New York chef Leah Cohen opened her first restaurant Pig & Khao in 2012, pulling flavors and dishes from Thailand and her mother’s native Philippines. While the cooking was tied to her mother Dr. Nancy Oro-Cohen, Cohen says that her father, Dr. William “Bill” Cohen, was as essential to the restaurant. Not only as an investor, but as a steadying hand who lended his support emotionally and as a kind of one-man importer on the sly. In late March, William tested positive for coronavirus. At the time, Leah says she never could’ve imagined it ending in her dad’s death and his condition was, at first, not alarming. But William was hospitalized days later, and then sedated and put on a ventilator. On April 7, he turned 69 in the hospital; the next week, he passed. Cohen spoke to Grub about her relationship with her dad, losing a parent you can’t see during his final days, and her father’s role in her restaurant.
My dad was born and raised in Mount Vernon, where I grew up for the first five years of my life. He was a dentist and met my mom in dental school in the Philippines. They got married there, and then they moved back here and had me and my brother.
The Philippines has always been an important part of my life. It was very special to my dad, which made it very special to me. He was this Jewish guy from New York, and he moved there in the ’70s. It really just opened his eyes to a world outside of what he was used to. He loved the Philippines. It became a part of him. He would go there more than my mom would. My parents have a home there, which was supposed to be their retirement house. My mom wanted to retire two years ago, but my dad loved being a dentist. They own a dental practice together in Yonkers, and he’d say, “What am I going to do if I’m not a dentist?”
We went to the Philippines as a family for the first time when I was around 4 years old, and we’d go every other year while my brother and I were growing up. My mom is the oldest of eight siblings. Like any kind of family where someone moves to the U.S. and makes money, my parents were constantly sending money home. My father helped bring over two of her brothers to the U.S. He always just had his hobbies and his projects, and he would have my mom’s family involved with the projects and pay them. My dad was super into family, and he wanted to help his family and my mom’s family in any way he could.
Growing up, I was a daddy’s girl, you know? I don’t want to say that my mom was the strict one, but she was more strict than him, and I knew how to work him. He was always supportive and always there for me for anything that I needed. When I said I wanted to go to culinary school, he was 100 percent on board. (This isn’t saying my mom wasn’t supportive.) He never questioned any of the paths that I took. He really was the driving force behind Pig & Khao being successful, because I didn’t want to disappoint him. I didn’t want to waste his money. But he also was very proud of me, and he would come almost every Saturday, unless he was traveling or away. Before he got sick, we spoke every single day.
He got sick right in the beginning. We shut down Pig & Khao on March 15, and then the state was shut down anyway. I want to say two days later he called me and said he didn’t feel well, and when he got tested on March 21 it came back positive. He quarantined at home, in a separate room from my mom, and didn’t really have a fever, but he had a cough. He just felt kind of weak.
Before he was hospitalized, I thought he was getting better. He said he was getting better. I was dropping off food to him, just outside the door, and he gave me a list of requests. So I got ingredients and made them for him. That was on March 25, when I was coming back from going to the grocery store to buy more food to make for him. Then I got a call from him saying he was going to go to the E.R. because he felt extremely weak and was having a hard time even putting his pants on and getting to the door.
On March 26, he seemed like he was doing okay. He was joking around, like “the food sucks in the hospital — when I get out, I need you to make me all this food.” Then the next day, he crashed, and they put him on a ventilator. He was on the ventilator and sedated for about two and a half to three weeks. The whole time, I never got to speak to him, and the last time I did was when he was joking around about the food.
For the first week, I would call the nurse every morning and night to get an update. I basically made my own chart at night for his blood pressure, his fever, the settings on his ventilator so I could monitor for myself to see if he was improving or not. When I spoke to the nurses, I could hear in their voice how scared they were, and how overwhelmed they were. They were more than accommodating. But by the end of the time he was there, only one family member was allowed to call the hospital during the day, because they were just so overwhelmed.
Towards the end, it was weird. His birthday was April 7 — he celebrated his last birthday in the hospital — and two days before that, the doctor said he was actively dying. Then, he completely changed, and the doctor said he was cautiously optimistic. I thought, Oh this is like a birthday miracle. And then a week later, he died. Eventually his kidneys started failing, from whatever the virus had done.
When he told me he tested positive, I never thought it would end like this. The only underlying issue he had was he had a stent put in his heart when he was around 50. He had done everything the doctor said. We also didn’t really know anything at the time about COVID, and I thought he was lucky in the sense that he got there early enough that they still had a ventilator for him. They put him on the hydroxychloroquine. I’m not saying they would be able to save his life if he got sick later, but you have a little bit more information.
Obviously, losing a parent is a hard situation for anyone, but to not be able to visit or speak to him? He was all alone. 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.
We were lucky enough to be able to have a Zoom funeral and then were able to go to the cemetery. It was ten of us, and we all had to wear masks and socially distance ourselves, too. I couldn’t even hug my mom. I was sick while he was sick. We had dinner with him on March 14, right before he started feeling sick, and I was still testing positive until May 1. I don’t know why.
My dad was the kindest person, most giving person I’ve ever met. I know everyone says, “My dad is one of a kind,” but he really, truly was a unique and genuine person. He had a million friends, and as an adult I feel like you get less and less friends. But he got more and more. He valued his friendships and kept in touch with everyone. I mean, he was a dentist and he had patients for 30-plus years. I’ve been getting all these Instagram messages from patients with sharing their condolences, saying how he helped them when their parents were sick or he visited them when it was their child’s first birthday. I said to my husband, “Who cares that much about their dentist?”
There would be no Pig & Khao without my father. Not only from a financial standpoint but Pig & Khao wouldn’t be Pig & Khao without him. He would bring back ingredients from the Philippines when he went on trips. He’d bring an extra suitcase to bring back vinegars you can’t get here and huge, 20-pound bags of the pinipig we use for our halo halo. He figured out how to get our shrimp paste from a friend in Thailand shipped to us.
One of the reasons I want to reopen Pig & Khao because it’s been seven and a half years of my life that I’ve put into the place. But also I know that my dad would want me to. If he were here, it wouldn’t even be a question. As much as I sometimes thought him being an investor was a burden on him, I think he loved coming to the restaurant and bringing his friends and family and being able to just get people together. It was his way of showing off. It was something that he was really proud of, that I did, that he was a part of. For me, there is no question about reopening the restaurant in honor of him.
He would always say, “Leah, you’re doing it, just keep pushing, just keep pushing. I know this is going to be successful.” He had a very calming, gentle way of making me feel like everything was going to be okay. That’s something that is very hard right now, with the reopening of restaurants and the industry just being up in the air. Not having his voice to comfort me and let me know everything is going to be okay has been very difficult.
He was the most optimistic person I ever met. He always thought everything was going to be fine, and for me that’s important to have, because I’m not like that. I always see the worst in everything. He didn’t let shit get to him. If he was stressed, he would always just remain calm, where I get super-stressed and worried. During this whole time, he would say, “We’ll figure it out.” He didn’t have the answers, but he would just say, “We’ll figure it out.” So I guess we’ll just figure it out.
- Good-bye to the Lox Sherpa of New York City
- Cecilia Chiang, the Restaurateur Who Changed Chinese Food in America, Has Died
- She Was a Godmother for New York’s Vietnamese Restaurant Community