The Journey to the Gauntlet: Chatting with Challenger Nyesha Arrington from Iron Chef Gauntlet

Get to know Chef Nyesha Arrington, a challenger competing on Iron Chef Gauntlet.

Photo by: Eddy Chen, Eddy Chen

Eddy Chen, Eddy Chen

This. Is. It. The fight to become an Iron Chef is unlike any other culinary competition, with the demands for precision, expertise, intuition and downright excellence the most rigorous in the business. On Iron Chef Gauntlet, seven of the country's most-elite chefs will come together to prove that their skills are the sharpest — but ultimately just one will earn the right to the run the gauntlet for the chance to join the ranks of the great Iron Chefs.

Before the competition begins on Sunday, April 16 at 9|8c, we're giving you, Iron Chef fans, the first introductions to the crop of challengers ready to do battle. Today we'd like you to meet  Nyesha Arrington, a chef from Los Angeles. Read on below to get to know her style in the kitchen, and be sure to come back to FN Dish all week long as we present a new contender every day this week.

What's your style of cuisine, and do you have a signature dish?

Nyesha Arrington: My style of cuisine is called progressive California cuisine, so food that’s very globally inspired. We cook through the seasons and really understand how food affects the body as fuel. ... One of the dishes I’ve been known for is the Honey Mustard Black Cod throughout the years. I just put a dish on the menu when we opened at Leona that’s our Braised Lamb Belly Wontons that has become one of the signature dishes as well.

What's your proudest culinary achievement to date?

NA: I’m proud of building an amazing, strong team. They named me Eater LA’s Chef of the Year for 2015. That was pretty cool. I think those things are fun, but the things that — for me life legacy is so important, and I think being able to touch the lives of all my cooks and building a strong team and giving them tools to be successful in their lives, that makes me want to tear up. That makes me really happy.

What's your strongest skill in the kitchen, be it something technical or mental?

NA: I love cooking seasonally, I love cooking fish and meat, and I love making sauces.

Why do you have what it takes to be an Iron Chef? What makes you worthy of joining such esteemed ranks?

NA: I started out on my professional culinary career about 16 years ago, and I very much had a very conscious life path of a career. I very consciously aligned myself with particular chefs and took particular positions to have a very well-rounded balance of the industry. I can’t say that I only know this or I only know this. I know a lot of the industry. I’ve cooked in breakfast places, lunch places, fast-casual taco spots in Hawaii. Three-star Michelin white-tablecloth is mostly where my pedigree comes from, but I just feel like my message through food is the most-authentic me. It’s become a lifeline and an extension — almost a limb of my life is being a chef. And I think from the time growing up, watching Iron Chef Japan and being with my dad and cooking food — I’d sit on the edge of the bed to watch Iron Chef and him commentating it. It’s so surreal for me to even be here. This kind of comes full circle I feel like.

What makes you unique in terms of your culinary expertise or your approach to food?

NA: I get asked that question a lot, and for me I think I bring a unique cooking style and a unique charisma to what I do. ... A lot of times I’ll go to these cooking events, and I’ll check in, and they don’t always think I’m the chef. They’ll go to my GM or go to my whoever else, and then they’re like, "Oh, Chef Arrington is right here." I might have an undemanding energy or aurora, I don’t know, but I’m very quiet and reserved for the most part. But when I talk about food, I noticed I’m the most happy when I’m talking about food, when I’m sharing what I do. But I think it’s pretty awesome to bring the female badassery. I really do. It’s awesome. And not by any pick of the cards or anything, but both of my last two chefs have been females. I came up under all male chefs, and I’ve never worked for a female chef, but I think it’s pretty cool to be able to put some out in the world. It’s not a male-female thing, but there definitely is a reality there.

Tell us about a day in your life. What are some of your primary responsibilities and roles?

NA: It’s kind of like a two-part day. ... I’m completely in love with my little French bulldog — she’s 1 year old, and she’s a tiny little nugget. I’ll take her to the dog park and spend most of my morning doing admin stuff, so e-mails and writing menus and going to the farmer’s market. That’s what I do for the day part. Then midday is breaking down fish, going over the menu for the night, checking the reservations, and the nighttime is really spent orchestrating this amazing symphony and watching it come to life every night. And I’m telling you, it’s so beautiful. I always tell these guys, "It’s just food." It can be really stressful at times, but the energy when you see it rise up, during the six o’clock, seven o’clock, eight o’clock, nine o’clock hours, it just becomes so boisterous. You see people smiling and enjoying your food and sharing life. That’s the stuff. It gives me chills.

How did you prepare for this competition?

NA: I’ll be very honest. I have been listening to motivational speeches. I’m a very competitive person. I think it’s very healthy to set goals for yourself and do self-help stuff — just strike those cords in your heart. I’ll be listening to these speeches, and I’m like, “Yes.” And I want to do that for other people too and empower people. So for myself, lots of motivational speeches, eating clean, drinking a lot of water, not going out on the chefs’ circuit — we just finished service, let’s go have a cocktail. No. I’m at home reading books, hanging out with my boyfriend. It’s just been a very calm, Zen energy.

If you had the chance to battle one Iron Chef, who would you choose and why?

NA: If I had the chance to battle one Iron Chef, I would probably battle against Mario Batali. Yes, because when I was a kid, I used to watch him on Molto Mario, and I used to think he was so cool.

What would be a Secret Ingredient that you'd dread finding on the altar, and why?

