It’s 1:45 a.m. on a recent Saturday morning and Leah Cohen is sipping a Kirin at the Japanese izakaya across the street from her new Lower East Side restaurant, Pig and Khao. The vibe at the table, which includes her top two kitchen lieutenants, is subdued. Scratch that, the vibe is head-on-the-table exhausted. Cohen, a C.I.A. graduate and former Top Chef finalist, has been putting in unrelenting 100-hour weeks — including what probably felt like a 1,000-hour post-Hurricane Sandy week. The crew is wiped out, with an early call the next day, and the next. But in 2012, the year Asian restaurants all of a sudden became the coolest place to hang out in New York City (and possibly eat a bowl of noodles too), Cohen is right there in the mix with her three-month-old Filipino/Thai mash note of a restaurant. And she can’t hold back the smile while going over the next day’s tasting menu.
A week later we’re sitting in Pig and Khao’s empty dining room before service talking sisig and cao lau (that’s Filipino sizzling pork and Vietnamese rice noodles, respectively). Cohen, who looks rested after an afternoon video yoga session back at her LES apartment, spent over a year traveling through Asia — partly as research for the project, partly to get away from New York City. She returned at just the right moment, while explaining what it’s like to run an Asian restaurant in year of the hipster Asian chef.
OK, so Asian food is cool now. It wasn’t that way in 2010. Why so?
I don’t know! People have been doing it more, and also have been doing it in spaces where people want to go out to and eat. Like Mission Chinese. It’s fun and they have a keg. We do a $15 all-you-can-drink self-tap out back. I think you just have to make it a fun place with really good food. People were doing really good food in Flushing and in Chinatown, but they were destination places — and not places that people wanted to go and drink, hang out with friends and make a night of it.
Do you think the popularity of Asian food will grow further, or is it hitting a peak?
I think it’s about exploring different cuisines. “Asian food” is a broad topic, but you have different categories like Filipino food, which I think is becoming more and more available to the public and people are understanding more about what it is. It’s definitely spreading and will get more popular.
Did you always want to open a Filipino restaurant?
No. I don’t think the restaurant is 100% authentic Filipino. We try to do some dishes from the Philippines, and I’m going to try to do more because we have comment cards and people say that we should put some more Filipino food on the menu. On Christmas Day, we are doing a full-menu Filipino dinner and hopefully if the feedback is good, we will put them on the menu and do more stuff that is Filipino.
A lot of people know sisig and adobo, but what else are you doing?
We have crispy pata, which is a deep-fried pork shank. We braise it for 14 hours, then we air dry it, take it off the bone and deep-fry it. It’s served with a pickled green mango. We chop it up and it’s about 14 ounces of cooked pork. It’s served with two different dipping sauces: one is a sweet and sour pork liver sauce that is a secret family recipe and the other is a soy vinegar dipping sauce.
Derek Jeter was just here. And you’re a huge Yankees fan. Like, that’s cray…
I am the biggest fan ever! It was weird to have him here. I’ve read all of his books and in college I had to write a paper on who was my idol and it was him [laughs]. He was so nice and a lot more quiet and reserved than I thought he would be.
Did he have the sisig?
He had the sisig and he loved it. He ordered another one [laughs].
Before you opened your restaurant, you went on this epic trip around Asia. I was jealous from your Facebook updates. How long was it?
It was a year and a couple of months.
You kind of dropped off a little bit I feel…
I did that on purpose. I had a lot of negative backlash from Top Chef, through the blogs and everything, for my behavior, I guess. I stayed at Centro [Vinoteca] for a year after Top Chef and then I was sick of doing Italian food and sick of everything from Top Chef — people talking shit — so I decided to head out and just fall off the radar for awhile and come back and rebuild my name.
What was the plan?
I started in Hong Kong and I really had no game plan. The only stage that I had set up was in Hong Kong and from there I got more connections and worked in restaurants.
That was at Bo Innovation?
Yeah. That guy Alvin [Leung Jr.] was awesome. He gave me some recommendations on who to contact and what restaurants to try and stage in. I think I worked 2/3 of the time in restaurants, and the other 1/3 of the time to tour and try to eat as much of the food as I could and take cooking classes. Vietnam was a little hard to stage in because of the English. I took a bunch of cooking classes and traveled literally from the south all the way up north, stopping in six or seven different regions.
Where you thinking about potential restaurant concepts as you were moving around these countries?
No, I was just trying to absorb as much as I could and eat as much food as possible and learn the flavors.
How did you keep track of it all? Did you write in a notebook?
I had a notepad with me every step of the way. If there were dishes that I thought were awesome, I would definitely write down as much as I could. I also would seek out — like, in Vietnam in Hoi An there is such good food — I took an intense cooking class there for four days.
That must have been fun…
So much fun, and the people were super nice. It’s different in Hoi An than it is in Saigon or Hanoi. I tried to write down as much as I could and take as many pictures as I could.
Did you go to Huế?
What was that like?
I was only there for a few days and there’s not that much to do other than eat bun bo hue [laughs]. It’s awesome.
Would you ever try to make that dish here?
I would, but I don’t think I feel as comfortable in Vietnamese food, just because I didn’t cook in restaurants. There is a dish that I want to do called Cao Lau, from Hoi An. It’s a dish with pork and homemade noodles. I did it at a pop-up and it went over really well, so I’m going to try and do it at some point.
OK, back to the restaurant. Would you say this restaurant is 2/3 Filipino and 1/3 Thai?
I would say half and half.
What about expanding with some Vietnamese dishes?
We have one on our tasting menu right now. It’s not a traditional Vietnamese dish — a grilled squid with pomelo, pomegranates, crispy shallots, rice powder and Vietnamese nuoc cham dressing.
How has business been?
Business has been good. The hurricane kind of messed us up a bit, but it did to everyone. We were actually pretty lucky because we didn’t have any damage or flooding in our basement, but we lost a week’s worth of being open [due to power outage]. We had a lot of good momentum before, as well, and it kind of just stopped for a little bit — then it was Thanksgiving…
How are you doing personally? Is this really a stressful time?
I think I am handling the chefs really well. My body is exhausted, though, because I work 85-90 hours a week. But I was working around 100 in the very beginning to get it open. I have a day off, but I’m usually here for part of it. But it’s worth it and hopefully in like six months once we’re settled, I can take two days off [laughs]. I expedite Thursday through Saturday and actually work the line two or three times a week, actually cooking. I’m doing everything.
I know you’re friends with Eddie [Huang]. Are you friends with Andy Ricker, another guy running a cool downtown SE Asian restaurant?
I’ve met him a couple of times but I’m not good friends with him, just acquaintances.
What about your neighbor Wylie Dufresne?
Wylie hasn’t been in yet but his manager has. He stopped by and asked how everything has been going. Everyone in the neighborhood is really supportive, especially on Clinton Street. Everyone wants everyone to succeed.
Pig and Khao, 68 Clinton St., NYC, 212-920-4485, pigandkhao.com
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