When Top Chef
approached me, it just made sense to go. That story, of course, you may have seen on television, so I won’t go into it in detail.
I was in a weird headspace after the show ended, though. I didn’t know what my cooking philosophy was, what my food tasted like. I’d always cooked for others, re-created their recipes. I’d grown up in a household of rice and kugel and this whole time, I’d been making pasta. I wasn’t cooking the food I’d grown up on, the food that raised me. I wanted to figure out how to change that, so I looked back at that to-do list I’d written before Top Chef
and took a younger me’s advice. That advice was travel.
Although Thailand was at the top of my list, my first stop in Asia was Hong Kong. I had seen an episode of No Reservations
in which Anthony Bourdain visited a private kitchen in an apartment there. The chef running it was named Alvin Leung, aka the demon chef, and he let me stage there for a month and a half, during which the staff adopted me. They took me to all the best local spots, and we ate and partied hard—a great way to start off my year in Asia. It also helped to have a huge group of eating buddies. So much of Asian food is served family style—I could never have tried so many different dishes if it had been up to me to eat them on my own.
Luckily, I had connections all over. I had a tentative connection to a certain “Rob in Bangkok,” who casually had an extra flat open to any chef friends who dropped in. Rob’s friendship and use of his flat saved me. I lived there on and off for eight months, within walking distance of public transportation, some of my favorite street food stands, all of my favorite markets, and one of the restaurants I staged at here and there.
The flat helped me focus most of my time in Thailand staging in various restaurants, checking out all the local markets, and eating as much street food as I possibly could. I staged at Bo.Lan first, learning Thai cuisine from an Englishman, and then at Nahm, a restaurant run by the first chef’s old boss. These restaurants taught me the foundation of the Thai food I cook to this day.
I also spent a good amount of time touring the country, hitting up all the different regions in order to explore their unique food. Every time my visa was about to run out, I visited a neighboring country like Vietnam or Cambodia to learn about the food there and stage in restaurants for a few days or even a week at a time.
Singapore proved an entirely different experience. I was working full-time in a Michelin-starred restaurant, but after my shift, I’d go straight to the night markets. The controlled chaos of the kitchen translated into the excitement of the night market. It was an energy that I loved and understood.
I slowed down a bit when I went to Vietnam, booking an entire month to explore the country. The way French technique was incorporated was fascinating to me. I was able to understand so much of how dishes came together because of my background in European kitchens, and that was such a cool discovery. The French influence with the lighter flavors of Vietnam was something that caught my eye because it proved to me that you really could meld those things in Southeast Asian cuisine.
These travels formed my cuisine, taught me the controlled chaos of Asian cooking. They showed me balance and restraint but also the power of certain ingredients. I learned which dishes to add coconut milk to for richness, which ones to add fish sauce to for funk. I learned family recipes for Crispy Pata (page 235), a pork shank cooked in soy sauce and garnished with coriander and Crispy Garlic (see page 43) served with a secret family recipe—sweet and sour liver dipping sauce. I learned how nuanced these cuisines were, how unfamiliar these flavors were in the New York scene. I learned that it was time to introduce them and that I was going to be the one to do it.
Copyright © 2020 by Leah Cohen with Stephanie Banyas. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.