NA: I’m not a big fan of green bell peppers. I know it’s kind of weird. I’m just not. They just really don’t do it for me. I have no desire to cook with green bell peppers. I’ve never really been into them.

Is there any dish or ingredient that you don't care for or will not eat?

NA: Honestly, green peppers are probably the only thing other than, like, balut or those kinds of weird things. Not weird, but I didn’t grow up with and become acclimated to that. Those would probably be the only two things.

Beyond a knife and a tasting spoon, what’s one of your favorite kitchen tools?

NA: I have all kinds of fun tools that I love. I have this little air mister thing, and you can hand-pump it. But it’s the perfect little spray if you need a little bit of vinegar on some greens or something or some sort of essence of it without actually getting in there with it. ... I love that thing. I love my Microplanes. I just love zests. I’d say those are probably my favorites.

What's your favorite ingredient to work with these days? Anything new you're obsessing over right now?

NA: I love yuzu. I feel like that’s pretty standard nowadays, though. It’s kind of a popular thing. We make our own vanilla extract. I am absolutely in love with that. Whenever we open the bottle I melt. I love layering flavors like vanilla bean. I like the essence of or using the zests of things, almost subconscious flavors that accentuate what the key component is.

What do you like to cook on your days off?

NA: My boyfriend’s a chef as well, and we just cooked recently. It’s seeming like Sundays and Mondays are our days to cook. It’s always in the stewed or soupy realm of life, because I feel like after the gnarly work week, you need something that’s a hug from the inside. Refuel. So recently I made bison dumplings, and they were delicious. It was a Thai-style bison dumpling with a very clear consommé broth, but it was so flavorful. So, that kind of stuff. I’ll do lentils and greens, and oxtail I did not too long ago. But generally soups and stews and stuff like that.

Who do you consider to be your culinary mentor?

NA: Well, that’s a very easy question. I have a culinary mentor. His name is Josiah Citrin, and I was sous chef for over two years at a restaurant called Melisse, and it’s two-star Michelin, and those were some of the most-fun, challenging, out-of-my-comfort-zone years of my life. That was 2006-ish when I didn’t even know who I was as a chef or how to be or what to do. I just did what was in my heart and tried to do it the best and the fastest every time. Now fast forward 10 years later, in retrospect, in conversations I’ve had with him, he saw that way, way early, and I would have never known. I would have thought he hated me the way he pushed me, the way he talked to me. But chefs, I always say they’re a certain breed of people the way we think, but we just share a palate. I get his brain. I get his love for food, his knowledge for food, and we just instantly clicked.

What do you think fans at home might not realize about what it takes to cook at such a high level?

NA: Well, I think that fans at home would most likely not understand the mental discipline that you have to have. You literally are like a Jedi. You know you’re going to move before you move, you’re envisioning what’s happening and you’re playing this story — third person, almost. For me, you go into this almost Zen, creative chaos that you have to rear, understand it and slow it down. I always say in these cooking competitions, one of the most-valuable skill sets is to be able to slow your thoughts down and act, because your hands might not be doing what your brain wants them to do. As simple as that sounds, it’s so hectic that you’re thinking about so many things. It’s insane.

What's the first dish you think an aspiring Iron Chef should master?

NA: It’s very important to understand the anatomy of animals. I think it’s very important to really respect product. I talk a lot about being able to master your craft. I think it’s important to have a wide base of product. Different types of mushrooms, different types of strawberries. Not one type of strawberry; there’s many different types, many different flavor profiles. Every anatomy of an animal is kind of different. I think what’s most important is having a wide database for you to use your brain like an encyclopedia when they’re like, “Here’s the ingredient.” And you can say, "Oh it’s ginger. How am I going to apply that to what I already know?"

Besides cooking, what do you like to do?

NA: Oh, so many things. My three top-favorite things are painting. I love to paint, and my favorite thing is painting and then giving them away. I just gave Marcus Samuelson a painting that he loved — finally finished it. I like skateboarding. I like all board sports, for the most part, but my favorite thing is just to put my headphones in with reggae music on the beach, skateboarding, no agenda. And I love snowboarding.

Are there any guilty food pleasures you’d like to reveal?

NA: Yes. I mean, not really, but I will say them. I like to eat junk food. I do. I enjoy that.

Do you tend to go sweet like cupcakes or savory like chips?

NA: The savory. I'm a Cheetos, chip-y girl 100 percent. I’m not the committed I’m-going-to-eat-three-square-meals person. I’m a snack-y person.

Is there anything you want to say to introduce yourself to new audiences?

NA: I think it’s exciting to be in this arena of chefs. I think it’s amazing to have this platform to do what I love, and what’s most amazing is I feel like people really see who I am, because I’m not the biggest voice in the room. I’m not the hey-pay-attention-to-me girl or chef. But I’m loyal, I’m honest, I’m giving, and I hope that those attributes account for something in my life legacy at some point. And I think doing TV is something I love, and I’ve grown to love it. When I first started, I was like "Eh, I'm not so sure this is for me." Because I’m a restaurant chef, and I crunch numbers and know that an egg’s going to yield two ounces and blah blah blah and this and that. But I love that my message can go to many people at the same time when I do TV and competitions, and it feeds that adrenaline-junkie thing that I have that I just love. I can’t get enough of it.

Tune in to the premiere of Iron Chef Gauntlet on Sunday, April 16 at 9|8c.

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