The New Top Chef in Town

Nyesha Arrington | photo courtesy of Kelly Carroll

If you have not heard the name Nyesha Arrington, chances are you will soon. Following stints at Jiraffe, Melisse and Caché (before it shuttered), the Panorama City native recently took the helm of the kitchen at Wilshire Restaurant. And starting this month, she stars as one of the contestants on Bravo’s Top Chef: Texas. While Arrington wasn't allowed to say much about her turn on the show, we were able to talk about her plans for Wilshire and the imminent end to her relative anonymity.

When did you decide you were going to be a chef?
My parents wanted me to go a very professional route, being a doctor maybe. I’m sort of an artsy type. Literally it hit me like a ton of bricks one day: I’m going to culinary school. My parents weren’t extremely excited about the idea. But they’re pretty happy now.

Had you cooked in the past?
Absolutely. It seemed like an easy career. I set out and haven’t looked back. I’ve been cooking since I remember. My oldest food memories go back to hanging out with my grandma. She makes homemade kimchi and really simply cooked octopus with chili paste. She’s Korean. We’d eat spicy food with our hands: making lettuce wraps. It was family style and a really interactive experience. Sundays she’d make us peel cloves and cloves of garlic. At the time I didn’t realize it was honing my skills.

I imagine this could have easily had the opposite effect of turning you off from cooking.
It did to my sister. We’d make wontons, cover the table with newspapers, and make all these different fillings. We’d make hundreds of wontons.

You said this seemed like an easy career. I have never heard anyone say being a chef is easy.
And easy career choice, something I really love doing. There are so many aspects to being a chef. It’s not just about cooking, but team developing, expression of self, leadership, learning the whole office side, the numbers side. It encompasses so much.

Are there aspects you don’t like?
I don’t like paperwork. I just want to be a cook.

That seems to be the case with most chefs. They went into the field to cook and then they have to be business people too.
Chefs are very driven, interesting people. We’re a different breed of people. We want to always strive for excellence. You have to tackle the business side. You learn something every day. Learning your demographic and running a business are all part of the job.

Going back to your grandma, is the Korean influence evident in your cooking today?
When I make anything for a restaurant setting, it’s not authentic. It’s definitely California seasonal. But when I cook for myself, I stay pretty traditional. I do integrate elements. I’m definitely a globally inspired chef.

At what point did you hook up with Josiah Citrin? I know he has been an important mentor to you.
I met Rafael [Lunetta] at Jiraffe then from there opened Lemon Moon [which Lunetta and Citrin operate together]. That’s where I met Josiah. We developed a strong working relationship. He’s a strong minded and extremely passionate chef and that’s what I am. We stuck together. It’s been very organic.

I can imagine putting two strong minded people together could be fiery, and not in a good way.
Strong minded as when people might crumble under pressure in certain circumstances, I will stay strong. I like to challenge myself. Strong minded meaning a strong individual. Just really focused.

Do you two surf together?
We snowboard together more than we surf. We’ve been to Mammoth a couple times. I surf, but I snowboard more than I surf.

Did you think going into this that being a woman was going to be a hurdle?
As far as what goes on in the kitchen, I have not personally had strife coming up. I’m usually the first person in and the last person to leave. I think my passion shows. In my work, I’m not, “Can you get this?” or, “Pick up this heavy stock pot.” I don’t play the lady. I suppose on a broad, large scale perspective from an outsider’s point of view, it might be difficult.

There aren’t a lot of female African American chefs, at least not in LA. Do you feel pressure to represent?
Yeah, I guess. I’m just realizing that. The more success I have, the more it’s been brought to my attention. When I started out in this career, it was just me Nyesha cooking, not me with an agenda. I just cook with my heart.

Any theories on why there are so few African American female chefs?
I don’t think a lot of people are cut out for this business. You have to be of a certain mindset. Every day you have to go all in or nothing. Every single day has to be 100%. It’s how I’ve gotten to where I am today. Every day I go to work there’s no BS. You’re not going to get half of me. I try to inspire someone, inspire myself, make something better every day. I don’t think a lot of people are ready for that dedication.

