Chef Leah Cohen talks latest NYC restaurant Piggyback by Pig & Khao

leah cohen piggyback lead
Leah Cohen (r) is the owner and chef behind Piggyback NYC by Pig & Khao
Photos courtesy of Piggyback NYC

Chef and restauranteur Leah Cohen was obsessed with food since she was a little kid. she started cooking when she was young with her grandmother, and later, like many foodies, developed her own obsession with Food Network.

“I actually never had cable growing up, I had a basic cable, so I would always go to like my friend’s house to watch Food Network and it was like a really big treat for me,” Cohen recalled. “I would watch the cooking shows on PBS but I was obsessed with ‘Iron Chef Japan. School was just not my thing and I would just rather stay home and cook.”

Cohen went on to culinary school where she really honed her craft and did some traveling abroad in Asia. What she learned was utilized when she first opened Pig & Khao, a popular Southeast Asian eatery on the Lower East Side. Over her career, Cohen has earned her stripes by earning the 2013 StarChefs Rising Stars Award, releasing a cookbook entitled “Lemongrass & Lime,” and even competing on “Top Chef.”

Piggyback NYC is Cohen’s latest venture. Situated right in Chelsea, Piggyback NYC is an intimate space that offers pan-Asian dishes such as Lamb Rendang, Wonton Mee, Korean Honey Butter Wings, Lumpia Shanghai spring rolls, and Shrimp Fried Rice, just to name a few, all of which pack a serious punch.

All of the dishes are meant to be shared, not just for the starters but also for the mains, sides and desserts. 

Koreaon Honey Butter WingsPhoto courtesy of Piggyback NYC

“It’s the way, in general, people eat food in Southeast Asia and in Asia. I wanted to stay true to how people eat that kind of food, also it’s my favorite way to eat,” said Cohen. “I like to try a lot of different bites of everything and I don’t want to be committed to one whole plate of a specific dish. It’s all kind of based on the way that I like to eat, so I’m hoping that other people enjoy that.”

Everything on the Piggyback NYC menu has a kick to it, usually in the form of some heat or just from the combination of spices that bring tons of flavor to each dish.

“I love spicy food. If I can make everything as spicy as I’d want to, people will never come back,” Cohen said. “I think a little bit of heat adds like another layer and dimensional flavor to the dish, whether it’s a spicy dish or not, I like to add a little bit of chile.”

Cohen says some of the more popular dishes include the Malaysian Fried Chicken, the Lamb Rendang, and the Mushroom Dandan, though Cohen says the Piggyback NYC menu has something for everyone.

“We have a pretty good mix of what people order, I think there’s kind of something for everyone if you like spicy or not spicy,” said Cohen. “Because we’re so close to MSG, we try to have some bar-friendly food as well if you just want to like pop in for a quick drink and a bite.”

Piggyback NYC first opened for business in January 2020 and was off to an amazing start. However, like many restaurants, in March 2020 Piggyback NYC had to close down.

The Piggyback dining room.Photo courtesy of Piggyback NYC

“Unfortunately, we had to shut down for, I want to say 15 months, because that location is just really tough,” said Cohen. “It’s not so much like a neighborhood spot where Pig & Khao is on the Lower East Side and you have a lot of everything close together and there’s just a lot more, it’s more densely populated as far as residential goes.”

Even after reopening last January, Cohen says that it has been tough to get the foot traffic going because not everyone is back in the office as regularly as they were pre-pandemic, and because the excitement about Piggyback NYC being a new restaurant had died down.

“It was hard to get press because we were not a new restaurant,” said Cohen. “While people were excited about us when we first opened — because it was our second restaurant in the city — it’s not as exciting for a reopening than as a brand new restaurant.”

Cohen says that despite this setback, the area has seen some bounce back in recent months, with tourism and events coming back, Piggyback NYC is becoming a go-to spot for many New Yorkers and visitors alike.

“It’s definitely been really tough, but the fact that Madison Square Garden is back and people are coming back to the offices and travel is back — that neighborhood is very touristy — so now that everything is kind of back to normal, we’re in a good position now, but it was really tough for that year after we reopened,” said Cohen.

As for what’s to come for Piggyback NYC, brunch is on the horizon for future dining opportunities. Cohen also says that the team plans to utilize the space at the back of the restaurant for more events. 

“I have a long list of dishes that I want to put on menus somewhere so we either need to start opening new concepts or multiple more locations so I can have a home for all these dishes,” said Cohen. “We’re starting to be busy but that space has so much potential just to do some really cool things.”

For more information about Piggyback by Pig & Khao, visit piggybacknyc.com

Leah Cohen.Photo: Georgi Richardson