The Untold Truth Of Leah Cohen

You might know Leah Cohen from Season 5 of "Top Chef" or from her subsequent appearances on "Good Morning America," "Chopped," or "Beat Bobby Flay," but there are probably things about her that you didn't know, including some extreme personal highs and lows.

Cohen's first dish, thanks to her mom, a dentist and immigrant from the Philippines, was rice (per Thrillist). From her Romanian-Jewish paternal grandmother, she learned the arts of brisket and matzoh ball soup, and took a serious interest in cooking at 16. Before being cast on "Top Chef" in 2008, Cohen attended the Culinary Institute of America and trained and worked in some of New York's and Italy's top restaurants, including Park Avenue Café with chef David Burke, and Eleven Madison Park with chef Daniel Humm. In Italy, Cohen worked at Sicily's Michelin-starred Ristorante La Madia after completing the "Slow Food" program in Italy.

Cohen's travels throughout Southeast Asia to learn the cuisine of the region sparked her true passion and helped propel the launch of her successful Pig & Khao restaurant in 2012.  Now, you can see her appear as a guest judge on Food Network's "Battle of the Brothers" starring Michael and Bryan Voltaggio, premiering June 17. 

Here's how Leah Cohen became someone who Andrew Zimmern describes as "head down, shoulder-to-the-grindstone, doing kick-a** South Asian Cuisine in a really fun environment," (via Go Fork Yourself).

Cohen was cast on 'Top Chef' by chance

Speaking with Andrew Zimmern and Molly Mogren on their Go Fork Yourself podcast, Leah Cohen says her casting on "Top Chef" was a fluke. The producers were interested originally in one of her culinary school friends, who had actually stopped cooking to take a front-of-the-house position. The buddy told the producer they needed to take a look at her friend Leah Cohen. Cohen says she was one of the last to be cast for her season, and the process was a quick one. 

"I had to rush to put together a little video about me ... demo-ing me cooking something. I had like a weekend to do it." Within weeks, Cohen said she was in Los Angeles for second casting, and a few weeks later, was filming "Top Chef." Cohen admits she was barely aware of what the show was about, having spent the previous year training in Italy. "I just figured, oh sure, that will be fun going on TV, and I didn't realize how into your life" the show would be or how competitive it was. At 26, she reflects that she probably wasn't ready for the intensity of "Top Chef." "I was very inexperienced at the time," she told Zimmern. Cohen is grateful for the experience, however. "Obviously I don't think I would have the restaurant right now if I didn't go on 'Top Chef.'"

Her favorite food isn't Filipino

Leah Cohen's restaurant, Pig & Khao ("khao" refers to khao soi, a type of Thai curry) has been a popular and well-reviewed restaurant since it opened nearly a decade ago in 2012 on New York's Lower East Side. The cuisine of the colorful 74-seat restaurant reflects "Leah's Filipino upbringing and her annual expeditions to the region" (via Pig and Khao). The decision to lean into the flavors and foods of the Philippines almost didn't happen, however, and if you love Cohen's Filipino dishes, you can thank her mom. 

Speaking to Thrillist, Cohen said that after "Top Chef," she traveled throughout Southeast Asia and wanted to come home to open a Thai restaurant, saying that it is her favorite food. "I hate saying that because I am half Filipino, but I just love Thai food," Cohen admits, but her mother Nancy encouraged her to expose her guests to the deliciousness of Filipino cooking. Cohen told Thrillist that everything on the menu is based on something she ate while traveling, and choosing to offer the authentic foods of the Philippines as well as that of Thailand and Vietnam was "the best decision I ever made." She said, "There are so many good Vietnamese or Thai restaurants in New York, but I wanted to get all those dishes under one roof, and have them be authentic and not a fusion."

Cohen left the country to escape the 'Top Chef' shomance backlash

Speaking to Andrew Zimmern and Molly Mogren on the Go Fork Yourself podcast, Leah Cohen said she was very unprepared for the downside of fame, especially after it was revealed that she had a romance with one of the other Season 5 of "Top Chef" competitors. While filming, Cohen and the season's eventual winner, Hosea Rosenberg, were caught kissing on camera. No big deal but for the fact that both were in other relationships at the time. Still, the backlash was brutal. One example: "I hope they spend the rest of their lives ... making each other miserable" (via Oh No They Didn't!). Yikes.

Cohen told Zimmern and Mogren, "I had never experienced that kind of hate for no reason. These people didn't know me ... I didn't realize the effect that it would have," she said. "That was one of the reasons I moved to Asia. Because I wanted to get away from it all, from everyone talking s–t. I really just wanted to focus on becoming a better cook and a better chef."

Cohen also explained she never watched her "Top Chef" season as it was "too embarrassing to watch myself on TV," a sentiment Zimmern, who also never watches his own appearances, sympathized with. 

Cohen says labor snuck up on her

Some people will tell you that there's no mistaking that first sign of childbirth: labor pain. For others, it sort of sneaks up on them ("Wait, I'm in labor?"). That's because early labor can feel like a backache, or your basic, painless pre-labor contractions. Or, in situations like Leah Cohen's, a tummy ache. Cohen and her husband Ben Byruch (who she met when he was a sous chef at Pig & Khao) welcomed their first child in September 2019.

A few days after welcoming Carter Graham Byruch, Cohen told People magazine, "Ben and I couldn't be happier with our healthy, beautiful baby boy." She added that it was actually Ben, now her partner at Pig & Khao, who first realized Carter was ready to make his debut. A statement obtained by Extra quotes Cohen saying, "I didn't even realize I was going into labor, I thought I was just having stomach aches! Ben started to time my 'aches' on his own and after an hour and a half he decided it was time to take me to the ER." A short 90 minutes later, the couple got to meet little Carter.

Announcing her pregnancy earlier in 2019, Cohen told People: "Ben and I are so excited to announce that we're growing our family this October...We've wanted this for a while now and we're so grateful that we get to be parents."

Cohen's dad died during the COVID-19 pandemic

While the idea to focus on Filipino cooking came from her mom, Dr. Nancy Oro-Cohen, Leah's father, Dr. Bill Cohen, also played a crucial role in the success of Pig & Khao, according to Grub Street. Cohen, a lifelong "daddy's girl" said when it came time to open her restaurant, the retired Scarsdale dentist not only backed her financially but emotionally as well. She told the website her dad was the "driving force" behind Pig & Khao's success, and she was driven by a desire to not "disappoint him" or "waste his money." She added: "But he was also very proud of me," and came to the restaurant every Saturday unless he was traveling. Before he became sick, the father and daughter spoke every day.

Bill Cohen contracted coronavirus shortly after the pandemic broke out in the Tri-State area. While he seemed to do well at first, the healthy 69-year old went downhill suddenly. The hardest part, said Cohen, was that her father died without family at his side. "It's a horrible feeling of knowing that's how he died, just alone in the hospital with no one able to talk to him," she shared with Grub Street. However, the loss fueled her determination to reopen the restaurant after restrictions were lifted. "Dad would want me to ... Pig & Khao wouldn't be Pig & Khao without him," she added, explaining that he would frequently travel to Southeast Asia to procure unique ingredients for the restaurant. Reopening, she said, is her way of honoring her dad.