Nyesha Arrington is SoCal to the core, born in Gardena and raised in the high desert of Lancaster. She attended the Art Institute of Los Angeles before gravitating to L.A.’s Westside. Arrington worked for Roland Gibert at Jonathan Club Beach and for Raphael Lunetta at Lemon Moon and Jiraffe before joining legendary chef Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas at L’Atelier and The Mansion. Josiah Citrin became her mentor, first at Melisse and later at Cache. She took a brief culinary departure to the British Virgin Islands, where she was Executive Chef at The Spice Mill Restaurant in St. Kitts. Last August, Arrington became executive chef of Santa Monica’s Wilshire Restaurant after appearing on Food Network’s “Chef Hunter.” She continued her televised hot streak in November, eventually succumbing to the panel of judges on Episode 6 of “Top Chef: Texas.” On February 7, we met at Espresso Cielo in Santa Monica, and Arrington shared several culinary insights.
What’s the very first dish that you ever remember cooking?
Good question. I suppose, with help, it was kimchi with my grandmother. I used to help her make kimchi. I think the first dish I ever cooked on my own was an apple pie, randomly. It was horrible, but it looked easy on TV.
Do you still make many Korean dishes?
I cook Korean more so in my off time. It’s one of my favorite foods, but I don’t get to cook it in restaurants.
I guess it doesn’t really fit with what you’re doing at Wilshire.
Not really. Not now. Not until I develop my own concept, my own place. Definitely it’s going to be a combination of my French style, Korean, and globally inspired food from my travels, but not now.
Was it a given that you’d become a chef, or did you consider other careers?
Totally hands down a given. I definitely feel like this career chose me, as opposed to me choosing and trying to do well at this career. It’s something that I’ve taken off at and excelled at, very well.
What was your very first night like working in a professional restaurant kitchen, and where was that?
The Jonathan Beach Club. That was my first night – day – working in a kitchen. I remember about mid-day, the back of my calves burning so bad and my hands cramping up. Basically, I had to brunoise an entire case of bell peppers, all perfectly, all peeled. It took me so long, and to be honest, I wanted to give up. There was one moment where I walked away from my station and I was like, “I don’t know if I can do this.” I had to compose myself, walked back and was like – [CLAPS] – let’s do it. I remember at Jonathan Beach Club, chef Roland Gibert was like, “this is the most beautiful brunoise I’ve ever seen.” It’s good getting that positive feedback.
Did you get a lot of positive feedback through your progression in the restaurant world?
Yeah. I’ve always seemed to do very, very well, and above and beyond, at every single restaurant I’ve ever worked at. I always get positive feedback, especially on the flavor and feeling of my food. They can always taste the love and soul I put into it.
Who would you say some of your mentors have been over the years?
My mom, for sure, who made some great meals growing up, and I have lasting memories for myself. Obviously Josiah Citrin. I worked with him a lot and he really honed my skills in sauce making and French cookery. Raphael Lunetta, definitely. He gave me my first job in a fine dining restaurant. Joel Robuchon, just for being an iconic figure and just unimaginable boundaries have been passed with him, and I only hope one day to do half of what he can do.
Did you have much interaction with Joel Robuchon?
I did. He would come every few months and come hang in the kitchen. He would come up to me and have a conversation with me. A lot of times he wouldn’t talk with other cooks, and they would be like, “What’s up with you?” It’s weird. Chefs can tell I have a genuine love and passion in the kitchen, from the way I move. It’s almost like a ballet. I have full senses on and know where everything is by the sound of the way the blender motor’s running, what puree could possibly be in it from the viscosity. I have very innate senses when I’m in the kitchen.
What would you like people to know you for as a chef?
I guess as a chef and human being, I want people to know I’m compassionate, I very much want to nurture and am extremely creative. Having food be my creative outlet, and be able to express my creative side, I want people to know that it’s just a labor of love, really. Sometimes chefs get a bad rap for being egotistical, crazy maniacs, and honestly, there was one part of me that was very ego-driven.
Going to the Virgin Islands, and coming back, and grasping the appreciation for life. I saw this amazing environment there, and I brought a lot of products from the island that I started planting. Also, my mom had a stroke. I’ve never lost anyone close to me, and that made me realize life is so fragile. That had a lot to do with the changes. That’s the way I came up in kitchens, not just ridiculed and put down. Obviously, that goes with being praised, but French style, that’s just how they communicate and what I came up with. I kind of had that in my kitchens, people throwing plates. When I went to the Virgin Islands, I realized there’s another way of nurturing. Stern-ness, but still patience.
So no throwing plates at Wilshire?
No. It’s a very calm, fun kitchen.
What do you look for when you’re hiring someone to work in your kitchen?
Number one, on the resume, I look for people who have stayed in kitchens at least more than a year. It’s very important to me that they don’t move around too much. When I interview someone, honestly, I can tell in a blink of an eye if they’re going to make it or not. It’s just a sense I get from someone, and the way they carry and speak, before they even set foot in the kitchen. I’m 99.9% accurate.
What’s the criteria for a dish that goes on the menu at Wilshire, and has that changed since you arrived?
Yes. At Wilshire, a dish that goes on the menu has changed since I’ve been there. I’m very much a chef that likes to balance flavor, texture, hot, cold, just that excitement when it hits your palate. You get fresh up-front flavors, you get muddled flavors, at the back, you get bold flavors. Each dish, we try to hit those notes. If we accomplish that, it goes on the menu.
What’s the most recent dish that you came up with, and what was your inspiration?
There’s a few. The butternut squash gnocchi with Brussels sprouts, hedgehog mushrooms, Cana di Cabra – an aged goat cheese – pomegranate, crispy sage and herb butter sauce. You have fresh vegetables, gnocchi texture, crispy sage, and that richness from the goat cheese and the tart of the pomegranate. It’s just so interesting when you taste all those flavors together. At first, people are kind of like, “It sounds too hectic,” but it’s super special.
So that just went on the menu?
Yeah, not too long ago.
Do you see signature dishes as a positive?