If you watch food television, you're familiar with Nyesha Arrington, the SoCal-raised cook who competed on Top Chef and won Chef Hunter. After her TV success, Arrington opened Leona, an upscale restaurant with global influences, right in the heart of the Venice Beach madness. This is not a women who is afraid to take risks. But it's not without calculation. We snagged Arrington after brunch service on a recent Sunday, and she explained why so many chefs are coming out from behind the burners: In the current economy, it's diversify or bust.
You're making a name for yourself right as the industry is going through some dramatic changes.
Minimum wage is going up, labor laws are changing, more commodities are more expensive. The industry's changing. I'd like to say that even though I'm 34, I'm old-school, man.
I'm the same age. We're the oldest millennials. We're called millennials but I think our mindset is more Gen X.
I could not agree with you more. I find that I have to change my management style — not have to, but I'm very conscious of it, you know? How I manage people and understanding different personalities. In my kitchen, I like to say that it's based on love. It's like love with a strong hand. I'm not afraid to tell people exactly what is right and wrong, because I think I'd be doing them a disservice if I didn't. A lot of times, unfortunately, in my field, it's course correcting at the time. You don't always have the time to say, “I know I told you to do it like this,” you know? But, we have a soccer team, we go bowling. I try to build the team.
I'd rather groom someone and bang my head against the wall and go through the headache. I've gone through like a life cycle of understanding management. Today, I'd rather take someone green AF and mold them and go through the headache. I tell you, I now understand this. I used to be kind of gnarly, I'm not going to lie, because I came up under that Michelin regimen, which is fucking yes, no; black, white; it is or it is not. … And it's gnarly. So that's the regime I came up under, and I'm proud of it. But today, I run my kitchen different. Before, I might just be like, “You're an idiot,” or whatever; now it's my job to teach.
But in addition to company culture, there are different financial considerations these days, like minimum wage and rising rent costs.
Rent's gone up, commodities have gone up, labor's gone up. … And it's hard, because I continuously want to pass value to the guest, and not charge, you know, $20 for a burger. But the reality is, for us to keep the doors open, you sometimes have to. Especially on the Westside. So for me, my constant challenge is to find and partner with purveyors who can give me a little bit of incentive. I use less expensive cuts of meat and make them delicious, as opposed to buying something that's super expensive and just putting it on a plate. So for example, we have this dish, it's a take on coq au vin. It's organic chicken thigh, it doesn't cost me a lot, three bucks a pound. And I braise it and I sandwich it between two sheet pans and make this big brick of chicken. Then I layer chicken skin — cost me a dollar a pound, they throw that shit away — I put that on top and on bottom and I press it, and I turn it over the next day and you have this massive brick of chicken, literally. It looks really cool. Then I take like chicken wings — a dollar, two dollars a pound — roast that down, add chicken stock … And it's like this amazing flavor, but I'm not paying 15 bucks a pound for that.
How does an increase in minimum wage change the business for you?
Hard, it's really hard. Especially here ,because we don't have a liquor license. We are solely beer and wine. It's a lot of money to have to make between the hours of 5 o'clock and 10 o'clock. You have to turn tables, you have to think about all these things. How do I structure a menu for people not to camp out? We love the guests; you know, come in and enjoy. But I have to turn that table because at times there's a line outside and I want to get guests sat down so they have a great experience. Sometimes they get upset. When you've come all the way to the beach and you might have to valet your car … I get all of that. But as far as minimum wage, it's something that I've talked about with my chef friends, and people can complain, but I'm a results person. How do we restructure this business? You see more work done on the East Coast with the tip structure and stuff like that, as far as being able to manipulate the pay scale with the tipping.
Like built-in tips?
Exactly. I think you see it with David Chang and how he's doing this fast-casual concept of delivery only, or more tech-driven food product. I think the structure just needs to change a little bit and come up, because it's just not a structure built for longevity. Restaurants open and close so much more rapidly nowadays. I don't want to have a restaurant for just one or two years, which seems to be the thing now.
When you do other work like cookbooks and pop-ups, is that money pure income for you, or does it go back into the business and offset costs?
It depends on the structure of your deal as a chef. Chefs get restaurant attorneys all the time, and it's contingent upon what the deal is for that specific restaurant. Successful chefs are so good at business. People like Wolfgang Puck, Marcus Samuelsson, all the greats, they have diversified. Some of it funnels back into the restaurant, and some of it is for monetary gain for yourself. Yeah, I think it's a healthy balance of both, and it depends on the structure of how you do your deal.
You mentioned putting in effort to train new, minimum-wage employees. Do you have them put in the work, and promote from within?
Yes, and I structure the pay through outside events. So it might not be that you're getting paid directly through the restaurant, it might be that you are coming on this killer event that I've been invited to, where there's some kind of honorarium. I'm not taking that home, I'm giving it to the staff. So that creates longevity and loyalty. You gotta pay people, and I didn't get that luxury when I was coming up. I suffered and struggled for a long time. Fifteen years of my life.
So are those essentially bonuses for your cooks?
Yeah, to keep them around. I might not get paid, but I'd rather pass on that dollar to those guys.
Do you just raise your plate prices to make up for increasing labor costs?
It is a financial dance. You can raise them a little bit, but really, where it makes a dent is when you do private events and parties, and you can charge a little bit more for that experience. Maybe you buy out the restaurant, or stuff like that, or you do off-site catering events. That's a different revenue stream. Packaged foods, or a book. That's the chef of today, right? You have these other channels of monetary value — a book, a food line, a fast-casual concept. All of that gets funneled into your dream. I know that I have to structure my career to be able to support that.
What about immigration laws? Does that ever have a practical effect in kitchens?
Not a practical effect, I would say. I mean ,who knows what's to come now. It literally just gave me chills to think about, and it's scary. Your standard restaurant staff — about 60% is Latino. I wouldn't say undocumented, though. But it's scary.