Meet the Chef
- Los Angeles
- "The knowledge never stops."
- California-cuisine, seasonal produce, global flavors, and food stories.
It’s been a decade since chef Nyesha Arrington launched herself onto the national culinary scene as a contestant on Top Chef. (And later the Food Network show Chef Hunter, which she won.) But she hasn’t let the TV experience define her.
Since being on television, the artsy, self-described “right-brained” chef has made a name for herself in her native Los Angeles, garnering glowing reviews for the eclectic, seasonal-driven food she created at Leona in Venice and Native in Santa Monica, her two restaurants that have since closed. Outside the restaurant kitchen, she’s embraced what she calls a “food as fuel” lifestyle, which calls for being more mindful of her body’s own unique needs and the foods it requires to run best.
Right now, she’s busy knitting together the life she wants for herself. She’s running her own full-service, experiential-based food business and consulting firm, co-hosting a podcast, and is venturing back into TV as one of the stars of Gordon Ramsay’s upcoming new chef competition show, Next Level Chef.
Nyesha Arrington's Recipes
Lesley Téllez talks to Chef Nyesha about her multicultural influences, balancing classical training with impromptu inspiration, and her next TV show.
The late Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold described you as a chef whose food “tastes like L.A.” What do you think that means?
It’s one of the more beautiful milestones in my life. I really respect Jonathan Gold as a writer and as a human greatly, and I remember I was having dinner with him, which was a dream, two weeks prior to his death. My grandmother is an immigrant who met her husband in the Korean war, and they cultivated a family here in Los Angeles. I’m a product of that. I represent the terroir and the soil of that, which is what we are as a melting pot. Really I think he said it because my food is eclectic. As opposed to, ‘I cook California coastal cuisine,’ like in this box. It’s more about the essence of storytelling, culture, product. It’s a lot deeper than that.
You’ve said that embracing a food-as-fuel lifestyle was the best thing you ever did. What led you to that point, and how do you define that sort of food-as-fuel philosophy?
I came up in French fine dining cuisine, so a lot of times I was tasting food all day that was extremely rich and dairy-ridden. Over time that really started to affect my diet. When I say eating food as fuel, it’s food that has life-source in it, either a mineral or vitamin or some sort of transfer of positive ions from the earth into your body. Those are the elements that make us tick, right? We are living, breathing creatures. So eating the food that fuels our bodies, ultimately you’re going to have greater output.
Are there one or two dishes that stick out in your head that represent where you think your cooking is going and how it’s evolving?
I think I’m living in tandem, because one foot is in old-school, French fine dining, which is what my background is. Another foot is in progressive thinking and sustainability, and where are we going in the future as humanity. So I think there’s eating for pleasure and there’s eating for fuel. The point is to balance. I approach my cooking in a similar way in that it depends on the crowd. I don’t know that there’s one or two standout dishes, but I’d say, when I made this swiss chard wrap that had oven-roasted tomatoes and refried lentils and roasted beets and a bunch of delicious squash—when I tasted it, I thought, wow, this is a great dish. It’s delicious. It’s not even like ‘It’s plant-based’ or ‘It’s vegan.’ It’s just a dish, you know? If I had to choose one, I’d choose my swiss chard wraps.
Being a native Angeleno you know that our food culture is all about cultural fusion. A good representation of this is the Korean fried chicken taco, which draws on influences from both the Asian and Black communities in L.A. What is the significance of this dish to you?
The Korean fried chicken taco is definitely the hybridization of cultures, which is something I can relate to, being of mixed race background, born and raised in Los Angeles. I feel like those Korean flavors are something that formed my palate as a kid. I have this love affair with tacos in L.A., and I love plant-based food. When I was thinking about how to use plant-based meats, I thought this could be great, because the texture could be super killer. And I’m just a sauce girl in general — I’m always like, how can I put more sauce on it? So you have the avocado crema, you have the gochujang tossed with the crispy, crunchy batter on the outside, and it’s such a vibe. The fabric of L.A. is about immigrant food. The melting pot of L.A., that’s really the inspiration for this taco.
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How has your Black culture and heritage influenced your cooking? Are there particular family members, or places or things that have influenced you?
It’s funny, because while my Korean grandmother had a heavy hand in raising me, from [age] 0 to 7, the rest of my life, from 7 to 17—my adolescent stage—all my aunties were the ones who cooked for me. My dad’s side is from Mississippi. And they’d make the best filé gumbos, and cornbread, and amazing, delicious collard greens, mac and cheese, all the things. So those really shaped me as a young teen. For me today, it really has inspired my cooking, because I can taste those memories. And for me, having both backgrounds, I’ve come up with super cool dishes like collard green wontons.
I think about people like my Great-Grandma Lena, who has shaped my entire family. Everyone talks about her and these delicious recipes. She’d make these yeast raised doughnuts, and she was known for her lemon meringue pie. She was truly the matriarch of the whole Arrington tribe. When I try to reflect who I am, and my journey, and cook for people, my goal is to share that, so I can try to create taste memories for other people, like I had. That’s really where I draw my inspiration from—my culture.
You’re so incredibly busy, it seems, including a new show on Fox—congratulations! What are you most excited about doing now?
Thank you, that’s really exciting, and I think we’ll have a lot of fun with the show. But I think I’m really most excited about me being able to lean into who I am and what I offer the world as a chef, because I’ve definitely crafted a non-conventional way to share what’s in my heart and what’s in my life experience. There are not a lot of classically French-trained chefs who are people of color, or even who are women. So to blaze that trail by itself is rewarding.
I definitely have no plans to slow down. It’s a great, great time to be alive, and I’m going to continue to lean in and build the narrative that works for me. It’s not always about seeing what the recipe was, and having those four walls of the restaurant, and people give you a write-up, and that’s what the food business is. No — it can be so much more now. Ultimately I’m super proud of being an entrepreneur. And breaking the boundaries, and learning all the parameters, knowing how to do everything, but then coloring outside the lines. I think that’s really what my superpower is.