Santa Monica star chef Nyesha Arrington unlocks the transcendent power of food
By Bliss Bowen
Wednesday mornings follow a routine on which the rest of the week depends for chef Nyesha Arrington: Get to the Santa Monica Farmers Market before the crowds. Seek out the Weiser Family Farms stall, where longtime friend Alex Weiser sets aside product for her to try. Sift through fresh vegetable and herb offerings that might inspire new dishes at Native, the restaurant she launched in Santa Monica last November.
Arrington worked with a few different chefs in Santa Monica earlier in her career, and had ample opportunity to study them as she tagged along on their weekly pilgrimages to the farmers market. She describes her own process of selecting locally sourced food as “equal parts intention and leaving room for creative expression.”
“It’s definitely rooted in seasonality and global inspiration,” she says. “We get to celebrate the farmers who are so passionate about their product, and I get to apply my creative technique based on what they’re excited about.”
Before launching Native, Arrington was executive chef and partner at Leona in Venice, where she earned accolades for her “progressive California cuisine.” Prior to that career-boosting experience, she built her impressive resume working at several restaurants with mentor and world-renowned chef Josiah Citrin, including Mélisse and Cachette in Santa Monica; executive chef work in the Virgin Islands and consulting gigs in Hawaii; and most famously as a contestant on Bravo’s cooking competition show “Top Chef.”
She has developed a reputation as an innovative cook to watch — one who blends the formal French cooking techniques in which she was trained with organic local produce, the Korean dishes she grew up helping her grandmother make, and her philosophy of sourcing and cooking food sustainably.
Composing with Food
A chef’s art of creating recipes is akin to composers harmonizing soprano and bass notes, only with food — an analogy that delights Arrington, whose father is a funk bassist. She likens her approach to a new dish to a painter considering a blank canvas.
“I ask myself about texture — whether that’s crunchy or crispy, or is that soft and unctuous, or is that silky,” she says. “These are the adjectives I set forth before I even think about what the ingredients are going to be. Then definitely you want to have these foreground flavors and midtones, if you will. Background flavors for me are like spice notes; a pinch of coriander, or a touch of nutmeg. Those are the je ne sais quoi elements to a dish where you cannot pinpoint them exactly, but they’re a stepstool for the other ingredients to shine, like orange zest.”
Asked to walk through the composition of a layered dish, she settles on the Grilled Spanish Octopus that has been a celebrated entrée on Native’s menu since its doors first opened.
“The octopus itself is cared for in a way that translates to the dish very seamlessly,” she says. “We simply braise it in a little bit of white wine and chiles and bay leaf; those are the undertones of flavor. Then we braise it for about three hours and allow it to sit in its braising liquid for about an hour as it tenderizes, and then from there we allow it to air dry. Then we finish it on the grill during service. So you have undertones of California bay leaf that we get fresh — it’s phenomenal — and mild undertones of chile. It sort of perfumes the octopus itself. That comes to life when you char it, because chile burns very easily, so you get these very pleasant undertones of char.
“To hit on the opposite side of the texture spectrum, we have this very thick, creamy, cool, sort of Lebanese-style yogurt that we put on the dish. We really don’t do too much of that, because you don’t want battling flavors. You want everything to very much complement each other. Because on the opposite end of the spectrum from that you have this very crunchy, crisp, what we call in the restaurant ‘corn nuts’ — I cook and dehydrate hominy and flash fry it. Then I toss that in just a touch of citric acid and an Ethiopian spice blend called berbere; chef Marcus Samuelsson was the first one who got me very inspired by that. We serve it with a wedge of charred lime and fresh cilantro. Individually everything’s already delicious, but when you experience that bite as a whole, the flavor profiles complement each other so seamlessly and so beautifully that you sort of can’t wait to go in for the next bite. That’s just thoughtful cooking.
“If there’s a color wheel, or a band with bass guitar and drums and cymbals, a plate is the same way; they have to be able to riff off of each other. Not any one thing should stand out greatly. But when you’re composing a dish, everything should have a purpose and a reason to really create a memorable experience.”
All about the Byproduct
The octopus dish was the result of Arrington’s specific goal of creating something that “celebrates Los Angeles, with mild Latin undertones, bold flavors with lemony, citrus-forward flavors with chile undertones, and then this yogurt that sort of hugs your palate with the octopus.” Other recipes are born of byproduct.
Like a growing number of chefs, Arrington ascribes to the nose-to-tail principle of cooking, responding to issues of environmental sustainability by finding uses for every part of an animal or plant so nothing is wasted. While she only uses “commodity-style vegetables” for, say, chicken stock, a roasted carrot dish calls for heirloom vegetables whose earthy beauty is showcased directly on the plate. Carrot tops then inspire other uses.
“That’s something we’re very passionate about: byproduct,” she explains. “We might use the leek bottoms in one dish and the leek tops in another. Right now
we are taking the leek tops and dehydrating them; it makes this beautiful green power that tastes like sour cream and onion chips.”
