Top Chef Leah Cohen on Thai Food and “The Great American Recipe”


Leah Cohen, owner of Pig and Khao and Piggyback New York, says that while she grew up making traditional Filipino dishes with her mother, her true love is Thai food. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

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Leah Cohen is an award-winning celebrity chef and restaurateur whose career has been shaped by her passion for creating dishes that bring the flavors and techniques of Southeast Asia to the table: But early in her culinary career, the Excellent chef alum was just a little girl who cooked with her mother.

“My mom, she’s not, I would say, the best cook — and she would admit it,” Cohen says, “but she had a repertoire of four or five dishes, so I was helping her with lumpia and pancit — which are small Filipino noodles and a staple at any party – then adobo chicken and garlic rice I always minced the garlic or minced it.

“I think I was using a knife at a young age,” she adds. “I was preparing a lot.”

One dish that required a bit more prep than most was lumpia – a dish made with thin layers of dough on the outside and a savory or sweet filling on the inside – a classic Filipino dish that’s a real work of love.

“I was my mom’s sous chef,” Cohen told Yahoo Life. “I put two different types of meat [in the lumpia]but there are a lot of vegetables that need to be cut, so it’s tedious, but worth it.”

Today, she shares this classic recipe with everyone from her restaurant team to her growing family.

“We would always have lumpia…at any party,” she recalled of her youth. “I would say it wasn’t a party unless there was lumpia there, so that’s something I translated into all the dinners we have with my family at my house.”

“We had an AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) Heritage Month party at one of my restaurants, and so, of course, I had lumpia as one of the dishes,” explains the author of Lemongrass and lime: Southeast Asian cooking at home. “It’s just something I grew up eating and having for every party and family gathering.”

Although Cohen’s two sons, 2 and 4 months old, are too young to help in the kitchen, that doesn’t mean she isn’t preparing them to participate. “Right now they’re too young for a knife – too young to put them to work,” Cohen says, “but they’re eating lumpia, and [chicken] adobo and rice are their favorite thing. I just try to teach them the flavors at a young age, and then eventually I’ll put them to work.”

Along with guiding her sons through the kitchen, the 40-year-old chef will also help home chefs bring their family recipes to the screen in her latest project: being a judge on the great american recipe on PBS.

“It’s an eight-episode series and I’m one of the judges,” she says, “It’s about home cooks telling their stories in the contest: they’re creating dishes they’re passionate about…things that they grew up eating.”

Cohen says the competition isn’t limited to the use of a specific ingredient or a certain style of cooking. “It’s really about the story and their connection to food through family and their culture,” she says. “It’s very multicultural – just different people across the country trying to showcase all the recipes they grew up eating and cooking.”

“I like it because even though it’s a competition, it’s very friendly,” she adds. “The competitors, in such a short time, have created such a great bond.”

Cohen owns two restaurants — Pig and Khao and Piggyback New York — and says if she was a contestant on the show herself, she would make her mother’s chicken adobo. “It’s one-pot comfort food,” she says. “It’s my favorite. It’s one of the first things my mom taught me to do…my son loves it too, I make it for him every few weeks.”

While much of her food is inspired by her Filipino heritage, Cohen says even before she was born, she had a favorite place to eat when dining out. “Johnny’s Pizzeria in Mount Vernon, NY,” she says. “My mum – when she was pregnant with me – ate this pizza, so it goes way back.”

“I celebrate my birthday every year there,” she continues. “It’s a very family-friendly place, but it’s literally my favorite.”

In addition to home-cooked Filipino cuisine and local Italian, Cohen draws inspiration from her travels. She has a special place in her heart for Thai food. “I feel bad saying this all the time because as a proud Filipino I feel bad [Filipino food] is notbut thai food is my favorite,” she says. “I spent a lot of time in Thailand working in restaurants. I go almost as much to Thailand as to the Philippines.”

While Cohen loves all Thai dishes, one dish stands out above the rest: a dish she enjoys so much that she brought it home, giving it a place on her own restaurant’s menus ever since.

“I spent a year abroad in Southeast Asia,” she says, “and I spent most of my time in Thailand, so when I was in Chiang Mai, I ate this dish called khao soi, which was probably one of the first dishes I knew I wanted to put on my menu when I came back to open a restaurant.”

“It’s on my menu at Pig and Khao – we’ve been open for ten years in September – and we’ve never taken it off the menu,” she adds. “The first time I had it, I literally went back every day, three days in a row, and ate a bowl of khao soi. So much so that I felt like I smelled the curry – I ate so much of it I was sweating the curry outside.”

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