Celebrity chef and restaurateur Leah Cohen is known for bringing her unique take on Southeast Asian cuisine to New York City, where she owns and operates Pig & Khao and Piggyback. But back when she attended culinary school, Leah’s instructors glossed over Asian cuisine—spending just three weeks on food from the entire continent.
It wasn’t enough for Leah, who wanted to cook food she felt connected to, like the Filipino comfort foods of her childhood. After training in Michelin-starred Italian restaurants and appearing on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” she left New York to pursue her true passion: cooking in restaurants across Southeast Asia. When she returned to the city, she devoted her first restaurant to her travels and her Filipino upbringing, sharing her love for dishes like pork belly adobo and sinigang shrimp with New York diners.
According to Leah, having a deep personal connection and passion for her business helped her weather even the toughest of times, such as when her second restaurant was forced to close just two months after opening. By pivoting to delivery service and working closely with her community, Leah was able to pull through the pandemic and even expand her business to a third location, coming this year.
This latest venture is just one way that Leah has forged new opportunities out of failure and uncertainty. From Pig & Khao to reality TV, she’s found success by leaning into what she loves, building a team she can trust, and learning from her mistakes. In her keynote address at Yelp’s third annual Women in Business Summit, Leah shares her biggest lessons learned as a business owner, chef, and working mom.
Your restaurants are a reflection of your heritage. Was that something that you always aspired to do?
Growing up, [chefs] were cooking Italian, American food—they weren’t necessarily cooking from their heritage. Even in culinary school, we had “Cuisines of Asia,” which was a three-week course. How much can you really learn in three weeks on such a broad topic?
You want to cook food that you feel connected to, or at least I did. And I loved cooking Italian food. I spent time and studied in Italy and I was passionate about it, but I didn’t feel that connection. And I feel proud that I cook Filipino food and that other Filipinos look at me as someone who has helped spread the culture and spread the information about Filipino cuisine.
I think that it’s great that a lot of chefs now have the ability to do that. Yes, you want to do what you love, but if you don’t have that connection to it and you don’t have that love and passion, then when it gets tough, you’re like, ‘Why am I even doing this?’
Was your vision challenged at all by anyone while you were building it?
Honestly, no. My mom was my biggest critic. I was also one of the biggest challenges because I’m half Filipino and I didn’t grow up in the Philippines. Sometimes I have an identity crisis because I’m like, ‘Am I Filipino enough for Filipinos to embrace me? And will they look at me as someone who’s educated on the food and can really be a presence and an authority?’ That was something that I really struggled up until recently.
One of the reasons why my social media grew was because I was like, ‘All right, let me lean into what I do really well, which is cooking Southeast Asian food—not just Filipino food, but Southeast Asian food in general. And once I was like, ‘I don’t care what anyone else says. This is what I love doing, this is what I wanna do, and I wanna teach people how to make adobo or sinigang, or all these different dishes,’ my audience grew because I felt secure in what I was doing and passionate about what I was doing.
Do I get haters out there? Sure. Maybe [my food is] not the most traditional, but this is my interpretation of it. I have been embraced by the Filipino community, and it’s great, and I think it gives me a lot more confidence. Confidence is huge, and believing in yourself is really huge when you are trying to grow your business.
Speaking of confidence, you read every review of your restaurant. I’m sure that you have tough skin, but how do you handle that?
It’s really important to read the reviews and know, ‘Okay, this person is just being an a-hole,’ or this person has something worth fixing, or it’s a great review and it makes you feel good.
I’m not at my restaurant every day because I have a million things going on and I’m trying to expand. If I can’t be at the restaurant every day, what tool can I use to still know what’s going on and make sure that my customers are happy? Because at the end of the day, you want to make sure that your customers are happy.
Having Yelp and being able to read the reviews [means I can go]: ‘Okay, well, someone said that the service wasn’t good. Who was the server on this night? Do they tend to have an attitude with customers?’ Or if [someone said the food is] too salty, let’s go and check.
