(NEW YORK) — Chef Nyesha Arrington has always been fascinated by life and by food. She remembers very early on having a keen sense of self-awareness and, most importantly, a love for food. She grew up eating foods like bulgogi, octopus, and homemade kimchi.
Arrington is quickly becoming a household name in the culinary world. She most recently appeared as a judge alongside Chef Gordon Ramsay on his newest television competition show, “Next Level Chef.” She has also competed as a contestant on “Top Chef” and Food Network’s series, “Chef Hunter,” which she won.
Her training includes being mentored by Chef Josiah Citrin, owner of the 2-star Michelin restaurant, Mélisse, in Santa Monica, CA. Citrin appointed her as a saucier at Mélisse, and then she helped him open two of his other restaurants. Arrington worked for legendary French chef Joël Robuchon at his Michelin and Mobil award-winning Las Vegas restaurants, L’Atelier and The Mansion. She went on to open two restaurants of her own, Leona and Native.
Growing up in Lancaster, California, Arrington was surrounded by an artistic and multi-cultural family. Her father is a bass player, and her mother is a seamstress. She is of Afro-Korean descent and remembers her grandmother playing a big part in her love for cooking.
“I remember sitting around the dinner table, and my grandmother had made a big communal dinner,” said Arrington.
“She had taught me how to use chopsticks. Her being a Korean immigrant — I think those first sort of formidable flavors were very different from what I would get at school or even at my parents’ house. I remember specifically the spiciness of things and how exciting that was. Kimchi, eating with my hands, reaching over the table and, you know, that food exchange. Because I think that ultimately we eat for fuel, but we also eat for pleasure. Those flavors live in the soul forever.”
Riding around in the back of her parent’s car, Arrington would often eye up restaurants and come up with business plans. She’d also be in the kitchen cooking and trying out different recipes.
“I used to play restaurant when I was a kid with my friends, and I named my restaurant: ‘A+ One Good Restaurant,’” Arrington said. “Standing in my kitchen with my dad, I remember looking up to him and saying I want to have this restaurant. I had a whole concept and everything. I thought it’d be cool to have a restaurant that celebrated different cultures every day.”
“I think, the journey of going to culinary school, it had been a lifetime. This is a life path that truly chose me.”
Arrington graduated from Lancaster High School in 2000 and then thought for a while about what she wanted to do with her life. She took general education classes at a community college to try her hand at a “conventional life.” Later that summer, a friend informed her that he was attending culinary school at the Art Institute of California.
“I literally had no idea that that was a thing,” Arrington said. “I begged my parents to take me down that next week. They were a little reluctant. They wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer or some kind of analytical-brain job.”
But Arrington’s parents could see the excitement in her eyes and allowed her to enroll. The school was an hour and a half away from her home, and classes began at 6 a.m. She would wake up at 4 a.m. and drive herself. Arrington says she wouldn’t have traded the experience for the world.
By the age of 20, Arrington was working in three Michelin-starred restaurants such as L’Atelier and the Mansion.
“I came up in some really tough kitchens,” Arrington said. “There was lots of yelling and lots of throwing things. But that was just how it was — you either rose to the occasion or you just left the kitchen.”
“I’ve never really actually worked for a female chef. When I was coming up, there were not many of us. I mean, they are around,” she said. “I just, in my experience, hadn’t had that opportunity. It’s not negative or positive. It’s just data.”
Out of 465,000 working chefs in 2017, only 20 percent were women, according to Rachel Ray Magazine. About 4 percent of them identified as black women, 3 percent as Latina women, and 2 percent as Asian-American women.
Women also face higher barriers to obtaining their first promotion. Twenty percent fewer women than men in the food industry reach the first promotion to manager, according to a report by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. Promotion rates for both men and women of color lag significantly behind their white counterparts.
“I don’t think I even realized the challenges until the conversation started to come up,” Arrington said.
