The accomplished chef, restaurateur, and 'Top Chef' favorite has all burners firing.
By Nyesha Arrington as told to Dakota Kim
Zagat Stories makes coverage of Black subjects a priority year round, along with people and subjects underrepresented in media generally. In recognition of Black History Month 2021, all Zagat Stories in February will focus exclusively on interviews with Black chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders, brewers, bakers, and others in and around hospitality.
Nyesha Arrington was born and raised in Los Angeles and learned to cook from both her Black aunties and her Korean grandmother. Arrington graduated from the Art Institute of California in Los Angeles, after which she worked with the legendary French chef Joël Robuchon. She co-owned restaurants Native in Santa Monica and Leona in Venice, both of which food critic Jonathan Gold placed on his “Best 101 of Los Angeles” list. She also had a popular run on Top Chef. Arrington currently owns and operates a full-service media, consulting, and catering business.
My experience with this past year was about rejuvenation, self-reflection, and grounding. I’ve been painting a lot—I grew up as a painter and an artist. I’ve been working out, and I’m grateful to belong to a gym that’s outdoors. I turned my apartment upside down and redecorated. I rescued a seven-week-old kitten and named him Mr. Robert Marley. He has a big sister, a French bulldog named Bleu Ginger.
This is how I approach my full plate—everything has a place and a time. There’s plenty of time to do all those things. No one thing takes a back seat. It’s an intentional approach to 24 hours in a day. What things can be working on autopilot, and what things require some attention? You can put on the stockpot, rice, protein, sauce. Then you make a bomb ass fish. It’s the same way I think from a business perspective.
I have a product line of bottled sauces called Aisoon sauce coming out in two months, named for my Korean grandmother. Shake Shack is launching the Aisoon burger on February 17, and it features my sauce line. It has oxtail marmalade sitting like a ragu on top of the burger, American cheddar cheese, and a Korean saucy vibe. It’s just super delicious.
I have a restaurant-driven podcast coming out soon that’s focused on innovations in the food space. I just hosted a cooking class with BET. I recently shot something with David Chang and Anderson Paak that’s coming out in a couple months. I host a quarantine-style cooking show called Plateworthy, and I also do Improv Kitchen.
After the Black Lives Matter movements last year, I really looked at how I’m spending my time and what I’m doing. Okay, I’m here—what can I actually do with my life to improve the lives of Black people? It’s a time to be innovative, a time to stand up as a leader, and it’s a time to begin to heal. A friend and I started a mentorship 501(c)(3) nonprofit called The Collective Identity. That takes up the majority of my time, building this grassroots nonprofit with four of us on the board. The nonprofit is geared toward mentoring young Black women ages 13 to 25.
We’ll have an event series called Snack & Chat. On February 22, we’re having an Earth Day conversation with me and Nicole Davis from Greenpeace. In LA, we talk about environmental racism—access to clean water, the issue of food deserts. This exists on micro levels and on larger levels. I’m trying to give back in a place where I can truly effect systemic change.
We’re building out a culinary program in The Collective Identity’s mentorship program. I read the article in the New York Times about Black female chefs, and I’ll be honest. They’ll have you in culinary school thinking fine dining is the only thing you should learn, and every other regional cuisine is a chapter. Considering my entrepreneurial spirit and the emphasis on French fine dining, I thought, “I’m going to sacrifice my career because I want to be the best,” so that’s what I did. Then I was like, “Damn, when am I going to start to get noticed? When am I going to make more money?”
In 2019, I competed in the Bocuse d’Or. Top Chef people were vetting me very hard to go back on that show, but for me, I was like, “Which is harder?” It was definitely harder to do the Bocuse d’Or, because I knew it would challenge me in ways that I’ve never been challenged before.
I did it for myself, for women, for people of color. I did it to show representation—to show people that they too can go into these rooms where you don’t feel like you belong. No one makes it easy for you. When I plated my dishes on time and looked those judges in the eye, knowing my sauce work was damn beautiful, I knew I was good in my French culinary journey. It had been such a long road to get there. Not with resentment, not with bitterness, but I knew I needed to do more for what matters.
It’s not that I only want to mentor Black women, but I have to look toward who’s getting the opportunity to be in these rooms, to further their lives from a generational standpoint, and get out from under this glass ceiling. I’ve promoted aprons and face masks from Blue Cut’s Planting Change line, which supports Black folks farming and benefits BCAGlobal and Soul Fire Farm.
