'Top Chef' Leah Cohen shares her all-time favorite dish: 'I ate it so much, I was sweating curry out'

·5-min read
Leah Cohen, owner of Pig and Khao and Piggyback New York, says while she grew up making traditional Filipino dishes with her mother, her true love is Thai food. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Leah Cohen, owner of Pig and Khao and Piggyback New York, says 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 marked by her passion for creating dishes that bring Southeast Asian flavors and techniques to the table: But in the beginning of her culinary career, the Top Chef alum was just a little girl cooking with her mom.

"My mom, she's not, I would say the best cook — and she would admit that," Cohen says, "but she had a repertoire of four or five dishes, so I would help her with the lumpia and the pancit — which are little Filipino noodles and a staple at any party — and then chicken adobo and garlic rice. I was always chopping up garlic or mincing."

"I think I was using a knife at a young age," she adds. "I was prepping a lot."

One dish that required a bit more prep than most was lumpia — a dish made with thin layers of pastry on the outside and a savory or sweet filling within — a classic Filipino dish that's a true labor of love.

"I was my mom's sous chef," Cohen tells Yahoo Life. "I put two different types of meat [in the lumpia], but there's a lot of vegetables that have to get cut up — 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 recalls of her youth. "I would say it wasn't a party unless there was lumpia there, so that's something I have translated to any dinner gatherings we do with my family at my house."

"We threw 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," says the author of Lemongrass and Lime: Southeast Asian Cooking at Home. "That's just something I grew up eating and having for every party and family gathering."

While Cohen's two sons, ages 2 and 4 months, are too young to help in the kitchen, that doesn't mean she isn't preparing them to pitch in. "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 is their favorite thing. I'm just trying to teach them at a young age the flavors, and then eventually, I'll put them to work."

In addition to guiding her sons in the kitchen, the 40-year-old chef will also be helping home chefs bring their family recipes to the screen in her latest project: serving as 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 bringing their stories to the competition: They're creating food they feel very passionate about ... things they grew up eating."

Cohen says the competition is about more than using a specific ingredient or a certain cooking style. "It's really about the storyline and their connection to food through family and their culture," she says. "It's very multicultural — just different people throughout the country trying to showcase all the recipes they grew up eating and cooking."

"I like it because while it's a competition, it's very friendly," she adds. "The competitors, in such a short amount of time, 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 be making her mom's chicken adobo. "It's a one-pot meal comfort food," she says. "It's my go-to. It was one of the first things my mom taught me how to make ... 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 birth, she's had a favorite place to eat when dining out. "Johnny's Pizzeria in Mount Vernon, N.Y.," she says. "My mom — when she was pregnant with me — she was eating that pizza, so that's how far back it goes."

"I celebrate my birthday every year there," she continues. "It's a very mom-and-pop place, but it's literally my favorite."

In addition to homemade Filipino food and local Italian, Cohen draws inspiration from her travels. She has a special place in her heart for food from Thailand. "I feel bad saying it all the time, because as a proud Filipino, I feel bad [Filipino food] is not, but Thai food is my favorite," she says. "I've spent a lot of time in Thailand just working in restaurants. I go to Thailand almost as much as I go to the Philippines."

While Cohen loves all Thai food, one dish stands apart from the rest: A dish she enjoys so much she brought it home with her, giving it a place on her own restaurant 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 had 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 been on my menu at Pig and Khao — we've been open for ten years come 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 like curry — I ate it so much that I was sweating the curry out."

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