Madrid Fusion Manila convention. We talked to her about her roots, how she started cooking, and what it was like being filmed 24/7 for a reality TV cooking competition.
Yummy.ph: How has Manila been treating you?
Leah Cohen: Manila's been great! I love it every time I come here and every time I visit I love it more and more. And now this is the second time my fiancé has been here so I'm really happy. The first time he was here, he didn't spend that much time here so it was nice for him to see it again. We both love it here.
Yummy.ph: Alright, let's get the obvious question out of the way first: what was it like on Top Chef? What was it like being on a reality cooking show?
Leah: I hated it! [laughs] No, I'm kidding. The actual process of filming and everything was what I hated. I think it's just so long and it was very regimented. There were so many rules that you had to follow and I hate following rules. That was probably the biggest downside of it. The competition thing was the first time I'd ever competed and cooked so it was really nerve-wracking. I was really nervous and I felt like I was going to throw up every time we were brought out to do a challenge. I mean I still get nervous when I do it now, but I've learned to have fun with it, as opposed to before when I used to take it so seriously. I would say that overall Top Chef was an amazing experience and it has helped me with my career.
Yummy.ph: We've read all the articles and cookbooks and they say that you guys were stuck in a room together for like eight hours or something.
Leah: Oh, yeah that's true! But when you have alcohol, it's totally fine.
Yummy.ph: What was it like opening your very first restaurant? When you come off of a reality TV gig like Top Chef, it's kind of like you've given them a stick to beat you with.
Were you nervous or anxious at all about opening Pig & Khao? Did you have any doubts about your vision?
Leah: I never had any doubts about my vision. I suffer from anxiety all the time. It keeps me awake at night sometimes, so of course I was nervous and anxious especially because in New York it's highly competitive and I was doing something that wasn't necessarily going to be guaranteed success. Not like anything can be a guaranteed success, but I was kind of doing something very different and I think it was extremely challenging opening it but I think opening any restaurant can be challenging. There are so many things that can go wrong and do go wrong and it's a matter of figuring out a way to deal with it and just roll with the punches. That's something that I learn a little bit while I was on Top Chef. Nothing to this day has been harder than opening my restaurant, I think.
Yummy.ph: So now, you're sort of turning it into a family business, since you and your fiancée are getting married and both work at the restaurant. Do you think this is going to change the dynamic in any way?
Leah: I don't think it'll change the dynamic in any way. I mean, Ben and I have been working together since the restaurant opened so we've always been a team. It's just a piece of paper that'll say that we're married, but it's always been a family business because my father's a main investor in the restaurant. He's a very silent partner because he has no experience with the restaurant industry. When I'm not there, like now we're both away, my parents go and check in on the staff to make sure they're good and everything. I think it's great! Some people think it might be a little bit weird working with their spouse or significant other because you spend a lot of time with each other. But we don't really fight. The only time we fight, it's mostly about work stuff, so we just get that out of the way before we go home.
Yummy.ph: It's also nice that you actually get to see each other, since restaurant hours can be pretty crazy.
Leah: Definitely. I think we see each other an abnormal amount. Maybe it's unhealthy, but I kind of like it.
Yummy: Your cooking is really inspired by your roots and your travels. How do these things inspire your work?
Leah: The travel really inspires me because every year we make sure to go on a three-week R&D trip so we bring back what we had tried or seen in those countries. Last year we went to Vietnam and this year we're going to Malaysia for a few days. That really inspires me. I don't want to put food on the menu that you can find everywhere. I want to try making things that people haven't tried before that aren't super popular. Of course with Filipino food, I want to bring the popular dishes to the menu because I want people to have an understanding of what Filipino food is. This is the sort of food I grew up eating and what I loved as I child.
Yummy.ph: So it was your mom who did all the cooking at home?
Leah: I wouldn't say either one of my parents are exceptional cooks but my mom has a very good palate and good food is very important to her. It's the same with my dad, but he'll eat anything, really.
Yummy.ph: On a related note, how did you get into cooking in the first place?
Leah: I wish I had a really good story. It just kind of happened. It was always something that I found interesting. It originally started as a hobby. I kind of did poorly in college and I remember when I was sixteen, over the summer I would take cooking classes and I never thought you could never make a career out of it. When I was growing up The Food Network had just started and you only started seeing these chefs becoming famous, like Bobby Flay and Mario Batali. I never really thought I could make it into a career until maybe I was around 19 or 20 and something just clicked. I said, "Let me go to culinary school" because that was something that kept coming back to me. The rest is history. I loved culinary school, I loved cooking. I don't know where I'd be without it. It's my passion and it's probably the only thing I'm good at.
Yummy.ph: People are saying that Filipino food is going to be the next big thing. What's it like being one of those people representing it in a culinary hub like New York?
Leah: I think it's great! First of all, my mom is extremely proud of the fact that I'm one of the people representing the food from our country. I think it is sometimes a little intimidating because it's such a huge responsibility and I don't want to disappoint anyone and not do the cuisine justice. But it's also great because you get to do something unique and different that people haven't really tried before.
Yummy.ph: Why do you think Filipino food is only happening now? Thai food and Korean food became big things in the food world. Filipino food isn't necessarily booming, but people are talking about it.
Leah: People are talking about and it is a slow process. I think in order for something to not be fad it does take time, it has to happen slowly. There has to be a natural progression to it. I think there are a lot of cooks that are Filipino that worked in these fine dining restaurants and now they really want to cook what's familiar to them. The next generation of chefs are cooking from their childhood, cooking from their heart and what they grew up eating. So now you have these younger chefs who were trained in these great restaurants who really just want to cook the food they grew up eating. I think that's a trend that's going to continue and with it so will the Filipino food movement.
Yummy.ph: One more thing: Madrid Fusion is a big deal. What was it like being invited?
Leah: I was honestly shocked that they invited me because a lot of the people that they invite do that fine dining, high end kind of food, which I don't do. I used to cook in fine dining restaurants but it wasn't really my thing. I was initially shocked and intimidated by the line-up and the people that they chose to put me with but they did come to my restaurant and they did try my food and they really enjoyed it. It's pretty crazy. I mean, I was on stage with Joan Roca! I had to pinch myself! I had to ask myself, "Is this really happening?" It really was a tremendous honor to have been invited.
Image from The Village Voice.