Aliya LeeKong is the literal chef curry with the pot, boy. Taking influences from her Indo-Pakistani and East African background, her personal travels to over 30 countries and the culinary techniques she's picked up at restaurants like Per Se, Jean-Georges and Junoon, the chef, recipe developer, cookbook author, and true student of the culinary arts is constantly cooking things up, both inside and outside the kitchen. So much so, that you'll soon be able to catch her--again--on TV (more on that later).
A former financier, LeeKong knew in the back of her mind that finance wasn't what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. "A lot of times in industries, you can look at the people ahead of you and if you want to follow in their footsteps, that's a good indication of where you want to be," she explains. "When I looked ahead, I didn't want those things. I didn't necessarily want that life or lifestyle affiliated with the financial world."
While working 80-hour-plus weeks and finishing her MBA, Aliya maintained a thread of cooking and traveling, two things that she did obsessively. After long work hours, she would escape to the aisles of Whole Food to gather ingredients, often cooking until two or three in the morning. Needless to say, being in the kitchen was Aliya's fulfillment and release from her everyday reality.
Aliya thinks back to the time when she took her first formal cooking class. It was in a moment while gutting a squid that the light bulb went off: she would quit her job and become a chef. Enrolling in culinary school, she vowed to constantly learn from multi-cultural cuisines, like the ones she grew up with and from the various cultures in which she immersed herself vis-à-vis her travels, to fully understand the way people cook locally.
Aliya comments on the culinary landscape and its progression in terms of cultural thinking with food: "You see little ingredients popping up on menus like labneh and za'atar, and cuisines from the Philippines and Hawaii becoming more mainstream."
As a spoke person for culture in food, and a big believer in no-snobbery cuisine, Aliya previews her next project where she'll be working on a culinary show concept-- inclusive of travels to a few untapped regions of the world--for an unnamed networked in collaboration with a great digital partner. Vague, I know, but #JustWaitOnIt, because it's good.
In true Gastronoir fashion, we ended our convo with two of my favorite questions:
- What are a few staple ingredients you always have in your kitchen? AND
- What are a few of your favorite NYC restaurants?
Ingredients: roasted garlic, because of the depth it adds to the simplest of foods; pickled chilies to add piquancy and spice to up everyday cooking and palm sugar as a less-refined ingredient to use in baking and cooking.
Restaurants: "Walters for a bangin' burger and as-close-to-fast-food-fries you can get, but legit."
"Bergen Hill, relocating to Astor Place/Cooper Square this summer, has the best hamachi I've ever had. Rich, small perfect bites and great wines."
"In the city, Nakazawa for sushi. That's probably my favorite."