Chef Leah Cohen Credits Her Parents and Filipino Heritage for Pig and Khao
The Top Chef alum and cookbook author talks about connecting with her Southeast Asian roots.
Nestled on one of the busiest streets on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Pig and Khao is a colorful Filipino-Thai restaurant owned by Top Chef alum Leah Cohen. Influenced by her Filipino mother and Romanian-Jewish father, Cohen remembers experiencing this merge of food cultures from an early age, including cooking brisket and matzo ball soup with her grandmother.
“My parents were working so much, I would have to prepare dinner and do some knife work for my mom, so when she got home from work, she could whip up a quick dinner,” Cohen says. “I think I was cooking rice from the age of 10. My mom would call me when she was about to leave the office and say, ‘Okay, put a pot of rice on.’ That was actually the first thing she ever taught me how to make.”
But before she branched out into cooking other types of Asian dishes, she had a keen interest in Italian food as a result of frequent trips to the country she went on with her parents as a kid. “I would make Bolognese and marinara sauce, and my dad would always say that mine was better than my mom’s. Telling me, as a 12 or 13 year old, that I made better Bolognese sauce than my mom was just really great. Even though she’s Filipino, and she doesn’t know how to cook Italian, she thinks she can cook Italian,” she says.
After being a contestant on season five of Top Chef, Cohen worked at an Italian restaurant to fuel her cooking spark, but soon realized that she didn’t feel a real connection to the cuisine as she did with Filipino and Southeast Asian food. And, in 2008, she made the decision to fully devote her chef skills to what felt familiar to her.
“I packed a suitcase, moved to Southeast Asia for a year, and staged in a bunch of different kitchens in various countries,” she says “Initially, I wanted to just focus on Thai food because Thai food is my favorite. I hate saying that because I am half Filipino, but I just love Thai food.”
Upon returning to the States, Cohen toyed with the idea of opening a Thai-specific restaurant, but her mother convinced her that she had to spread the word about Filipino food instead.
“It was the best decision I ever made because I feel that is what is unique about Pig and Khao,” she says. “There are so many good Vietnamese or Thai restaurants in New York, but I wanted to get all those dishes under one roof, and have them be authentic and not a fusion. It also celebrates a lot of the countries that I just love in that part of the world.”
Everything on the menu at Pig & Khao is based off of something that Cohen ate while traveling abroad: pork belly adobo, Gai Yang, sizzling sisig, and halo halo are just a few. “I wanted to bring back stuff that people might not know is an amazing noodle dish from Malaysia, and you could only find it maybe on two Malaysian menus in New York. Then, of course, I put my twist on it,” she says.
In her cookbook, Lemongrass and Lime: Southeast Asian Cooking At Home, which debuted in September 2020, Cohen provides an array of hearty recipes of dishes she grew up eating and ones she’s tried in Southeast Asia, including two that hold nostalgic memories for her: chicken adobo and lumpia.
“I packed a suitcase, moved to Southeast Asia for a year, and staged in a bunch of different kitchens in various countries.”
In the Philippines, spring rolls are called lumpia and you can get them either fried or fresh, with a softer wrapper like a crepe. But Cohen says her favorite is the fried version called Lumpiang Shanghai, with a filling that combines beef, pork, and vegetables. The key to making delicious lumpia is making the wrapper perfectly crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside. Cohen also adds a few extra ingredients like chili flakes to kick up the heat.
“I think lumpia was probably the first Filipino dish that I ever ate,” she says “Filipinos love a party and when we would go to a ton of potluck dinners with my mom’s friends, there was always lumpia on the table.”
Although that dish holds a special place in Cohen’s heart, she says chicken adobo was the first real dish her mother taught her how to make. “My mom actually likes it with chicken, but pork is probably the most popular,” she says. “Every Filipino household has someone’s tiya or lola, which is like aunt or grandmother, who makes it the best, better than anyone else’s mom or aunt or grandmother.”
Because her own recipe involves adding onions and searing the chicken first, Cohen says that traditional Filipnos would say her dish isn’t adobo. But from her education in culinary school, she was taught to sear the meat. “I think it’s important to render out some of that chicken fat. Obviously, more will render out and cook out while it's braising, but I do think that it's important to get that Maillard reaction,” she says, referring to the chemical reaction that reduces sugars and gives browned foods such a powerful flavor. “A lot of Filipinos will say this is not traditional adobo, but my mom approves, so that’s all that matters.
Cohen attributes much of her knowledge of Southeast Asian cooking to her mother, who was one of her “guinea pigs” when she was creating the initial menu at Pig and Khao. “Unfortunately, she doesn’t eat spicy food, so she’ll literally pick out the chilies out of everything, which drives me crazy,” Cohen says with a laugh. “But she loves that I’m paying respect to her culture, my culture, and all the cultures that I fell in love with.”
In response to the pandemic, Pig and Khao shut down on March 15, 2020. But Cohen’s father passing away last year prompted her to reopen her restaurant because “there would be no Pig and Khao without my father” and she felt it was the best way to honor his legacy. The restaurant reopened on July 8, 2020.
“[My parents] have been super supportive, and they love my restaurant and the food that I make. My mom comes over every weekend now to watch the baby while I work and I’m literally her personal chef,” she says, mentioning her son who turns two this year. “My mom and my dad, they played a huge part in why I love Southeast Asian cuisine.”
Try cooking Cohen’s family-inspired adobo for yourself, with the recipe below.
Leah Cohen’s Recipe for Chicken Adobo
- ¼ cup canola oil
- 6 chicken thighs
- 6 chicken drumsticks
- 1 large Spanish onion, halved and thinly sliced
- 6 garlic cloves, smashed
- 1 cup Kikkoman light soy sauce
- ½ cup Chaokoh coconut milk
- ½ cup coconut vinegar (can substitute apple cider vinegar)
- 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ½ teaspoon ground bay leaf powder
- Steamed jasmine rice
- 2 tablespoons Crispy Garlic
- 2 scallions (green and pale green part), thinly sliced
1. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large Dutch oven over high heat until the oil begins to shimmer. Add the chicken thighs and cook for about 3 minutes per side, until golden brown on both sides. Transfer to a large plate.
2. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil to the pan and heat until the oil shimmers. Add the chicken legs and cook for about 3 minutes per side, until golden brown on both sides. Transfer to the plate with the thighs.
3. Remove all but 2 tablespoons of the fat from the pan; add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, until soft.
4. Add the garlic, soy sauce, coconut milk, vinegar, 1 cup of water, the sugar, pepper, and bay leaf powder and stir until combined. Return the chicken to the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook for about 1 hour, until the chicken is tender. If the liquid reduces too quickly or becomes too salty, add a bit of water. Serve with steamed jasmine rice and garnished with crispy garlic and the scallions.