That sounds like a recipe for burnout.
What’s interesting is that yes, there’s a small bit of that. But we’re very stubborn people. There’s almost a little competition between chefs, like, “Oh you worked 14 hours? That’s nothing.” You know what you sign up for. You get yelled at. I’ve seen a grown man slapped. People get into fights. The other day, one of my cooks, in the middle of service, he ran out of eggs for the pork belly dish: sous vide eggs. This causes a domino effect. We work so hard all day long. It makes your heart sing when you have perfect service, perfect ticket times. That makes it worthwhile. I had to make him understand. "Do you understand what you have caused this line?" He’s just  a young kid out of culinary school and he wants to be a chef. Chefs are losing that drive and ambition. You can’t go into being a chef and have a chip on your shoulder. You have to stay the course. So I pretty much ripped him apart verbally. After that I make sure I rectify the situation. I asked, “Do you understand why this is like this? Do you see the detriment you have caused this line? I hope you lose sleep over this.” You have to have them understand the entire guest experience.

What are your plans at Wilshire?
My grand vision is to provide globally-inspired, California, farmers market driven food. Very casual, elegant, with phenomenal service, more a la carte with very interesting sides and appetizers made for sharing. I’m malleable. I can do the whole gamut from coffee house to esteemed three-star Michelin food. For this demographic and changing with the seasons, I want to make sure everyone’s happy. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. We use seasonal, interesting product. I know all my farmers. I know my ranchers. I get a lot of stuff from Texas and the mid States.

I hear you introduced an amazing black cod with mustard sauce as well as a killer pork chop.
Cod yes. It’s pork schnitzel. It’s kind of fun. It’s a kurobuta pork chop we pound out and coat with pretzel. It is served with pink lady apple sauce. The pork belly is pretty much our little prize ticket dish.

Have you gotten any resistance from restaurant regulars?
It’s so funny because I was apprehensive in coming here. I don’t want to piss anyone off. Then I started changing things. We’ve had such a great response. It’s putting so much wind in our sail. Maybe two out of ten ask, “Where’s the snapper?” or something like that.

Did you inherit a full staff?
I inherited and have sifted through and have hired where need be. I’ve brought on people I’ve worked with before who call me incessantly, people who know my style and my standards.

Is the "egg guy" still with you?
Yes. He’s awesome. He’s been out of school for one year, did his externship there and was hired. What I explained to him at the end of the night was, you get chewed out and you learn from it. And you have a beer after service. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t say anything to him. He should want to strive to be better for himself. He’s doing really good. I see something in him. He has a good aura and spirit and is head down and focused most of the time.

Where do you stand on culinary school? I know you're a graduate.
I had a good experience. I had great instructors, but some of those same instructors were complained about by students because they were too harsh. Being on this side, I have not seen a lot of difference between culinary schools of different calibers in comparison to a kid who started as a dishwasher. I think a lot of kids going into culinary school think they are going to learn real world experiences and become chefs, but that takes so long. If I could tell myself ten years ago what I know now, I would not have gone to culinary school. I would not be in debt and I learned most of my techniques in restaurants. My real world experience outweighs [what I learned in culinary school]. Culinary school costs a lot and you don’t make a lot of money in this business.

You mentioned in the Top Chef video about restaurant owners and managers trying to control chefs. It sounds like you have first hand experience with this.
What I said was that it’s a ship that’s going to sink. Me and the owner of Wilshire work extremely well together, I think it’s good when chefs are their own restaurant owners. It gives you even more sense of pride. That’s where I was going with that.

Is that your ultimate plan?
Ultimately I want to have many different restaurants: a small, fine dining restaurant with maybe forty seats with no name on the building away from attention for people who know food. I would like to have a farm with a cool winery and cook wine dinners and have livestock, an inn type place; maybe a fast food concept done nicer.

You mentioned a fine dining restaurant. What about the idea that fine dining is dead or dying?
There’s many different uses of the term ‘fine dining.’ When I say that, I mean the best possible service you could ask for, the best product, just for people who really, really appreciate food and want that.

Let’s talk Top Chef. Presumably you had watched the show in the past?
Not really. I had seen episodes way, way back when it first aired. But since I work so much just here and there, half of an episode.

How do feel about the limelight?
Any chance I get to share my passion for food with an audience, it’s a treat for me. I just really wanted to cook and hopefully come out on top.

Are you competitive?
Um yeah. I am kinda.

Are you anticipating an end to your anonymity? The Nyesha groupies?
People can see me for my true self. Whether that brings groupies or not, I don’t know. I left [Wilshire to do the show] and since I came back I’ve been working my ass off. Pretty much most of my focus is going into Wilshire.

Was it fun?
Yeah of course. My thing is to look in a pantry and have five ingredients and make something. I really enjoy that.

Tell me some favorite restaurants.
Providence, Waterloo & City. I want to go to MB Post.

Any neighborhood spots you like?
Mao’s Kitchen. I have no food in my house. Mao’s Kitchen is awesome. I order tons of food and eat that for a week.