Nyesha Arrington, the Executive Chef at Wilshire Restaurant in Santa Monica, California, is most recently known for being a competitor on the completed season nine of Bravo’s reality cooking show Top Chef.
Prior to the exposure from participating in Top Chef: Texas, this quarter-Korean chef had risen quickly in the culinary world and is considered a promising chef to watch. In fact, she was recently listed on Zagat’s 30 Under 30: LA’s Hottest Up-and-Comers list.
Although Nyesha did not win Top Chef: Texas, she did finish very respectably as one of the top 16 finalists. In addition, she placed fifth in the online Top Chef: Texas Fan Favorite contest (out of 18).
We were able to cover Nyesha’s background, career, Top Chef experience and are pleased to present this interview with her.
Please note that HalfKorean.com comments/questions are in BOLD.
Background: The Basics on Nyesha Arrington
Where and when were you born, raised and currently reside?
I was born in Panorama City in 1982 and then lived in Gardena, until I was five years old. There was a lot of moving around. First to Lancaster, California, where we lived there until I was 17. We moved again to Santa Monica for three years, and then I went to Florida for a year. Then it was back to L.A. for two more years then a time to Vegas. Then back to California, then to the Virgin Islands, then Hawaii, then back to L.A. where I plan to stay now that I am at Wilshire Restaurant.
Which side of your family is your Korean heritage from?
My mother side is Korean.
How did your Korean grandmother meet your grandfather?
I believe they met during the Korean War when my grandfather was stationed there.
How did your parents meet?
My parents met here in the states. They had met and started dating. My mother got pregnant with me and so they decided to get married.
Do you have any brothers and/or sisters?
I have one younger sister who has a two year old son.
Do you speak any Korean?
I used to speak a little Korean when my grandmother was around, but I am definitely out of practice.
What is your favorite Korean food?
Japchae (잡채) is one of my favorite Korean dishes, but what puts it over the top is my mom’s homemade gochujang (고추장)! I could eat that right now!! Yum!
Did you grow up around other mixed Koreans or people of mixed heritage?
Some of my cousins are full Korean. I grew up hanging with them when we lived in Gardena. In elementary and junior high school I had a lot of friends from different ethnic backgrounds.
Did you ever experience any identity issues while growing up?
Yes, when I was younger it was really hard to adapt to one culture or racial group.
Have you been to Korea?
I have not been to Korea yet, but I do plan to go someday. Hopefully I can take my mom. She has not been either, but I know it would mean a lot to her. My mom and grandmother were very close and it was devastating to her when she passed away. My mom is not doing too well these days. She had a stroke a few years ago, which has been tough.
What do people who meet/see you think your ethnicity is?
It’s interesting as I get the whole spectrum. People think I’m Hawaiian and someone thought I was Filipino yesterday. I get lots of different ones. People don’t necessarily know that I’m Korean and Black. They always guess.
Executive Chef/’Top Chef’
Has cooking always been something you have been interested in?
Cooking is something I’ve always been interested in. As a young girl I used to play “restaurant” and invite my friends over to cook when I was only six years old. I set out on this culinary dream and haven’t looked back.
How supportive have your parents and family been in your career?
At first my parents wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer. But when they saw how happy (and good) I am in this field they couldn’t be more proud.
Is there a particular cuisine or style of cooking you consider your favorite?
I really like working with French food and think that was my first passion. But, when I’m out of work on a day off I pretty much eat Chinese or Thai.
Who are some chefs you admire?
My mentors are Josiah Citrin for his pursuit of excellence, Raphael Lunetta for his genuine food, Josie Le Balch as an innovative woman chef with staying power, Heston Blumenthal for his purely mind-blowing food, Joel Robuchon for having the most Michelin starred restaurants, Wolfgang Puck for his culinary business acumen, Marco Pierre White for being a bad ass!
When did you graduate from culinary school at the Art Institute of LA?
I graduated culinary school in 2002.
What restaurants have you worked at?
I started working for Jiraffe restaurant, simultaneously worked part time at the JBC. Then, I worked at Charlie’s Steakhouse in Orlando, Florida. After that I was on the opening team for Lemon Moon restaurant Santa Monica, then moved to its second location in Century City, California for two years. After, I went to work for Mélisse for two years, then L’Atelier, then the Mansion, both in Las Vegas for a year at each. Stages include Providence, Ortolan, Company (American Bistro) Las Vegas.
