Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
Last fall, chef Leah Cohen opened Pig & Khao, her Southeast Asian restaurant on the Lower East Side. With a menu of dishes pulled from travels in Thailand and from her Filipino family, the restaurant falls, as Cohen freely admits, into that growing cohort of "hipster Asian restaurants" like Talde, Mission Chinese, and Pok Pok. But that, Cohen says, is "a good group to be associated with." If the attention started out focused on Cohen's Top Chef pedigree, it shifted to the food itself soon enough, which earned a two-star review from Pete Wells in the Times. Here's Cohen on the restaurant's rocky start, the pros and cons of Top Chef, and more:
Note: Just as it hit the one year mark, Pig and Khao's future came into question: Just a few weeks ago Cohen filed a lawsuit against her co-owner, the Fatty Crew Hospitality Group, claiming that they had mismanaged the restaurant. The Fatty Crew responds that her claims that the restaurant is failing are "inaccurate," but the restaurant's prospects still look uncertain. This interview was conducted before news of the lawsuit broke, and Cohen now says she has no comment on the situation.
How did you come up with the idea for Pig & Khao?
Leah Cohen: I moved to Southeast Asia for a year and staged at any restaurant that would take me. I just packed a bag and didn't have anything planned. I started off in Hong Kong, and that was the only stage that I had lined up. Then from there, one chef knew another chef, and recommended me to go to one restaurant, and I did that for like a year. I tried to live as much like a local as I could. I had an apartment in Bangkok, I had friends and family members take me to the unbeaten paths, and I immersed myself in the food and the culture as much as I could. At first I wanted to only do Thai food. And then when I got back my mom basically said to me, "You can't just do Thai food. You're half Filipino, you have to incorporate some of your heritage and your culture." So I figured I'd do just a Southeast Asian concept...I wanted to do things that were traditional, maybe some dishes that people hadn't seen before, that weren't your typical top five famous Thai dishes. I just tried to make it as much Thai and Filipino, with some Vietnamese and other stuff thrown in there. My mom's friends taught me how to basically cook everything that I do here. Everyone has their one special dish, so my mom would take me to her friend who knew how to make the pata, or the sesig. A lot of Filipino food I learned how to cook through my mom's friends and through her, and then the Thai stuff was just from the restaurants that I worked in.
What was the opening like? Any surprises?
Yeah. I mean it was a shitshow. I had never actually opened a restaurant before or helped open a restaurant. It was very overwhelming. I did have a lot of people to support me who had opened restaurants before, so that was good. But my sous chef, Ben Baruch, said he's opened like six restaurants before and this was by far the hardest one. Anything you think could happen, happened — drains backing up, doors falling off the hinges, the hood not working a day before we're supposed to open for friends and family. Halfway through our project our architect was nowhere to be found. I'm not an architect and I don't know design, but were were just trying to do things as we could. I'm sure everyone feels that they opened and they weren't ready to open, but we were two weeks not ready to be open for friends and family. Somehow we pulled it together and we opened and it was a shitshow, and it still kind of continues to be a shitshow [laughs].
In what way?
It's just like Murphy's Law. Like our walk-ins go down and we just got a huge shipment of protein in for an event that we're doing, or the sink backs up every other day. Something. Something always happens. In the beginning [our night porter] was cleaning the grill, he put it outside and someone drove by, thought it was scrap metal and stole it. So we had to buy a new grill. Our two night porters were in cahoots with each other, and broke into the office, stole my laptop, stole the sous chef's laptop, and then stole all the keys to the restaurant. I thought they were planning to come back the next day to rob the whole restaurant, so we changed all the locks and had surveillance—my sous chef's brother in law is like a chief detective or some shit like that, so we had a patrol patrolling outside that night. I mean, I wish I wrote this all down because you would think I was making it up. We had a cat situation; there was a cat lady up above us who had 300—that's an exaggeration—50, maybe, empty cans of cat food. We tried to be like, "Yo, bitch can you stop feeding the cat?" and she was like, "No, they're my family this is their home." And we were like, "Well, we have a restaurant and the cats come here because they know this is where they're gonna get fed." We went up there during the day and just took all the cans from her. I had a garbage bag full of cans. Just a lot of things happened.
