When chef Josh Cohen appeared on the reality television show “Chopped” earlier this year, the basket of mystery ingredients he and the other contestants were given to utilize in their dishes included a few things that even avid foodies may not have heard of. In addition to diver scallops, they were given galangal to work with — a Southeastern tuber similar to ginger — along with croissant tacos and marsh snail vinegar, a South Korean product that is literally vinegar and sugar cooked with snails, says Cohen, “so it has this saline savory-ness to it.”
But when the New Paltz native first discovered his love for making culinary creations, it was with a far simpler proposition: grilled cheese. And it all started when he was just 13, having friends over and making sandwiches for them. “What I noticed then was just the joy that comes into someone’s eyes when you make them something specifically for them,” Cohen says. “I just loved that transfer of feelings. Then I kind of realized that the more effort and care that I put into the plates that I was making for people, the more it would add to the experience, and I started slowly moving into more and more elaborate things, just to see how happy I could make people.”
By the time he was 15, Cohen had bumped it up another notch. “I started to think about food a little more creatively, realizing how it can be an art form. And in order to express myself I didn’t need to just create dishes I’d seen; I could kind of tap into my memory and create whatever kind of flavors I wanted.”
His first restaurant job was at Gardiner’s Mountain Brauhaus, working nearly full-time as a dishwasher while still in high school. Cohen was also introduced at that time to a Culinary Institute of America professor, Michael Pardus, who became a mentor. Cohen prepped food for Pardus’s “Lucky Mee Noodles” pop-up events locally, which offered customized ramen bowls, and after graduating high school early, earned a spot under chef Michael Hamilton at The Commune Saloon, then opening in Woodstock.
“I was still very young and very green, and Michael Pardus thought it’d be a good fit for me to come in as a prep cook,” Cohen says. “I went straight there after graduating, pulling 60-hour work weeks. Within eight months I went from prep cook to running the kitchen, doing all the ordering, and managing a small team. I was 18.”
When Pardus left the restaurant and things there changed, Cohen left, too. He took some time off to travel, and visits to Portugal and Israel, where he “really delved into the cuisine in each place,” left lasting impressions on him.
Traveling from one place to the other was very interesting, he says, because of the contrast in the way each country approaches their cuisine; a complex balancing of spices in Israeli cooking and very simple, elemental dishes in Portugal. “Middle Eastern cuisine is so vibrant and so alive; nothing that you eat is flat. Whereas, in Portugal, the cuisine is very, very simple because of the quality of the produce and the seafood. You can have some beautiful seafood and garlic in wine on a plate and that’s your dish.”
By the time Cohen returned home to New York, he’d begun to personalize his cuisine, he says, really thinking about what kind of food he liked to cook. “And what I kept coming back to was the Hudson Valley, and what Hudson Valley cuisine really is and means.”
Cohen cites the fresh, farm-to-table movement and also the Huguenots as influences. The latter translates to “a lot of potatoes, a lot of pickles, cabbages, brassicas, mustards… there’s a parallel to the Portuguese in that it’s very simplistic with elemental flavors that I can take technique to elevate and express in different ways.”
The foraging areas in the Hudson Valley appeal to him – “I’m a big fan of foraging for my own food,” he says – and Cohen has been exploring his Jewish heritage, as well.
“You don’t see a lot of Jewish chefs, or Jewish chefs cooking Jewish food,” he notes. “So that felt like something I wanted to tap into and learn about. It’s interesting, because Jews live all over the world, so you’re looking through many lenses; to pick apart the individual things that bridge all of them together is a lot. I come from an Ashkenazi Jewish family, so that’s Eastern European cuisine; the beets, the cabbages, the sauerkraut, the deli cuisine. That’s what I grew up eating.”
Cohen did not grow up kosher and doesn’t keep kosher now, a fact noted in the context of a seven-course tasting menu he did for a pop-up dinner at Mexican Kitchen in New Paltz in 2016. One of the dishes was a play on stuffed cabbage. “I braised cabbage in smoked pork stock, and then dressed it in horseradish butter. Underneath were whipped parsnips made with smoked Gouda, a piece of grilled pork belly and then the cabbage enrobed the whole thing. On the side was an apple mustard. There was some modern technique in there, but utilizing the flavors of Eastern European cooking.”
Cohen moved to New York City that year, co-opening The Flower Shop where he remained for two years as sous chef. The restaurant earned a coveted Michelin Bib Gourmand Award. He was also opening sous chef at the intimate Gem restaurant on the Lower East Side, working underneath chef Flynn McGarry. “He was 19 when we opened and I was 21,” says Cohen. “We were the youngest people in the restaurant.” Gem earned two stars from New York Times.
During this time, a producer of “Chopped” reached out to see if Cohen wanted to be on the show. The episode was filmed in May and aired this past July. “I was working at The Flower Shop and in the process of opening Gem, so I was working insane hours; consistently 90-hour weeks. All the other contestants were flown out from where they lived and were put up in hotels, so they got a night of rest, but I rolled out of bed on two hours of sleep, exhausted, and got a cab from Brooklyn to Harlem.”
Cohen utilized the mystery ingredients to make a scallop ceviche with a citrus and snail vinaigrette for the first course. He was eliminated after the round, but says it was an interesting experience to participate in. “I took it very seriously; I was there to cook really great food and do what I do. It’s really more of a personality show, but cooking for the judges who were there was such an honor and hearing what they had to say about my food was awesome.” The judges for Cohen’s episode were Geoffrey Zacharian, Alex Guarnaschelli and Marcus Samuelsson.
“The time constraint, while a little stressful, felt really good. You’re not really looking at the camera, you’re just focusing on how you can do everything the best you can do it. And obviously they’re trying to provoke you, to incite stress, so it was just about staying focused. It was fun.”
Cohen is currently head chef at Rosie’s, a farm-to-table restaurant in Amagansett in the Hamptons. “One of our partners owns a farm a few blocks down the road, so that influences the menu we serve from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. It’s all ‘farm-forward’ and changing regularly.”
He comes home to New Paltz frequently to see his family and do a bit of restaurant consulting along with private chef dinners, like the recent five-course farm-to-table dinner he created in August at Taliaferro Farms in New Paltz, close to where he grew up. “It was really cool to come back and do that,” he says. “Robin Taliaferro was my kindergarten teacher.”
The Cohen family business is the Groovy Blueberry clothing company. Asked what it was like to grow up in New Paltz, Cohen says, “I feel like I wasn’t able to appreciate New Paltz until I moved away. I was so lucky to have so many beautiful places to go to all the time. You know, we have all these farms, and it’s just the normal thing for people who live here to go down the road for a pie, or some fruit. And I totally took that for granted. You can walk through the village and hear music, people are walking around and they’re just very, very comfortable with themselves, and dressed however they want, and kind of act however they want. It’s a very accepting and tolerant place.”
Rosie’s is a seasonal restaurant, so Cohen is currently looking at different opportunities for October. “Quite a few people want me to open up a restaurant in New York City. I have one project in the Hudson Valley, and I’ve been talking to people about opening up my own place. That’s very much within my plans, and I would definitely consider the Hudson Valley to do that.”
Cohen is available to book for private chef services through the fall at www.Cohencooks.com.