The first time Top Chef asked Nyesha Arrington to be on the show, she turned it down. She had gone from making dumplings in her grandmother’s kitchen to eventually becoming, in her own words, “the grittiest fucking chef.” But somewhere between top jobs in Michelin-starred kitchens in LA and Las Vegas, a stint running a big hotel kitchen in the Virgin Islands, some taco consulting in Maui, and too many private dinners to count, she changed her mind. Arrington said yes the second time TV came calling and appeared on season 9 of Top Chef.
Most people think a fan-favorite run on Top Chef translates immediately to a long career running hit restaurants, but in the nearly eight years since that season aired, Arrington opened and moved on from two restaurants in LA: Leona in Venice and Native, a Santa Monica bistro. Now, Arrington is embracing the possibility of a life split between the kitchen and the screen. And because what that looks like isn’t exactly clear yet, for the foreseeable future, she’s on the move, traveling and gigging since shuttering Native in March.
We caught up with Arrington in Hong Kong, where she was in town to do a three-night pop-up at Test Kitchen, a local space that hosts regular dinners with chefs from around the world. Over dim sum at Maxim’s City Hall, Arrington discussed where she’s been and where she may be going next. While there’s no obvious destination at the end of her travels, at this point in her life — “call it chapter four,” she says — it would be wrong to call her directionless.
On saying “no” and later “yes” to Top Chef:
“I was at a kitchen called Cache, which was my first chef de cuisine position ever, and I had just come out of the [Joël] Robuchon kitchen [in Las Vegas], so I was not right in the head. The hostess came up to the kitchen and said, ‘Chef, someone’s on the phone for you.’ I pick it up and she asks me, ‘Are you interested in the show?’ This was 2009. Food media was a different space. I basically told her on the phone, ‘Don’t ever call this fucking restaurant again. It’s Friday night, and we’re about to go into dinner service’ — verbatim, and I hung up.
“I think three years passed. I was in a different mindset. This is a pivotal thing: I remember watching TV. It was a watch ad. They’re talking about the quality of the watch, and then they pan out and [the wearer is] a chef, in his kitchen. For me that was a huge epiphany; chefs started to become sensationalized. I was like, ‘Wow. What does the next 10 years look like?’
“I didn’t do [Top Chef] the first time because I thought there were two different lanes: chefs that cooked for real, and chefs on TV. And you couldn’t tell me anything when I was a young cook. I was just about that life. That’s all I did. In 2012 I had a little bit more experience in the world”
On being on TV:
“I’d like [television] to be a big part of my life, because it seems to be something that resonates with people. But I think a big thing to me is getting in front of the narrative. Because doing shows like Top Chef, in all honesty, gave me too much fucking anxiety. I didn’t know what to do, how to be, especially the first time going on a show. I didn’t call any of my friends. I didn’t strategize. I literally dropped my shit off in Hawai‘i, went [to meet my new team at the Wilshire], left, and filmed the show.”
On defining her own brand:
“[After Top Chef] people started coming to the restaurant, [the Wilshire], and saying, ‘You were such a class act on the show. We really wanted you to win!’ And I was like, ‘This is kind of cool.’
“I left [the Wilshire] and took two years off. I was supposed to just take the summer off and then find another chef job. And I just kept getting inquiries for dinner parties and things like that. It sustained an entrepreneurial-style life for about two years: I got to go to farms and live my life, and not grind it out so hard. It was scary and cool at the same time. [It was] liberating.
“I definitely am an entrepreneur at heart. I guess my brand is me, which is weird and cool. But I remember thinking, ‘How do I button this up and think, here’s the Nyesha Arrington brand?’ Those were the two years where I started to think like that, because it was this idea of, ‘I have to kill to eat.’ I have to go out and network and get the business and be relentless about it.”
On her first solo project, Leona:
“It was in Venice, in this three-story building. When I walked in there, my intention was, ‘I’m going to hang up my hat here and live here and work here forever.’ In that same month, I met my boyfriend of almost five years, and he was living like 100 yards from Venice. So I had two years of hustling, freelancing, moving all over the damn city and country, to all my stars aligning. [Our team at Leona] had two years of amazing, magical memories, and then the husband and wife who I was partners with got divorced. It was not easy for me to be there anymore, so I left.
“In all honesty and transparency, I was so wide-eyed, young, and stupid. I didn’t have a lawyer look at my stuff. I just was like, ‘I’m just going to kill it, and we can revisit all this [legal] stuff later.’ I keep learning life lessons. I’m resilient, I guess. It’s hard. I’m a firm believer in failing upwards.”
On opening Native eight months later:
“In hindsight, we should’ve had a better plan. That was too quick, and not the location for me. Rent was $20k a month. I’m not afraid to say: I should have spoken up. My heart just wasn’t in it. When I stepped into Leona, I felt it. The team felt it. There was a vibe and a culture. Leona was light and love, and the whole city got behind me — [including Jonathan Gold]. Native people rallied, but it was difficult. The restaurant didn’t have an office, storage, parking — my team had to walk five blocks because they couldn’t park — all these things that no one thought about.
“I think, selfishly, I wanted to be in a restaurant so badly that I was like, ‘Okay, cool, let’s do this.’ We were actually going to open three restaurants, and I didn’t have the team to support that. I was two feet in on building this culture at Native, while looking at kitchen plans and leases and documents for Los Feliz and another restaurant in Wilshire. And there wasn’t enough gas in the engine.
“I’m stubborn and I think I can do anything and be superwoman. But the reality is, I’ve stepped into a more structured balance in my life nowadays, because I never want to feel that again. Tired doesn’t do it justice.”
On her (non) plan for the future:
“It’s crazy. I have no plan for my life. I’m just living my most authentic self. Just two days after closing Native, I got the confirmation that [I was going to be] shooting a 10-day documentary in Belize. My life — call it chapter four that I’m in — by the time I get to chapter six, I’d ideally be doing what I’m doing now, but in a more structured way: traveling, experiencing firsthand, cooking.
“I think I’d like to do something not fast casual but like Sugarfish, where it feels chef-driven and elevated as a dining experience and thoughtful — but [where] you can turn tables quickly and it doesn’t feel as engaged and committed for the consumer. For the experience I [usually] provide, I need to be there every day. It’s not fun for me to do the same thing every day and touch the same tables every day. I will, but I think that I have a bigger purpose.”
Andrew Genung is a writer based in Hong Kong and the creator of the Family Meal newsletter about the restaurant industry.