You most likely know Leah Cohen from her very impressive showing in Top Chef ‘s fifth season. Based in New York, the show also introduced us to the likes of Carla Hall, Fabio Viviani, and Stefan Richter, but it was Cohen who emerged as one of the season’s top talents. After Top Chef, Cohen traveled to Hong Kong, Bangkok, the Philippines, and Thailand. Upon her return to New York, she opened Pig and Khao, and since then it’s become one of the city’s premier Southeast Asian restaurants.
Chef Cohen will be participating in several events at the St. Croix Wine & Food Experience, which will be coming to the beautiful Virgin Islands paradise from April 6th to the 12th. She will serve as guest judge at A Taste of St. Croix, will be preparing a Cork & Fork Dinner at the opulent Estate Cane Garden, meeting with students from a local culinary school, and participating in the fun Food Fight on the Beach. We chatted with Cohen about the upcoming festival, her restaurant, and the influence of her Filipino heritage on her cooking.
The Daily Meal: What makes the cuisine of St. Croix unique? What might not people realize about the culinary scene there?
Leah Cohen: Personally, I find the cuisine of St. Croix to be interesting because of the similarities in tropical ingredients that it shares with the Philippines and much of Southeast Asia. I have not visited St. Croix before, but have heard that the culinary scene has become very progressive and is constantly growing.
What are you most looking forward to at the St. Croix Wine & Food Experience?
I'm most excited to visit St. Croix and eat as much local food as possible. I'm also really excited to meet the other chefs and get a chance to have locals try my food.
What are you planning on preparing for the Cork & Fork Dinner?
To be honest I haven't exactly decided what I'm cooking. I do know that I want to bring the flavors of my restaurant, Pig and Khao, while using local ingredients from St. Croix.
During the festival you’ll be speaking to students at a local school culinary program. What do you most enjoy about teaching? Do you have any interest in becoming a culinary instructor?
I love sharing my experiences and stories, which is an important part of teaching. As much as I love teaching, though, I love the organized chaos of as restaurant.
What are you up to these days? Any new restaurants in the works?
Currently, I am working hard at Pig and Khao. I hope to open another restaurant within the next year which will be a spinoff of Pig and Khao.
How does your ethnic background affect your style of cooking?
Being half Filipino has really influenced my cooking style. I have been visiting the Philippines since I was four-years-old and constantly exposed to flavors that really reflect my cooking today.
What were some of your favorite childhood foods?
One of my favorite foods to eat growing up was lumpia shanghi. Lumpia is essentially a Filipino spring roll filled with pork and vegetables, served with a sweet chili or duck sauce.
After Top Chef, you traveled and worked in Hong Kong, Bangkok, the Philippines, and Thailand. Do you feel that you need to live in a country in order to fully understand its cuisine? How did what you learned during your travels affect the menu at Pig & Khao?
I don't feel like you have to live in a country to do their food justice, but it is extremely important to visit the country and truly understand the flavors. Every dish on the menu at Pig and Khao is influenced from something I ate during my travels. I just got back from visiting Myanmar and am excited to put some of the food I tried on the spring menu.