Nyesha Arrington is the executive chef of the Wilshire Restaurant in Los Angeles. A 2001 graduate of the Culinary School at the Art Institute of Los Angeles, she learned to cook in a cross-cultural, Korean and African-American family. A protégé of Chef Josiah Citrin, Arrington was named a Rising Star in 2010 by Angeleno magazine. She was interviewed just prior to her appearance as a contender on Season 9 of Bravo’s “Top Chef.” She also was featured on Food Network’s “Chef Hunter.”
Why do think you became a chef? What in you responds so favorably to what you do as a chef?
I am definitely a right-side-of-the-brain thinker. I love all things creative. For me, it’s an expression of self. When I see a guest’s face and they have enjoyed a meal, it warms my heart. It means the world to me. I love that no two days are ever the same in a restaurant.
Being a chef you wear so many different hats. You’re an electrician, a plumber, everything.
Has it always been a passion for you?
I didn’t realize how much until I was graduating from high school. I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. My parents wanted me to be a doctor.
Was there ever a time that a medical career sounded appealing to you?
No. Never, no. I’d been cooking since I’d been 7 or 8 years old. I’d have friends sleep over and instead of playing house, I’d make us play restaurant. I’d think of great names for a restaurant. And I forgot about that after a while, you know? You get wrapped up in life and you forget what you always wanted, and chef wasn’t in the running for careers to choose from when I was older. But my father reminded me how I always had cooked and it hit me like a ton of bricks that that’s what I wanted. It’s something I hold near and dear to my heart.
Chefs are known for the long hours they put in. It’s not a career for those who aren’t committed to it. Did you pursue it knowing the difficulties?
Oh yeah. This is my house. When I’m not here [in the restaurant], I’m home asleep. But I’m the most comfortable here of anywhere. This is something I do well. I feel I was put on this earth to provide something special for people. This is what makes me happy and I want everyone to know me as a chef who cooks from the heart.
Many people, especially women, benefit from mentoring as they build their career. You’ve worked with many world-famous chefs already. Have any of them been especially important as guides for you?
I’ve had several mentors. It started in culinary school where there was one very passionate, very demanding chef who taught me the basics. Everyone else hated him; I loved him because he brought real-world experience. My first fine-dining cooking job was with Raphael Lunetta at JiRaffe Restaurant [in Santa Monica, Calif.]. He really started my career.
After him, I met his business partner, Josiah Citrin. I had never met anyone who better understood my palate and how a chef works. He and I have an unspoken bond that I can’t describe. I worked for him for two years at Mélisse, his two-Michelin-star restaurant [in Santa Monica] and Lemon Moon [in Culver City, Calif.].
You were how young then?
I was 24, 25. I was thrown into the fire; so a lot of grown men in the kitchen looked at me and thought, “Who is this chick coming in here?” And, you know, I owned it. I gave it my all; gave it 110% every day. So Josiah means a whole hell of a lot to me. He sees the passion and the fire I bring to this business. He’s my mentor for sure. Inside and outside work. I can’t count on my hands the number of times I’ve called on him for advice.
Can you imagine your being the executive chef of a prestigious restaurant like the Wilshire without the guidance he gave you?
Absolutely not. And he teaches me about balance, because chefs get so consumed by the world of their kitchen. I’ve seen him grow as a person. I’ve seen him be the gnarly, crazy, crazy chef and now he’s the family man and he tries to wind down. He understands where I’m coming from, and he has just been a great force in my life.
You mention getting the “Who’s this chick?” reaction from males chefs when you were starting out. How much has it been challenging for you to be a woman who has to prove herself?
To be honest, I have not had much strife in that way until I became an executive chef. Being on the line and working for someone else, it’s my nature to do the best I can. I know I’m better than most cooks on the life. I’m the first to arrive, the last to leave, and it hasn’t been that much of an issue in my career.
How is this year different?
Well, I feel like I’ve been working knife down to the cutting boards, firing tickets, commanding the line and running restaurants all my career. But this is the first year I’ve looked up and taken a breath and looked at what I’ve accomplished in the past 12 years. I’ve been so “in it to win it” that being executive chef is a bit intimidating to me, even.
I get the feeling you don’t let it stop you, though.
No. I’m constantly asked “How old are you?” I’ve been asked that through my whole career. But what does it matter?
I’m sure there have been a few chefs your senior for whom it mattered!
Well, yeah. Definitely. But I try to lead by example as much as I can. I’m a kind-hearted person. I’ll yell when I feel I need to, but for the most part I’m a good person. I’m not an ego-driven person, although I think I was when I was coming up. I used to be the angry, bitter, yelling kind of chef, but I don’t live my life like that anymore.
What’s the best advice you’ve received about being an executive chef?
I’m still trying to figure it out myself, really. But it’s all about gaining the trust of the crew and building a strong partnership with your chef de cuisine, your pasty chef, your sous chefs and getting them to understand your vision and what you see for the restaurant. That’s the most important thing to hone.
When do you think you’ll discover the path to balancing work and life that you say Josiah Citrin has found?
Soon, I hope. My dad called the other day and I was telling him about work, and he said, “You know, Nyesha, you need a boyfriend.” It was funny to hear that from my father, but I realized I’m going to be 29. But I don’t where I’ll find time to make that happen. My ideal situation would be to have a few restaurants and get them up and running and build a brand, build a name for myself.
Are you ready for the attention that will come your way thanks to “Top Chef”?
No. I have no idea what’s coming.
Is that exciting or does it make you nervous?
Both. I’ve worked very, very hard, so for me not to embrace this opportunity wouldn’t make sense, but I have idea what to expect, good or bad.
At the very least, it should help your create that brand name you want.
Absolutely. What I’d love would be a tiny little restaurant with no name where I can cook and it’s very intimate and special.
If you had that restaurant right now, tell me one thing you know would be on the menu?
Interesting. What first comes to mind is something like a cassoulet because I love those old-style, comforting dishes. People always ask me what my “signature dish” is and I don’t really have one. I guess that’s bad because I’m always asked that. I love all food. There are so many things—the ingredients, the season, the people I’m cooking—that influence what I cook. It would have to include French, because that’s what I love. My mother’s Korean and my father’s from the South and I grew up in California, so it would have to encompass all that, I guess.
Sounds like your “signature” is the uniqueness of you. Next time you’re asked what your signature dish is, tell them it’s all the elements of you and your passion.