“It’s been this kind of fight or flight mode. Coming up in the kitchens that I have been in, I’m grateful for my experience — but it’s hard. It’s hard walking into a venue and being noticed last when your name’s on the billboard and people just assume that you’re the hired help. Someone says, ‘Oh, where’s the chef?’ and the whole team has to say constantly, ‘She’s right there.’”
“I think of the mentors I’ve had, the strength that my parents gave me coming up, a martial arts background, a sports background — those tools in my life belt have been the only thing that has been my saving grace to be able to forge a path forward. If I did not have those tools, I probably would’ve given up a long time ago. It’s still challenging.”
Arrington has already been breaking barriers as a chef who is a woman of color. She was mentored by Chef Josiah Citrin, owner of the two-star Michelin restaurant, Mélisse, located in Santa Monica. She also worked for legendary French chef Joël Robuchon at his restaurants, L’Atelier and The Mansion. She then went on to open two restaurants of her own, Leona and Native.
There have been several vital mentors and culinary figures in Arrington’s life, and one that sticks out for her is Chef Marcus Samuelsson.
“He’s definitely one of the most important people in my life and culturally,” Arrington said. “You don’t really see people of color being celebrated as much in my field. And what he does for the community, he is a salt-of-the-earth type of guy. He always says that he’s aspired to inspire. You know, he aspires to be great, but he also is inspired by the people coming up. And that always spoke to me because I want to lead my life the same way. I aspire to inspire.”
Chef Samuelsson is an award-winning chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author. He’s also the head chef and owner of Red Rooster in Harlem. He has been featured on “Iron Chef,” “Chopped All-Stars,” “Top Chef Masters,” and his own television show, “The Inner Chef,” on Discovery Network.
“What I love about Nyesha is how deeply personal her cooking is,” Samuelsson told The Click. “She truly cooks from the heart, drawing from her heritage and growing up in Southern California. She knows who she is and how to translate that into what she creates. That’s an extraordinary skill and what makes her such an invaluable mentor to help chefs understand what it takes to get to that next level.”
A Master Chef
While working at The Mansion, a Joël Robuchon-owned restaurant in Las Vegas in 2008, Arrington recalled when Chef Gordon Ramsay entered the kitchen one day. Both of them trained under Robuchon.
“He walked past my station and looked at my mise en place (pre-prepared ingredients), and I thought, ‘Oh my God, is my station clean enough? How’s my appearance?’” Arrington said. “It’s this beautiful weight to his presence. He sees a hundred miles ahead while another person can see one inch in front of them.”
Arrington recalled when she reencountered Ramsay a few years later at a gala where she was cooking. He walked up to her and tasted her dish, and she expressed how it was such an honor to meet him.
“He said, ‘Wow, it’s such an honor and pleasure to meet you!’” Arrington remembered. “And whether he knew that or was just being charming, it made my heart flutter. I thought about that for a long time after. I had a different pep in my step when I walked into my restaurant the next day.”
Fast forward to 2021, when Gordon Ramsay’s team reached out and asked Arrington to be a guest on “Masterchef Legends.” She had to think about what dish she would like to demonstrate, and she wanted to pick a technique that the contestants could carry with them for the rest of their careers. Arrington recalled that her training under Robuchon, with Ramsay, led her to the ribeye steak with potatoes a la Robuchon.
It’s the semi-finals, and the contestants have to show their ability to observe and recreate a dish quickly. The catch is that the person demonstrating has made it countless times. If that wasn’t stressful enough, you are being filmed for the world to see while Chef Ramsay watches every move from the sidelines.
Arrington walked onto the set and said she felt like “a kid in a candy store.” It was the first time she had been on a television show run by a chef. She said it was one of the highlights of her professional life.
When it came time to make the dish live, Arrington cooked with aplomb. While the stakes and nerves were high among the contestants, she had a demanding presence while mentoring with empathy. She narrated the recipe all while cooking the dish to perfection. Arrington said she could feel Ramsay’s presence on the side and felt at ease with him there.
