When Pig & Khao (68 Clinton Street, 212-920-4485) chef Leah Cohen left for her first research trip to Asia, she worried that she was catching the end of the Asian food trend. “Right before I left for Asia, that’s when a lot of Southeast Asian and pan-Asian restaurants were blowing up,” she says. “It’s never good to be on a tail end of a trend. You want to be before the curve. I was worried when I got back that I had missed my opportunity.”
Still, the half-Filipino, half-Jewish woman from Scarsdale pushed ahead with her plans, teaming up with the Fatty Crew to open her paean to a region she loves. Her passion paid off — Pig & Khao was branded a Filipino restaurant (“We’re not,” Cohen says flatly), which pushed it into a unique niche and allowed it to flourish. From there, she’s been able to explore food from Thailand, Burma, Indonesia, and, after splitting with the Fatty Crew, Malaysia, while adhering to her original vision: “I knew I wanted Pig & Khao to be somewhere where younger hip adults wanted to go,” she says. “There’d be old-school hip-hop playing. I wanted it to be a reflection of me.”
Until that first trip to Asia, Cohen’s cooking was rooted in European technique. Growing up, she spent time in the kitchen with her mother and grandmother, who was a home economics teacher. At sixteen, she enrolled in a culinary class at Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School (now the Institute of Culinary Education) and began considering cooking as a career.
After one semester at the University of Arizona — “I failed out,” she says — she came back to New York and began working in a restaurant while attending classes at Manhattanville College. “I liked going to work more, so I stopped going to school,” she says. Even so, Cohen now had the Culinary Institute of America in her sights; knowing she’d need one year of full-time experience in a restaurant to be admitted, she moved into just such a position.
After she received an associate’s and then a bachelor’s degree from the CIA, an instructor recommended her for a six-month Slow Foods program in Italy, and she spent the time working in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Sicily. Back in New York, she did a one-year stint at Eleven Madison Park before accepting a position under Anne Burrell at Centro Vinoteca.
And then she landed on Top Chef, which she says was a mixed experience. “I hated the competition part of the show,” she says. “I don’t think I was qualified to go on the show. I was very young. I hadn’t really created any dishes of my own. But the show gets your name out there — that’s the biggest benefit. And it was a mini–culinary bootcamp. It pushes you to limits that you didn’t think you could achieve. Through all those time constraints and weird challenges, you get better at thinking on your feet and solving a challenge. That was really beneficial for me.”
After the show, she returned to Centro, where she became executive chef. After a year, though, she says she “had to get away from Italian food,” and she booked her ticket to Asia. She’d lined up a stage in Hong Kong, and that started her leapfrogging across Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Over the course of a year abroad, she honed her vision for her own restaurant, figuring she’d draw mainly on her Filipino roots and interest in Thai food, and scatter her menu with some of the dishes she learned on her trip. Two years into ownership, she still hews to that menu philosophy, though she’s added dishes learned on successive research trips, which she tries to take once a year.
It took Cohen nearly a year to get her restaurant opened after she returned to the States, and she learned a number of lessons in the process. “Number one: Set aside burn money,” she says. That helps cover hidden build-out expenses and the cost of doing business in the early months, when the kitchen is still finding its footing and the restaurant isn’t as busy. Because even Pig & Khao, she says, wasn’t that busy in the beginning. “We thought that Fatty Crew and Top Chef colliding would be enough to bring people in,” she says. “It wasn’t. It wasn’t bad, but you need to get your name out there as much as possible, especially in the beginning.”
And even once the place started cooking, there was the review process to contend with. “The review process is really nerve-racking,” she says. “I have a pamphlet that my publicist gives me, and it has pictures of all the reviewers. People read the reviews — they can make or break you. For the first six months, I was here every day; I did not take any days off, not even Mondays, when we were closed. I remember that [New York Post reviewer] Steve Cuozzo said something about my potsticker being dry, so I tried to make it better.”
After Cohen split with the Fatty Crew, she had to step up and claim responsibility for the entire restaurant, something she says was initially terrifying. But now that she’s settled in, she’s beginning to spy other opportunities in the market, including Burmese food, Indonesian food, and Korean food, all of which she thinks could be explored further.
That’s not to say, however, that any of those cuisines will be at the forefront of the second restaurant she has in the works. That, she says, will be a spin-off of Pig & Khao, but heavily noodle-based. “I want to do noodle dishes from all over Southeast Asia,” she says. “And I want to be open late-night so I can feed the drunk people.” She’s actively seeking investors at the moment, and she plans to conduct a Kickstarter campaign for the concept, too. When she gets ready to sign a lease, she’ll be looking at Brooklyn. “I’m all about tapping another market, and Brooklyn’s great for that,” she says. “I think it’s easier to get liquor licenses over there, and it’s cheaper, depending on what part of Brooklyn. Plus, everyone I know from Brooklyn is like, ‘Open Pig & Khao here.’ ”
So what, at the end of the day, keeps Cohen pushing forward? “I love my staff,” she says. “I love the freedom that I have to really cook the food that I want to do. I like the reaction we get from 95 percent of customers. I think you have to be a little crazy to want to be a chef. I have had anger issues from childhood. Working in the restaurant industry is a positive way to work through them. I like going to work every day. I really like what we do here.”