liya LeeKong is Culinary Creative Director / Chef at Junoon in New York City. Life has always been a layering of cultures for Aliya LeeKong.
Born in the United States, the daughter of Indo-Pakistani and Tanzanian immigrants, she remembers baking brownies for a bake sale while spending Sundays cooking an East African curry with her mother; both equally serve as culinary inspiration for her.
Aliya grew up outside Orlando, FL, a typical Florida girl who loved outdoor sports and cooking for friends. She attended Brown University and Columbia Business School, and spent a number of years in the corporate world in New York City. During this time, whether spending days cooking for friends and family, eating out at amazing New York City restaurants or travelling to over 35 countries in the past 10 years cooking and sampling different cuisines, food and culture were the common threads.
“Cooking combines the physical, mental and creative sides of my personality. It’s my haven and my joy,” she explains. To start her culinary career, Aliya trained at the French Culinary Institute to ground herself in technique and then embarked on a self-crafted program of cross-cultural education and restaurant training. She spent the last few years in a number of kitchens in and around New York City to create a cultural diversity of experience - namely, Per Se, Jean Georges, Devi, Elettaria, and an Ethiopian restaurant in Brooklyn named Bati. “Travel is truly how I learn the authentic traditions. I consider it a ‘culinary grad school’ and a necessary part of how I develop myself as a chef,” notes LeeKong. Aliya grounds herself in the traditions of various ethnic foods through travel and continues to learn from experiences in restaurants or, her favorite, homes across the globe – Turkey, Goa, Peru and South Africa have all been recent destinations. Of special note are the invaluable lessons in West Indian cuisine taught to her by her husband’s Aunt Cherry in Port of Spain, Trinidad. You are as likely to find her cooking at a renowned New York eatery as at a family’s home in Cape Town or a small Ethiopian restaurant in Brooklyn with resident chef “Mama”.
Currently, LeeKong serves as a chef and Culinary Creative Director at Junoon, where she develops menu items that highlight South Asian spices in more familiar forms and creates greater seasonality and artisanal focus to the restaurant’s dishes. In addition to her work at the restaurant, LeeKong is coming full circle and taking the broader mosaic of her experiences to show cooks how to incorporate the so-called exotic flavors of her childhood and travels into everyday cooking. She’s passionate about bringing these spices, ingredients and traditions into modern American cuisine and creating what she terms “an exotic table.”