Environmental consciousness is integral to her philosophy of food. If Leona showcased what Arrington learned during her previous 15 years as a chef in Los Angeles, Native represents more direct messaging through food.
“It’s celebrating Los Angeles cuisine, and for me that is definitely a melting pot of flavors and cultures — Little Ethiopia, a huge Mexican or Latin population, Filipinotown, the Greek fest. It’s very exciting. I looked at this as a means to celebrate and connect culture and flavor through the lens of Los Angeles dining, so the food tends not to be very pretentious. It’s very elegant and straightforward in technique, but you’re not going to have five guys on the line with tweezers plating one dish, you know [laughs], which is the background I came up in. I came up in French fine dining kitchens and a lot of that is not realistic. The cooking is very, very precision cooking, and I love that. But I try not to take myself too seriously and let the cooking shine. What the farmers are producing, I’m a conduit for that. That’s where the name came about and the ethos of the restaurant. I figured everyone is a native something and comes from somewhere … it’s all about the nucleus of our planet. The connection happens at the dinner table, and that transcends race, color, religions — everything.”
Arrington replies thoughtfully to questions, and clearly has message points she feels compelled to make. Early in her career, when she says she was a “very prideful cook,” she disdained reality cooking shows and turned down repeated invitations to compete on “Top Chef” in 2009. By 2012, when she began her first executive chef position at Wilshire Restaurant, her thinking had evolved. She accepted another invitation from “Top Chef,” and what she gleaned from that experience now undergirds her focus on messaging.
She came to appreciate it as “a great tool to build a platform” (despite her discomfort with its demands for her to be more extroverted), not least because when she returned to Wilshire, a huge following went with her: “numbers doubled.” From that she derived a lesson to apply to future endeavors: “I can either go to 500,000 people and tell each one my message individually, or I can do one interview that’s televised and make a huge impact.”
Women and the Kitchen
Next Wednesday, Arrington will speak at the Skirball Cultural Center under the banner of “Women and the Kitchen” — a subtle twist on the stereotype about keeping women in the kitchen.
For many of us, the kitchen is the vibrant hub around which a healthy home hums, and beloved maternal figures are often the ones practicing nurturing arts there with food, expressing care through the preparation of meals. Theirs is a position of respect and strength.
For Arrington, “the kitchen is the heart and soul of any home”— restaurant or family. She warmly recalls awaking as a child to the aroma of pancakes cooked by her parents, and says understanding the importance of cooking in their lives “resonated so much with me that I decided to make a career out of it.” Helping them cook and clean also “instilled discipline and structure of the mind,” as did helping her grandmother peel garlic and make kimchi.
“I’m a nurturer, and I think that’s what resonated with me about being a chef. Because it’s more a traditional, professional way to say you’re a nurturer. You can evoke these emotions in people through food, and that’s so insanely powerful. It’s medicine; it’s the conduit for the planet that we live on; it affects so many layers of our wellbeing as a planet.”
Food historian Lara Rabinovitch, who curated “Women and the Kitchen” and will interview Arrington on Wednesday, says the series was inspired by the “idea of trailblazers in the kitchen.” The #MeToo movement was the catalyst, but Rabinovitch says the theme is also relevant to broader issues of gender, immigration and “abuses of power that are playing out in the restaurant industry right now.”
Pastry chef Roxana Jullapat and Here’s Looking at You owner Lien Ta were previous series guests, and Rabinovitch says all three women continue Southern California’s “unusual history,” compared to East Coast restaurant cities, “in that women have historically dominated and been on the forefront of innovations in cuisine and leadership in the restaurant industry.” The L.A. industry has always been robust, she says, only now “I just think more people are noticing.”
Arrington acknowledges that gender is “an interesting topic.” But she positions it within a bigger picture of a rapidly developing industry’s growing pains, likening today’s restaurant world to “the Wild West.”
“I have to be honest: I don’t know if it’s just the kitchens that I was in, or the way that my mind is able to receive knowledge, but I didn’t have an insanely hard time coming up in kitchens. Overall I had a pretty good few years. Even in the French fine dining kitchens — I saw some crazy things, don’t get me wrong, I really did, from people getting slapped in the face [laughs] or pans and plates being thrown across the kitchen. But from the mind of a chef, I think a lot of that stems from the art of perfection, especially in environments of a professional kitchen where it’s high stress, it’s high pressure, a lot of times it’s your name on the line.
“Chefs are a certain breed of people, and we think very differently than a lot of other humans,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a gift and a curse. I think this is the only industry where you’re like a scientist, a mechanic, an artisan, a therapist [laughs]. You almost have to be this motherly figure, really, going back to the nurturing aspect of it.”
Lara Rabinovitch interviews Nyesha J. Arrington for “Women and the Kitchen” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (Dec. 12) at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. Tickets are $25 at skirball.org.