Native’s Tongue

Chef Nyesha Arrington

Exclusive Interview with Chef Nyesha Arrington

Chef Nyesha Arrington boasts an impressive résumé—after graduating from the Art Institute of California’s culinary school at 17, she honed her craft with Michelin-starred chefs. She ran the kitchen at Wilshire, appeared on Top Chef and Chef Hunter, won accolades from Zagat, Angeleno, and LA Weekly, and showcased California cuisine at her first restaurant, Leona, in Venice. Now she’s debuted Native, a cozy Santa Monica bistro inspired by the diversity of L.A. food culture. For Arrington—part Korean, part black, and a lifetime Angeleno—Native is the embodiment of what excites her: local food prepared lovingly. She’s hustling in the kitchen every day, preparing food for families who wait patiently for the restaurant to open. We spoke with her in one of her rare moments off, and she’s sharp as a knife, upbeat, and endlessly charming.

Native is the second restaurant after Leona where you’ve been at the helm. How has your vision evolved in the kitchen?

After being in the restaurant business for 16 years, I opened Native to provide something new. California-French in technique, but globally inspired. I thought, “Where am I from? Who am I?” And that’s an Angeleno. I draw inspiration from the city’s ethnic enclaves—it’s a little Ethiopian, a little Japanese, a little Korean—all driven through the lens of the Santa Monica Farmers Market. It is not progressive California cuisine it’s specifically more Los Angeles–based. More funky, if you will, with more grit. Native celebrates different cultures and what I’m passionate about, bringing people together at the dinner table.

What is it like to be a woman in the male-dominated field of cooking, and how does your background as a part Korean, part black Angeleno shape your philosophy?

That’s a deep question. I grew up in Michelin-starred kitchens where not only was I the only female but I was the only black female. There still aren’t many of us around. People walk right by me and ask, “Where’s the chef?” and my cooks are like, “She’s right there.” It’s funny, and it continues to happen a lot. Chefs have traditionally been depicted as Caucasian males, but in the last maybe three years, it’s starting to change. You see more females, and Asians, and Hispanics, and other types of faces emerging, and that’s been exciting. I have chosen to ignore prejudices and try to find bigger, better skill sets in order for me to navigate to where I want to be. I’ve always been a hard worker, and when I graduated from culinary school I set goals that I’m attaining. It’s empowering to surround myself with business-minded people.

You’ve had incredible training, working with Michelin-starred chefs Josiah Citrin at Mélisse and Joël Robuchon at L’Atelier and the Mansion. What were those experiences like?

Some of the best cooking memories of my life. I will never stop being the cook, wanting to have the sharpest knife in the kitchen and move with the most elegance and speed. When I was with Citrin we’d go to the farmers market twice a week. I was a line cook at that time but we had so much power; we were creating a tasting menu. Each station created its own dish, so we’d go to the market and pick out vegetables, and all of them had to be the same exact size. We’d go through cases and cases and pick out the most beautiful vegetables, and that develops an eye for excellence. Same thing with Robuchon, where I was cooking next to kids from Japan or Africa or Korea. We were such different people. It was a multimillion-dollar three-star kitchen with the most pristine products.

That’s a level of detail you don’t see often.

No, it was insane! You take little bits of that from here, from there, and you build your own repertoire.

Describe your style of cooking.

I’m a steward of the land. I celebrate growers. And I cook through a global lens.

Which dishes are you most proud of?

At Native it’s the rolled dumplings. They’re so good! At Leona a dumpling dish was my number one seller. I thought, “How can I have dumplings on the menu and be smarter about it?” That’s why I decided to do rolled dumplings, using an Italian technique with a pasta machine. You pipe in the filling, and we tripled our efficiency.

Native features a small menu focused on seasonal ingredients. Which dishes will be staples throughout the year?

The black cod, because I’ve done that dish before and it’s always popular. Also the lentil crackers—I developed the recipe using blended lentils and a flaxseed puree to give it texture—and the leeks. They’re called melting leeks and they’re so, so delicious. Those are probably going to be the staples.

The business is famously difficult—Leona closed its doors not long after you left. What makes a successful restaurant?

It did and that was sad. But I learned a lot about partnerships and business, which have to be healthy. That’s what’s going to make staying power. Because yes, we’re a restaurant, but first we’re a business and everyone has to be focused on that.

How do you create that mindset at Native?

Good partners. I have an impeccable team behind me that supports my ideas and gives 110%.

How do you keep everybody inspired and motivated?

Every day we have meetings to talk about our successes and opportunities, and that keeps things transparent. If the sous chef is excited about meiwa kumquats, maybe I’ll create a dessert that ends up on the menu! That’s sharing love and life. Putting together the group that makes that happen is crucial to the process. It’s not a dictatorship.

Who inspires you? Are there any chefs you’d like to collaborate with?

Dominique Crenn. She has a similar outlook on chefdom, and she’s super cool. I love her style. Her menus are written like poetry.

It’s a beautiful morning and you have the day off. What do you do?

The whole day off?! Well, I’m going to get my bike and put my two-year-old French bulldog Blue Ginger in the basket. She loves it and thinks it’s her car. We’ll ride to the beach, I’ll listen to reggae, and we’ll cruise the Venice boardwalk until sunset. That’s my favorite thing to do.

Where do you like to grab a bite in the neighborhood?

Hillstone is my favorite because it’s consistent, it’s delicious, and it’s around the corner from my restaurant. I go there probably two or three times a week and I always see someone I know.

Duck Breast, Cabbage, Pastrami Jus
Duck Breast, Cabbage, Pastrami Jus

Native Restaurant
620 Santa Monica Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Ph. 310.458.4427

See Chef Nyesha recipe here:

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