Ten home cooks from different parts of the United States will share their stories, cultures and recipes in a new eight-part PBS contest series “The Great American Recipe.”
Leah Cohen, originally from Scarsdale, is one of the judges. Cohen is the chef and owner of the famous New York restaurants Pig & Khao and Piggyback NYC. She is also the author of “Lemongrass & Lime”.
“The Great American Recipe,” airing June 24, features each contestant’s signature dishes for a chance to win the national search for a Great American Recipe. The show, hosted by Alejandra Ramos, a trained chef and food writer known for her appearances on the TODAY Show and Telemundo celebrates the multiculturalism that makes American cuisine so iconic.
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“It’s really a show that’s more about their (contestants’) stories and how they were able to really represent and show who they were through their food and their culture,” Cohen explains.
The show is particularly important to Cohen, who grew up with a Filipina mother and a Romanian Jewish father.
Raised in traditions of both backgrounds, she remembers helping her grandmother, a home economics teacher at Mount Vernon, make brisket and matzo dumpling soup for Jewish holidays — Cohen likes to say she had ec lessons at home from the age of five. She also had the responsibility of preparing rice, a staple of Filipino cuisine every day when she came home from school, starting when she was around 8 years old.
We got the chance to speak with Cohen ahead of the series premiere about growing up in Westchester, his favorite kitchen tool, and what’s currently in his fridge.
Why did you want to be a judge on this show?
Leah Cohen:PBS is close to my heart because growing up I never really had cable and always loved to cook so the only cooking shows available to me – unless I go 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 PBS fan.
The show is about family and stories. It’s very pleasant and happy, which we all need after a few very stressful years. This is not an intense cooking competition. Everyone was very friendly with each other – a lot of competitors became very good friends.”
Did that resonate more for you coming from diverse backgrounds?
CL: “Absolutely. As a judge, I was the expert on Asian cuisine. Because America is such a melting pot, there are so many cuisines that are becoming American or Americanized. I understand that firsthand, for me, growing up with a Jewish family and a Filipino family, sometimes made me feel like I didn’t know where I belonged. But I belong exactly where I am. Being exposed to these different cultures has made me the leader and the person that I am. It was nice to be able to pass on this knowledge and wisdom to contestants and viewers, and I hope my children will grow up with a palette and affinity for Southeast Asian cuisine.”
Any fun foods you tried on the show?
CL: “Oh yeah. There was a contestant who cooked a lot of Korean food; another was speaking Vietnamese; another did Mexican so there’s a lot of really good food for sure.”
What’s your best advice for home cooks?
CL: “My best advice is don’t be afraid of salt because I feel like a lot of people season their food. Be sure to taste while you cook. Don’t just add salt at the very end. Start with a little at first and then taste. Otherwise, it will just taste salty instead of seasoned.”
When you come to visit your family in Westchester, where do you eat?
LC: “Johnny is at Mount Vernon every year for my birthday. It really is a part of my family. My dad was the dentist for literally everyone in Johnny’s family and my mom ate Johnny’s pizza when she was pregnant with me, so Johnny’s is my favorite place. Of course, I also like Candlelight Inn in Scarsdale where many of my friends used to work. I also really like Goosefeathers in Tarrytown. Valley [Talde, the chef/owner] is a good friend of mine and he cooks the food I want to eat. And there’s really nothing else like it.”
What would I find if I raided your fridge right now?
LC: “I am currently on a 30 day vegan diet for post baby weight loss [Cohen just had a baby three and half months ago] so you will find a lot of vegetables. Normally I don’t because I’m not vegan, but I always have kimchi in my fridge, eggs, pepperoni, some kind of sauce, usually in the freezer like meat sauce. I also always have veggies, cheese, sriracha, kewpie mayonnaise, lots of unprepared foods…just cooking ingredients.”
Is there an ingredient you always have on hand that works for you?
CL: “I always have eggs and rice because I feel like even if you literally have nothing else in your pantry, you can do a lot of different things with that.”
And what about your favorite kitchen tool?
LC: “Probably a mandolin. I just think it makes everything a lot more professional. And it makes cutting faster. And there are different attachments so you can make a slicer, you can make a shredder.”
What might surprise people to know about you?
CL: “I used to play basketball in high school; I was the captain of my high school basketball team [Cohen went to Edgemont High School] and I’m always very competitive when shooting against anybody. I still have a very good jump shot.”
CL:“I would love more TV. I hope ‘The Great American Recipe’ gets picked up for a second season. Also, my husband and I now have partners in our restaurants, so we’re looking to expand and offer new concepts. Pig & Khao will be open 10 years in September, so we are looking to open another one, probably on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. But yes, more restaurants. More TV. More of everything I am currently doing.
I would like to bring my children [Cohen also has a son that will turn 3 in September] in Southeast Asia, in the Philippines to meet their loved ones. It’s something high on the priority list.”
Jeanne Muchnick covers food and catering. Click here for his most recent articles and follow his latest culinary adventures on Instagram @lohud_food or via the lohudfood newsletter.