Women in Business: Chef Leah Cohen, Pig and Khao

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY, Leah's first position in a New York City kitchen was working for celebrated chef David Burke at Park Avenue Café.
11/17/2014 11:20 am ET Updated Jan 17, 2015

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY, Leah's first position in a New York City kitchen was working for celebrated chef David Burke at Park Avenue Café. While at Park Avenue Café, Leah adapted David's philosophy of utilizing the freshest seasonal ingredients and was encouraged to enroll in a Slow Food program based in Italy. After studying the intricacies of Italy's diverse culinary landscape, Leah stayed on for an additional year in Sicily at Michelin-stared restaurant, La Madia, to focus on a cuisine that blends the bold and fresh flavors of the Mediterranean.

Upon returning to New York, Leah refined her craft at Eleven Madison Park under the tutelage of Chef Daniel Humm. Rising through the ranks from Garde Mangé to Chef de Partie, Leah was quickly promoted to a tourant between the fish and meat roasting stations. After working for a year at the four star restaurant, Leah traded in refined for rustic when she joined Anne Burrell at Centro Vinoteca in 2008. While working under Chef Burrell, Leah truly explored her love of Italian cooking, and also landed a spot on BRAVO's hit television series, "Top Chef." After a successful run on the show, and with national recognition, Leah returned to Centro Vinoteca as the restaurants Executive Chef, where she continued to explore her culinary creativity with an inventive Italian menu that attracted West Village locals and destination diners alike.

After a few years at Centro Vinoteca, Leah decided to take a sabbatical and spent a year traveling throughout Southeast Asia learning about her Asian heritage. One year later, Leah returned home to bring the bold flavors of Asian street food to New York, combining a culinary technique honed in New York's top kitchens with the bold flavors found in the restaurants and food stalls of Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia. Leah's cooking is innovative and strikingly authentic, and is on display daily at Pig & Khao restaurant on the lower east side of NYC.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
My parents worked all the time when I was growing up so it forced me to learn to cook for myself from a young age. I was also the captain of my basketball team in HS, as well as a group leader at the CIA, which taught me leadership skills that I still use today as the owner of my own restaurant.

How did your previous employment experience aid your position at Pig & Khao?
When I was Sous Chef at Centro Vinoteca, I was thrown into the fire unprepared and had to learn very quickly or else sink. It was there that I learned how to manage staff and other fundamentals of keeping order in the kitchen. Once I was promoted to Executive Chef, I learned more about how to develop menus, scheduling, food costs, etc. After some time at CV, I traveled around Southeast Asia, staging (apprenticeship) at BoLan, Nam and Bo Innovations, and then spent an additional year there learning more about the cuisine which fine tuned my SE Asian culinary skills and knowledge.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Pig & Khao?
As far as challenges go, opening the restaurant was a lot of work. From staffing, to operations, including things like pipes bursting, the walk-in refrigerator, AC and stove hood breaking, the front gate not opening and people tagging the bathroom with Sharpies. But, the highlights far outweigh any of that and include the NY Times review being declared a Star Chef. The publics embrace and positive feedback has been overwhelming, too. When someone goes out of his or her way to tell me how great my food is, it makes my job worth it.

How did appearing on Top Chef change your career?
Well, I wouldn't have the restaurant without it. It gave me visibility and confidence as a chef. The show forced me to challenge and push myself to be as creative as possible every day.

What skills did you take away from the program?
It taught me how to deal with stress, work under time constraints, how to be in front of a camera and how to take constructive criticism better. It was a very beneficial experience.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I love going to SoulCycle. Time with friends and family also keeps me grounded.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I personally have never felt that I've been treated differently in a kitchen because I'm a woman. However, I do think many women are underestimated in the kitchen solely because of their sex. But, if anything, I think being a woman working in a kitchen makes you tougher.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I haven't had many in my life but I do take influence from those that I have worked with - they've helped shape me as a chef. I'm always happy to mentor those who reach out to me looking for guidance or assistance.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Chef Anita Lo is a badass. She's still present in the kitchen and her food is fantastic.

What are your hopes for the future of Pig & Khao?
To continue to be a neighborhood favorite for years to come. I also hope to expand to additional locations so that a wider audience can enjoy my food.