Manhattan chef, restaurateur celebrates diversity on new PBS show

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Ten home chefs from different regions of the United States will share their stories, cultures and recipes in a new eight-part competition series from PBS “The Great American Recipe.”

Leah Cohen, a Scarsdale resident, is one of the governors. Cohen is the chef and owner of popular New York City restaurants Pig & Khao and Piggyback NYC. She is also the author of Lemongrass & Lime.

The show “The Great American Recipe,” airing June 24, features each contestant’s signature dishes for a chance to win the national quest for a great American recipe. Hosted by Alejandra Ramos, a trained chef and food writer known for her appearances on the TODAY Show and Telemundo, they celebrate the multiculturalism that makes American food so iconic.

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“It’s really a show that is more about their (the contestants) stories and how they really represent and show who they are through their food and through their culture,” Cohen says.

This show is especially important to Cohen, who was raised as a child of a Filipino mother and a Romanian Jewish father.

She grew up with traditions from both backgrounds, and remembers helping her grandmother, a home economics teacher in Mount Vernon, make brisket and matzo ball soup for the Jewish holidays—Cohen likes to say she took environmental education lessons at home at the age of five. She was also responsible for preparing rice, a staple in Filipino cuisine every day when she came home from school, starting around the age of eight.

We had a chance to speak with Cohen before the series premiere about growing up in Westchester, her favorite kitchen gadget and what’s currently in her fridge.

Why did you want to be a judge on this show?

Leah Cohen:PBS is near and dear to my heart because growing up, I didn’t actually have cable and had always been interested in cooking, so the only cooking shows I had – unless I went to my friends’ house to watch Food Network – were on PBS. I watched Ming Tsai and Julia Child and all the usual suspects and my grandmother was a huge fan of PBS.

The show is all about family and stories. It feels so good and so happy, something we all need after two very stressful years. It’s not an extreme cooking competition. Everyone was very friendly with each other – a lot of the contestants became good friends.”

Did this resonate more with you coming from a diverse background?

LC: definitely. As a judge, I was the expert on Asian cuisine. As America is a melting pot, there are many cuisines that have become American or American. I get it firsthand that, for me, growing up with a Jewish family and a Filipino family, it sometimes made me feel like I didn’t know where I belonged. But I belong exactly where I am. The exposure to these different cultures shaped me into a chef and personality. It was nice to be able to give this knowledge and wisdom to the contestants and spectators, and I hope my children will grow up with a color palette and affinity for Southeast Asian cuisine.”

What fun foods did you take on the show?

LC: Oh yes. There was one contestant who cooked a lot of Korean food; Another one did the Vietnamese. Another one was Mexican so there’s a lot of really good food, for sure.”

What’s your best advice for home cooks?

LC: My best advice is not to be afraid of salt because I feel like a lot of people take the time to eat their food. Make sure you savor it while cooking. Don’t just add salt at the end. Start small at first and then savor. Otherwise, it will only taste salty, not spicy.”

When you come to visit family in Westchester, where do you eat out?

LC: “Johnny’s at Mount Vernon every year for my birthday. He is a big part of my family. My dad was a dentist for every member of Johnny’s family and my mother ate Johnny’s pizza when she was pregnant with me, so Johnny is my go-to. Of course, I also love the Candlelight Inn in Scarsdale where a lot of my friends used to work. I also love Goosefeathers in Tarrytown. Dale [Talde, the chef/owner] He is a good friend of mine and he cooks the food I want to eat. And there is nothing else like it.”

What would I find if I raided your refrigerator now?

LC: “I am currently on a vegan 30 day diet for postpartum weight loss [Cohen just had a baby three and half months ago] So you will find a lot of vegetables. Usually that’s not the case because I’m not a vegetarian but I always have kimchi in my fridge, eggs, pepperoni, some kind of sauce, usually in the fridge like meat sauce. I also always have veggies, cheese, sriracha, kyube mayonnaise, and a lot of uncooked food…just kitchen ingredients. “

Is there one item always on hand that you’re looking for?

LC: I always have eggs and rice because I feel like even if you literally don’t have anything else in your pantry, you can make a lot of different things with those.”

What about your favorite kitchen tool?

LC: “Maybe a mandolin. I think it makes everything look more professional. It makes cutting faster. And there are different attachments so you can make this shredder, slicing and shredding machine. ”

What would it surprise people to know about you?

LC: I was playing basketball in high school. I was the captain of the high school basketball team [Cohen went to Edgemont High School] And I’m still very competitive when I’m shooting anyone. I still have a really good jump shot.”

What’s Next?

LC: “I’d love to watch more TV shows. I hope ‘The Great American Recipe’ gets picked for a second season. Also, my husband and I, we now have partners in our restaurants, so we’re looking forward to expanding and creating new concepts. Pig & Khao will be open for 10 years.” It’s September, so we’re looking forward to opening another one, probably in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. But yeah, more restaurants. More TV. More everything I’m doing right now.

I like to bring my kids [Cohen also has a son that will turn 3 in September] To Southeast Asia and the Philippines to meet their relatives. This is something that is very high on the priority list.”

Jeanne Muchnick covers food and dining. Click here for her latest articles and follow her latest dining adventures on Instagram @lohud_food or via the Lohudfood newsletter.

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