When you think about Southeast Asian cuisine, it's hard not to think of the influence Leah Cohen has had with her restaurant, Pig & Khao. Nestled in New York's Lower East Side, Pig & Khao is the result of Leah's passion for Filipino and Thai cuisine. The former Top Chef contestant is creating a lot of buzz in the city, especially after being voted for Best Asian Restaurant in New York City by Zagat. Her incredible work ethic has landed her opportunities in critically acclaimed restaurants, as well as a guest judge spot on Chopped. MISSBISH recently caught up with the talented Ms. Cohen, who opened up about running her own restaurant and the lessons she's learned along the way.
It’s been about 4 years since you opened Pig & Khao. Tell us how owning a restaurant shaped you into the person that you are today.
Owning your own business is an extremely difficult thing to do, and owning a successful business is even more challenging. Over the past four years, I have worked harder than I have ever thought possible and it has made me grow as a person, chef, and business owner. I have learned how to manage and motivate a team day in and day out, and how to let the small stuff go. Not every day is gonna be a win for you, but if you love what you do you will always come out on top.
Running a restaurant isn’t an easy task. There are so many elements to it in order for things to run smoothly. What's your secret?
The secret to a smooth operation is to surround yourself with good people that you can rely on. This is a hard thing to do because unfortunately, people will let you down and their time will run its course, especially the people who are there who don't consider this a real career. But it is important to see the good in all of your employees, encourage them to be the best version of themselves, and hold on to the people who you know are ride or die.
Do you find it a challenge to constantly innovate?
It is a struggle to stay innovative in life, especially at work. You need to stay up on trends, while not allowing them to cloud your vision. A way that I like to stay inspired and innovative at my restaurant is to go on an R&D trip once a year to Southeast Asia. I get inspired by my new surroundings and try to absorb the food and culture as much as possible.
What was the initial concept you had in mind for Pig & Khao?
My initial goal for Pig & Khao was to create a fun environment for guests with great service and delicious food. I feel like we have reached that goal, and now we strive every day to make it better. My goal for Pig & Khao in the next few years is to make it a national brand by expanding to various cities.
“Being a chef is a lot of hard work and you have to make a lot of sacrifices, but if you love what you do it is totally worth it."
Food plays an important role in New York City’s culture, and just about everyone is constantly sharing their thoughts on different cuisines. How do you deal with today’s rise in food blogging and online comments (i.e. Yelp)? Has that impacted you in any way?
Yelp is one of those platforms that I have a love/hate relationship for. On one hand it gives anyone a way to voice their complaints about your establishment, but on the other hand it gives me, the business owner, a way to hear constructive criticism through our diners' experiences. It can be a way to drive business and to know how to improve. Nowadays - more than ever - everyone has an opinion and wants it to be heard, and I'm ok with that. As far as the bloggers and Instagram influencers go, they are important to acknowledge and respect because they have an immediate impact on your business.
I’m a huge fan of your restaurant and cuisine! What do you love most about coming in to work every day?
I love the rush of a busy dinner service and the instant gratification I get from my diners. For the most part, people leave the restaurant unbelievably happy and that, to me, is priceless. Plus, I get to run my business with my husband and I enjoy getting to work with him day in and day out.
What is your favorite dish to cook?
This is probably a Chef's least favorite question to answer because it can change at any given moment. Something that I love making, and find relaxing and therapeutic, is fresh pasta and noodles.
What does your time away from the restaurant consist of?
When I'm not at work, I am still always working. That is one of the joys of owning your own business (laughs). You never have a "day off," even if you are away from the restaurant. Recently, I have been spending a lot of my of my off time taking meetings to find a second location, working on my book, and working out.
What is currently on rotation in your music library?
I've been listening to a lot of old school hip-hop and Justin Bieber.
Can you give an aspiring chef advice on breaking into the F&B industry?
I would tell any young chef who is trying to break into the industry to make sure they know what they are getting themselves into. It's a lot of hard work and you have to make a lot of sacrifices, but if you love what you do it is totally worth it
What does MISSBISH mean to you?
MISSBISH is an important media platform that promotes strong women in the world. With what’s going on in today’s society, it is important to showcase these women and I’m happy to be a part of this amazing community!