And so I think it’s really important to constantly be looking. I don’t think that you should obsess over it. I don’t think that you should beat yourself up about it, but I think it’s definitely a tool that you can use, especially if you can’t be there every single day.
Have you ever made any big changes based on online feedback?
There was a dish at Piggyback called the fried pho. We got a lot of negative comments because [my staff] just wasn’t cooking it the right way. If I were to make it, they would love it. But like I said, I can’t be there every day and I can’t micromanage. So I took it off the menu.
Pig & Khao has been open for 10 years. In the first five years, I had my hands in everything and I micromanaged everything. I will say—failure is the best way to not repeat your mistakes. When we opened Piggyback in Jersey City, which has closed, it taught me about stepping back and not having my hand in everything and delegating and making sure that people can do their job. You have to have people in place in order to grow, but you have to give them the freedom to do that and have them make those mistakes and also be able to relinquish some responsibility.
Do you have advice or tips for delegating? How did you learn to step back and cede control to other people?
Having one business—and having it be your only business—gives you tunnel vision. When I opened up Piggyback in Jersey City, I realized: ‘I can’t be there all the time at Pig & Khao. How can I split my time in the best way possible?’
I had two restaurants and a kid, and then I had a second kid. And then all those things take you away from the one original baby, [my business]. It made me realize I didn’t need to be there all that time. You know what I mean? I could have focused my energy on doing something else.
But I think until you have that opportunity or until you take that leap of faith to do something else, you’re not going to step out of the situation that you’re in, and you’re always going to have that tunnel vision.
You’re also a working mother. How has that changed the way you approach your work?
I’ve learned to let a lot of things go. With a child, you cannot pick every fight with them because it’s not worth it. You have to just let go and only focus on the really important things. And one of the most important things in my life—if not the most—is my family. And so I want to make sure that I can provide for them, but I also want to make sure that I have time for them.
Time goes fast, as cliché as it is, and I don’t want to miss it. I want to have the ability to spend time with them and take them on trips and just do as much as I possibly can with them. Because I only have a small window for them to think that I’m cool and want to be around me until I’m no longer the center of their world.
How do you find and hire and keep the right people working for you, whom you’re able to trust with your brands?
At Pig & Khao, we’ve had people who’ve been with us for six or seven years. I think it’s really important to treat your staff well and to let them know that you’re the boss, but also let them know that they have a voice. I think that’s really important because people want to be heard. And [so is] paying people wages that are fair. I know that with the restaurant industry, it’s really hard. Margins are very, very slim. But you have to figure out a way to pay your staff a living wage because otherwise someone else will. And then [the job] becomes just a paycheck right? You want it to be more than a paycheck.
You want people to have, especially after the pandemic, work-life balance. This has always been a topic of conversation, especially among managers. People don’t want their job to be their whole life, right? They want to be able to have the freedom to take some time off. They want to know that they can spend time with family. Just like I want to, I want [my staff] to be able to have that time, too.
As far as finding staff goes, you have to branch out and find different avenues to get resumes. I always think word of mouth is the best way. Anytime someone comes in, give them a few weeks, and if they prove that they’re a good employee, be like: ‘You have any friends? Is anyone looking?’ If someone enjoys working there, they’re going to tell their friend like, ‘Oh yeah, you should come. It’s a fun place to work. They’re really cool, they’re chill.’ Make it fun, but also let them know that it’s professional and it’s a business.
What are your goals for 2023?
The goal is to expand. During COVID, I partnered with a group called Apres Cru, and they partnered with a few different hospitality groups and found restaurants and brands that they believed in and that they wanted to make sure could make it through the pandemic financially.
We were lucky enough to be one of those groups, and it is a great partnership. They give us infrastructure that we need to grow and expand, but they also allow us to be who we are and we still run the day-to-day operations of each business. Because we have that access to funding, we can now look at deals and restaurants in different cities and in New York as well. There will be a lot more Pig & Khaos hopefully in the next 24 months.
For more insights from Leah, watch her keynote session below from Yelp’s third annual Women in Business Summit—now available on-demand along with all other sessions from the day.
Photos from Pig & Khao and Piggyback on Yelp
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