“I felt like Gordon was back on the line. I feel like he saw my movements and where I was coming from as a cook. I cooked my freaking heart out,” Arrington said. “I left the set, and he came out and gave me a big hug. I don’t know if my life was converging at that moment, but tears just started falling out of my eyes. For him to see all of that hard work come to fruition was a big deal for me.”
On to the Next Level
A few months later, Ramsay’s team reached out again to Arrington, pitching a new television show based on mentorship, and wanted to get her thoughts on it. She felt like it was a ‘no brainer” and immediately said yes to the project. The new show would be called, “Next Level Chef.”
“While my heart was beating out of my chest half the time working next to him, it also felt the calmest — like the place I should have been my whole life,” Arrington said. “I value the idea of hitting millions of people in one encounter. I think chefs have this innate sensibility of ‘how can you make the most impact?’ I learned so much from him just in that six weeks that we were together.”
Arrington would go to the gym with Ramsay while working on “Next Level Chef,” sometimes at 4 a.m. in the morning. She sometimes would then have to be on the set two hours later. In the makeup chair, she would go over with him what the concept of the show was that day.
“He’s one of the biggest, most amazing people in the culinary field on the planet,” Arrington said. “He wakes up every day, he has an agenda, and he sees it through. I mean, inspiring would be doing it a disservice. He is such an impeccable, high-functioning, amazing human being. And I know that, you know, the media may portray him in a certain way, but I think that it’s rooted in passion.”
“I have to say, it was just one of the most enjoyable experiences of my lifetime. Truly.”
On the show, Arrington and Ramsay are also joined by mentor and judge Chef Richard Blais. Blais is a chef, restaurateur, James Beard Award-nominated cookbook author, and a Culinary Insitute of America graduate. He was also the first winner of the series “Top Chef All-Stars.” He recently opened Ember & Rye at the Park Hyatt Aviara in Carlsbad, CA, and is the culinary director of the San Diego Symphony performance space, The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park.
“I think Nyesha’s intensity and commitment to her craft as a chef is immediately felt when in her presence. She exudes a halo of confidence,” Blais told The Click. “Getting to know Nyesha and collaborating with her and especially working with her on “Next Level Chef” reveals many of Nyesha’s strengths. Her empathy, her care, and her ability to nurture. However, most impressive to me is Nyesha’s ability to easily toggle between intensity and empathy when needed. She does this on a turn, deftly and with grace. I’ve worked on a ton of “food TV,” and her’s is a very unique skill set.”
On “Next Level Chef,” contestants have to cook on a structure made up of three different floors. The top floor has every device and cooking utensil seen in a professional kitchen, whereas the bottom floor is a broken-down kitchen with little to work with. They are divided into three teams where they will be mentored by either Arrington, Blais, or Ramsay. Contestants then pick a key card for their team to see which kitchen level they will cook on. After the mentors decided who they’d like on their team, the contestants battled it out for ten weeks.
Arrington ended up picking a chef for her team that would later win the first season of the show, Chef Pyet DeSpain. DeSpain is of Native American and Mexican American ancestry, which was another big moment for Arrington.
“Diversity makes everything better; it’s pretty simple,” Blais said. “Whether it’s in the kitchen or on set, eating and cooking is a direct correlation to culture and a great way to make us realize we have more in common. For future generations, across all mediums, whether it’s culinary arts or film, or any profession, representation matters and greatly impacts, influences, and inspires. I have no doubt that Nyesha has strong enough shoulders that many who follow her will stand on.”
Arrington shared that “Next Level Chef” has been greenlit for another season on Fox. She hopes to continue doing more television work in the coming years. There are also some projects in the works that she couldn’t share just yet.
“I’m excited to head into and continue on this path,” Arrington said. “You know, for me, I want to continue to have conversations with people. I love inspiring the next generation.”