Chef Leah Cohen made her way into the national spotlight as a Top Chef contestant years ago, and is making waves yet again in an entirely new fashion. Her first restaurant, Pig & Khao, has attracted a never-ending barrage of patrons clamoring for one of its 74 seats since its opening in 2012. Asian street food turned modern chic is [oddly] nothing new nowadays, but it’s the personal story behind each dish that makes Pig & Khao so alluring, and now, Lemongrass and Lime: Southeast Asian Cooking at Home, so captivating.

“The food [at Pig & Khao] is inspired by my travels,” said Cohen. Born to a Filipino mother and a Jewish Romanian father, Cohen holds close family ties [and a second home] in the Philippines, which she joyfully describes as “her happy place.” 

“My husband and I go on an R&D trip every year for new tastes in Southeast Asia,” Cohen said. “The food in Lemongrass and Lime has been inspired by those trips.”

Lemongrass and Lime brings flavors from The Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Singapore and Indonesia to the everyday home cook through novel yet approachable recipes. Dishes can be prepared using ingredients commonly found at your friendly neighborhood grocery store. Cooks of all levels will find a myriad of dishes that suit their palate
and skillset. 

“It can be intimidating cooking a cuisine you don’t know anything about. I try to break it down and make it approachable for novice cooks,” Cohen said. “There are recipes that are very simple, but also recipes for people who have more experience. There [are] the familiar dishes like Pad Thai, but also dishes people might not have heard about if they haven’t traveled to that part of the world.”

Cohen took her first trip to the Philippines at age 4 to visit family, and has effectively split her time between the US and Southeast Asia ever since. Every recipe in Lemongrass and Lime is a product of her own personal travels and selected from an overwhelmingly long list of contenders.

“People may know 4-5 dishes from a country, but not much more unless they’ve taken a deep dive into that place themselves. This gives them more knowledge and more information about that part of the world. Even if you’re not as into cooking, but are into traveling, this is kind of like a travel book as well. It gives you an idea of what dishes to look for if you’re visiting that country,” Cohen said. 

Immersive imagery carries Lemongrass and Lime’s secondary role as a travel publication. Cohen and her husband, who led the styling for the food photography, went so far as to take a travel photographer on their most recent trip to Asia to capture the perfect moments at street food carts, hawker stands and other muses for the book’s recipes.

As distant as some of these recipes’ origins may be, the secret ingredient of Lemongrass and Lime is its ability to incorporate ingredients commonly found in grocery stores across the US.

“Trying to stay authentic to the recipes but being able to have swap-outs for easily accessible ingredients is challenging,” Cohen said. “That’s something I’ve had to do when I cook for GMA and The Today Show.”

The food community may know Cohen from her time in the national spotlight, but her journey as a chef holds a depth no camera could capture. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, she spent a year in Sicily, working at the Michelin-starred La Madia in Licata, Italy. Her career took her back to New York, where she worked at the illustrious Eleven Madison park and then at Centro Vinoteca under Celebrity Chef Anne Burrell. 

But it was the continued trips to Southeast Asia that affirmed Cohen’s identity as a chef. She spent a year traveling across the region, opened Pig & Khao upon returning, and hasn’t looked back since.

“I had no real connection to European cooking beyond my living there for a year. I always had a palate for southeast Asian food, I just didn’t have the knowledge,” she said. “The best way to cook Southeast Asian food was to immerse myself in those countries. So I packed a suitcase and went on a culinary journey. I knocked on restaurants’ doors, asked people if I could work for free. Staging is not as common in Asia as it is in Europe, but some great people took me in.”

Needless to say, her hard work has paid off.

Lemongrass and Lime: Southeast Asian Cooking at Home can be found on Amazon.

Photo Credit: Pig & Khao