I participated in the RE:Her festival, and it was an honor. Lien Ta has a dynamic personality, and as a woman and a business owner, we resonate. I’m really grateful that Lien brought this movement about, allowing women entrepreneurs in the restaurant industry a little joy, a space to be creative, sharing dialogue.
Roni Cleveland and her husband John run an incredible restaurant called Post and Beam. Roni literally cold-called me and reached out. “There’s not a lot of representation of women who look like us,” Roni said to me. I made a dish for RE:Her in collaboration with Post and Beam—a Hoppin John fritter with rice and black-eyed peas, but I’m reimagining it in a way that’s healthy for the gut, with wild rice instead. I incorporate vegetables with a collard green aioli, using blanched and puréed collard greens that are vibrant and full of life. That dish is super yummy. I also spoke on soil health for the festival with three other amazing women.
Leaning more into a food-as-fuel lifestyle, rather than food as pleasure, was the best decision of my life. I wasn’t heading down the right path with my health. I was eating shitty food and drinking a lot because I was so stressed out. I thought, “This is what chefs do, right?” In 2019, I started to take my health really seriously. I started to have these conversations with myself, asking “Are you heading down the right path, Nyesha?” The answer was—no.
When I talk about sustainability, it’s a few different buckets—longevity from the point of view of life expectancy is one. We need to have access to information about food as fuel. I don’t think factory farms have my best interest as a Black woman at heart. The pharmaceutical industry and all these big companies are in bed with each other. We need to restore wellness within these smaller communities, working with farmers, including urban farmers.
Once I started to eat intentionally, my cognitive thinking went up exponentially. I subscribe to that not because I don’t like to eat cheeseburgers every single day, but because I like to be a high-functioning person, and we get one shot at life. Looking back, it was very small changes—like what oils I was putting in my body, animal proteins versus plant proteins. It was very conscious eating, not this expensive Goop wellness bullshit. The body is always asking itself, “Is this gonna become a cancerous cell or healthy cell?”
This whole movement resonating and originating in the Caribbean with Ital cooking—it’s so healthful and so beautiful. It’s starting to come in and form an American culture with veganism. Bryant Terry is a good friend, and I’m contributing to his book that’s coming out. I really respect him as a chef in general. I do eat meat. I have about a 70/30 diet, plants to animal protein.
I’m always thinking “Who am I?” to truly understand that this Black woman came up and was raised by a Korean grandmother—how does that identity come across? The media latched onto this Korean thing, but that doesn’t make up the whole Nyesha Arrington. Does her Korean grandmother validate her? I don’t want to be this token person. I want to be recognized for my hard work, love, leadership, culinary expertise. There’s this whole side of my family I haven’t been able to narrate out loud.
The people who had a big influence in my teenage life and my pre-teens were my aunts. My Aunt Linda made the best mac and cheese dish. She was my dad’s sister, and she always made Thanksgiving. She was known for her collard greens. Aunt Dee Dee had the bomb potato salad. My dad is known for his filé gumbo with a particular sassafras.
My great-grandma Lena—come to find out this woman worked in Beverly Hills for the famous Doheny oil tycoon family. She was their house chef and essentially raised those two Doheny kids on her cooking. Then she would come home and cook for my dad and his cousins. My dad still tells stories of her yeast-raised donuts, and I’ve adapted her lemon meringue pie recipe into a Meyer lemon pie with a gingersnap crust. Everyone talks about her smile, and they say I remind them of her, which brings joy to my heart. That she was an angel person who cooked for everyone—it makes sense to me and gives my life a lot of meaning and purpose.
As for my Korean grandmother—well, you know Korean grandmothers notoriously have this stigma of being very strict, and she was. My Korean grandmother was an inspiration, which I’m proud of, but I identify as a Black woman. I don’t want people to pigeonhole her. I love her and am grateful, but there’s a lot that I’ve done. There are other matriarchal figures in my family. I think I am who I am as a chef because of them.
I absolutely will open another restaurant. I have an insatiable thirst as a business person. From opening and closing two restaurants, I have a lot of life data in that space, and now I really know what sort of business model I want, and what I want to offer Los Angeles as an ode—and what will thrive in smaller communities. I don’t want to make food that only the top 3 percent can enjoy. That doesn’t bring my heart joy. I want to create a place that services a wide range of people. There are sleepless nights, 24-hour work days. I’m rooted in love and passion for the game.