How long have you been the Executive Chef at Wilshire restaurant?
I have been at my current position as Executive Chef at Wilshire restaurant for seven months.
For those that don’t know, what exactly does an Executive Chef do in a restaurant?
The Executive Chef oversees all Back of the House operations from food right down to the sanitizer water in the dish station. It’s a lot of responsibility.
If someone were to ask you what it takes to become a Chef, what advice would you give?
I would definitely tell them to be prepared for a very long journey. It is definitely a difficult industry but it is very rewarding. I think that since it has become so mainstream and glamorized in the last 10 years, it takes a lot more effort than it seems. You don’t just graduate culinary school and put on your chef jacket. It is definitely about starting with peeling potatoes and working your way up and proving yourself everyday.
What are your future culinary career goals and what do you see yourself doing in the near future?
Hopefully I can find investors to open a restaurant with me in the next five years.
So, how did you get involved with competing on Top Chef?
I was in Hawaii consulting on a small project when I heard about Top Chef. I was in between jobs at the time, so I figured, why not?
Did the contestants get along?
For the most part we all respected each other on the show. But, it is a competition.
Of the Top Chef Challenges you participated in, which would you consider most difficult?
I would say the challenge we did at South Fork Ranch when we were all working together as one big group. It was most difficult because we are all very head strong chefs who run restaurants. They put us all of us together, we had to work together and we didn’t know each other and it was really challenging. Everyone wanted to shine and be the chief but there weren’t enough Indians.
Now, you were eliminated in episode 7 but stayed on until episode 10 via the Last Chance Kitchen. In fact, you won 4 straight before finally losing. Did you feel more pressure when participating in Last Chance Kitchen than in the regular Challenges?
No, it was actually fun. I felt that I had more chance to prevail because there were no parameters with your cooking. They would give you the challenge and then you cook. It was a better format for me, because it was one on one and there weren’t seventeen thousand cameras and lights on you. It was more straightforward cooking and I thought that was better. There weren’t any personalities or other people involved that didn’t want you to succeed.
Looking back on the Top Chef experience, is there anything you feel you would have changed?
Yes, I wish that I would have been more of an extrovert. I sort of went into the competition and was very much focused on the cooking aspect instead of showing my personality. It was hard for me because I thought it would just be solely based on that and I wouldn’t have to do too much of the “hey, look at me” stuff. A lot of the guys there wanted to be on the cooking show. I’m not the most dramatic person but if I could change anything I would have shown my personality more.
So how would you describe your overall experience of competing on Top Chef?
I am a very passionate cook and am happy with the outcome of Top Chef. It has been great exposure for the restaurant and broadened my perspective on cooking.
Since Top Chef: Texas premiered, have there been customers who dined at Wilshire Restaurant simply out of curiosity from your involvement on the show?
Yes, we have had a great deal of people from all over the state and country. They want to take pictures, hang out and stuff. It’s been cool.
What’s your current relationship status?
There’s not much time to go out and meet new people. So yes, I am very single.
What are some of your hobbies and interests?
I snowboard a lot, surf and paint. I pretty much enjoy spending my time at the beach as I live close to the beach. I like to hang out with my dog. He’s my best friend.
Anybody in particular that you respect/look up to?
My dad is definitely my hero and best friend.
Since you live in Southern California, do you visit Ktown much?
Not as much as I’d like to. I guess I should find more balance in my life. I work so much and I’m exhausted want to just sleep but I also want to go out and experience other things.
Do you like soju?
Of course I love soju!!
Any words that you would like to pass on to the mixed Korean community?
Parting words, be a kind human being and as my mother used to say treat people as you would want to be treated! One love. Chef Ny
We want to thank Nyesha for taking the time to do this interview with us! We would also like to thank Jannis Swerman of Jannis Swerman & Company for helping coordinate this interview.
You can connect with Nyesha via her official Facebook and/or Twitter. You can also check out Wilshire Restaurant and Nyesha’s Top Chef: Texas bio page for more on her.
Interview by: David Lee Sanders