It's hard to imagine upon meeting her, but Nyesha Arrington -- warm, friendly, quick to laughter -- used to be a thrower. Pans, mostly. But though she still works 14 hours a day, six days a week, and maintains excruciatingly high standards, Arrington, 22, is much less abrasive. A year in the Virgin Islands will do that to you.
When the Santa Monica restaurant Caché, where she was the chef de cuisine, closed in the summer of 2010 after only a year, "It was extremely devastating," Arrington says. "I took a lot of pride in the team that I built. When I had to tell them we were closing, it was totally heartbreaking."
Having never experienced that sort of failure, Arrington reevaluated her life. She ended up as the executive chef at Spice Mill in St. Kitts.
"It was amazing," Arrington says. "The amount of beauty I was surrounded with on a daily basis -- words can't describe it. Fisherman would dock right in front of the restaurant and sell me spiny lobsters, yellowfin and sea urchin right out of the bay. It definitely changed my perspective, not so much on cooking but on how to be as a person. Coming up, I had worked for some very hard-core, gnarly chefs. To say [I became] more laid-back would be an understatement."
Growing up in Lancaster, Arrington would run home to watch Julia Child, The Galloping Gourmet and Two Hot Tamales while other kids were playing sports. Part African-American and part Korean, Arrington learned from her mother and grandmother to make bulgogi, kimchi and japchae. "My mom makes phenomenal condiments," Arrington says. "She makes this sweet chili paste called gochujang from a recipe that her mom handed down to her. Wontons were a big holiday thing. We'd cover the entire dining room table, throw down cornstarch, and my sister, my mom and I would just make tons of different variations."
After high school, Arrington graduated from the culinary arts program at the Art Institute of Los Angeles. Her path to success was quick. By the time she was 20 she had already worked in the kitchens of three Michelin-starred restaurants, under Joel Robuchon at L'Atelier and the Mansion in Las Vegas and under Josiah Citrin at Mélisse in Santa Monica.
"As far as cooking, it's definitely a career that chose me," she says.
Revitalized after a year of island life, Arrington returned to Los Angeles, where she had a breakout year in 2011. She won the head chef job at the Wilshire via reality show Chef Hunter and returned to Bravo for a stint on season nine of Top Chef.
These days, what most upsets Arrington isn't a lack of technical perfection. "If someone's lacking heart, that's what gets me more than anything else. There are 10 people behind that person who would die to have a job on the line. I want to work with people like that, people who inspire me. Otherwise, why are we doing this? Why are we dedicating our life and soul to a kitchen where someone doesn't give a shit? That drives me crazy."