What was the review process like for you?
I'd never been reviewed. I had a heart attack every time someone came in, especially Pete Wells. I don't know how he changes his look, but he does. Every time he comes in he's unrecognizable. One time he had glasses and he had a beard, or like his hair was different, and he kind of just looked different every time. But at a certain point someone in the restaurant figured it out. It wasn't me, I'm not that quick. That was GM's job to notice when a critic came in. For me, it brought me back to Top Chef: the feeling that I had, the anxiety, the "Oh my god I'm going to throw up and I can't breathe" feeling. It got easier after they'd come in once or twice, and after a few reviewers came in, but it never gets easy. We'd make two plates of everything they ordered and send out the best looking one. We'd make everything to order, new mise en place, new everything. It's crazy to think how much a review can make or break you, but it does. I was pleasantly surprised that I got two stars from Pete Wells. I know he likes Asian food and he gives a lot of two-stars out, so I was hoping for that, but I didn't really expect it. I was hoping for a good one star review. And then as far as the other reviews go, I don't really care. I mean, the New York Times is the biggest one.
Speaking of Top Chef, how did being on the show influence your career?
I think I definitely jumped a few steps because of Top Chef. Before that I was a brand new sous chef. I had worked six months as a sous for Anne Burrell, and then I went on the show, and then I went back to the restaurant and took over because Anne left to do her show. I don't think any normal person would jump that quickly in the industry. And then after all the negative press that I got from the show, I kind of moved to Asia. I had haters, and I was just not used to that. People were tearing me up and it's hard not to read that, especially when I know it's going on. So I was just like, "Fuck it. I want to go somewhere where no one knows who I am and I can just go back to cooking." Because that's what I do, and that's what I wanted to do, and I wanted to try something new and I wanted to challenge myself in a different cuisine that I'd never done before. I think I had a negative reaction to the whole Top Chef thing, unlike most people. A lot of people wanted to go on and do more TV stuff and promote the shit out of themselves and I was just like, "I don't want anyone to know who I am." But it definitely has helped me get to where I am right now. If I didn't do the show, there's no way I'd own a restaurant right now. I just turned 32, I had just turned 31 when the restaurant opened, but was working on it when I was 30. I don't think that normally happens. I would never do it again, but, going back I would've done the same thing. I maybe wouldn't have made out with Hosea [Rosenberg] on TV, but I still would have done the show.
Did it change anything about the way you actually approach working here?
It pushes you to do things you never thought you could do, because you never thought you would have to do them. In that sense it forces you to think outside the box and get things done even though you think it's an unattainable goal. Top Chef and opening up a restaurant are both like a boot camp. It pushes you and makes you better and you have to be able to think outside the box to make things happen, because it you can't then you won't succeed.
You're in the minority as a female restaurateur. Does that affect you at all?
I basically think I'm like a dude; I mean you kind of have to be in this industry or any male dominated industry. It makes no difference to me. I think it's funny sometimes how people look at me and think I'm a certain way, and then they realize I'm actually a hard ass and I'm a little psycho, and they wouldn't necessarily think that right off the bat from meeting me. Male, female, it's the same thing. Owning a restaurant is hard, especially in NYC. There's a lot of bullshit and a lot of competition.
How has your understanding of running a restaurant change over the past year?
Set aside money for the first two months to burn through, because even if you have a name, it's hard. I think everyone struggles in the first few months, unless you're Daniel Humm or a big name chef like that. Expect everything that can go wrong will go wrong. That's basically it. There's not much I would have done differently. Everything I've gone through has been an invaluable lesson. I think if I open another one, it will be a thousand times easier, but it will never be easy. From a business aspect, making sure your costs are in line, and your payroll. I never thought about that before. I only thought about food costs, and it's a lot more than that. You need to know how to run a business. It's not just about "Can you cook?" You need to make sure whoever's running the business knows what they're doing.
Do you have anything else in the works now?
At the moment, no. I would love to do something like a spinoff of this, but there are a lot of obstacles right now. I would love to do something else maybe soon, but I have to figure a few things out. I would do it all over again and again and again.