Photography by Per Bernal
Nyesha Arrington is a female chef to be reckoned with. Having made her mark on Season 9 of Top Chef, she went on to win Chef Hunter, before landing a judging role on FOX’s Next Level Chef alongside kitchen superstars Gordon Ramsay and Richard Blais.
This girl handles food as if it’s constructed from a delicate gold leaf. Her eyes lovingly examine everything she touches as I watch her nurture the dish she’s preparing for the Muscle and Health studio crew.
“Food is love,” she says in a warm, dulcet tone. “My grandmother called me to the kitchen at a very early age. I’ve been cooking since I was three years old. She taught me love through food and the importance of giving that love through mother nature.
“As a kid, I played a lot of team sports and I practiced martial arts. I also painted and sculpted and I think those little nuances helped me to stay calm, because the kitchen is such a high-pressure environment. It is a very challenging space to live in.”
Nyesha fired off her career in 2001, whilst interning at a restaurant called JiRaffe, in Santa Monica.
“I was eighteen years old when I took my first professional job,” she says. “I was one of only two females in the entire kitchen. I quickly moved on to a full-time placement and the first night I was there, the head chef screamed, ‘Come into line, help us plate!’
“One of the cooks had messed up his dish. The head chef came to the line and took the plate out of the hand of the cook who was plating it and he friggin’ threw that plate at him. It skimmed past my head and I just missed it. I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, these plates are like $75 each; what a waste!’ They were fine china. Most people would run away after that experience, but I was like, ‘Oh shit, this is where I’m supposed to be’. I just love peak performance.”
Speaking of performance, Nyesha insists her infamously hot-headed co-star Gordon Ramsay is only hard on the outside… and perhaps a little gooey in the middle.
“I love taking people who say they can’t even cook beans on toast and teaching them how to cook”
“It’s all performance with Gordon,” she says. “There was a time when two microscopic drops of sauce appeared on a black marble table when we were filming. You could barely see them. As I was about to take my napkin to wipe them clean, he did exactly the same thing. There’s so much synergy there, I respect him so much, he’s an amazing person. His aggression is his passion. There’s no doubt you have to be an incredibly passionate person to be a great chef.”
Whilst greatness does not come easily to any profession, according to Nyesha, anyone can cook a decent meal.
“I love taking people who say they can’t even cook beans on toast and teaching them to cook,” she says. “1000% anyone can cook. Learning knife skills is a little more challenging, but it’s just a case of repetition. It’s a process that takes practice.”
With Korean roots and a base in LA, Hollywood’s hottest female chef expresses a flavor for a variety of cuisine.
“LA food is a melting pot of cultures and it’s very seasonal. You can really taste the culture through the food.
“I deadlifted 205 pounds the other day. It was a personal best. That was cool”
“I love stews and braising meats that warm the soul. I cook my own produce. My neighbor and I started a little garden. I’d say stews are my signature dish. I like to take the less expensive cuts of meat and make them delicious. It’s an art, it’s about nurturing the process. It’s not just about taking the most expensive cut of meat and serving it up. You need to season as you go and layer the flavor.”
Keeping your cool outside of the kitchen isn’t always easy when the stakes are high. Nyesha turns to ice baths to penetrate the senses and cleanse the soul.
“I have an ice bath at home and on average I do it once a week,” she reveals. “I go in for three minutes usually, but anywhere up to five minutes at a time. I listen to ‘All I Need’ by Radiohead, it’s my go-to ice bath tune.
“The first time I got into the ice bath, I pictured myself sitting on top of a vast mountain top. I was sitting cross-legged and I was so at peace. I saw myself in this space of deafening silence. It was as if I was in control and I saw myself coming around my body and when I realized what was happening and where I was, I came to my senses. It was like an out-of-body experience. The extreme cold and regulation breath forces you into a deeply spiritual place. Depending on what’s happening in your mind and body at the time, every ice bath is a different experience. I always try to do a minimum of three minutes, then go for twenty minutes in the sauna afterward. It really helps you to regulate self-pressure and stress. I tend to do it after a workout towards the end of the week, generally on a Sunday. I train three days a week at the moment. I’ve always been active, but it was only when I joined a HIIT group in 2019 I realized it was okay to be strong and female. Some of the group became really good friends. Now I do CrossFit-style workouts. I’ve been doing them for around a year now. I deadlifted 205 pounds the other day. It was a personal best. That was cool.”
“Going vegan was the first step on a personal reset”
Never afraid to peel back the layers, Nyesha went vegan for a year in 2019.
“A couple of years back, I felt as if my body needed a pretty hard reset,” she says. “I wasn’t managing my stress well all the time and I’d started coming away from the things I love, like being active and exploring the outdoors. Going vegan was the first step on a personal reset. For me, it was about eliminating things. I had no refined sugar, no alcohol and no animal protein. I’d just closed my restaurant and broken up with my boyfriend. The challenge gave me so much clarity and focus. I didn’t find it hard to be honest, because I had a result I wanted to get. I’m very goal-driven.”
Having now turned flexitarian, Nyesha manages a consistently healthy diet alongside long filming hours.
“During the week I tend to eat for fuel and at the weekends I eat for pleasure,” she says. “I usually fast and have coffee in the morning, then have my big meal in the afternoon rather than the evening, because I don’t like to go to bed full. I started wearing an Oura ring and I noticed when I eat closer to bed, my heart rate is higher, so I don’t get as much quality of sleep. When you’re in that REM sleep, that’s when your body flushes out toxins and rests and resets. So I eat my biggest meal around 1 pm and my last meal around 6 pm. I love protein-strong salads. I tend to use lots of flavors, like Miso dressing, instead of using a lot of salt. I love nuts, I love almonds. Sometimes I’ll add some grilled chicken. I love seaweed. There’s a Korean seaweed and if you soak it you can use the seaweed in a salad and then use the water as an amazing facial toner. Soak it in water (alkaline if possible), and hydrate the seaweed for about an hour. Siphon it off and use it in the salad, then add a splash of witch hazel to the water, refrigerate it and spritz it over post-workout or before bed as a facial toner.”
Having proven her skill both on and off-camera, Nyesha has her sights on a long-lasting TV career.
“I’ve really come out of the competitive side and onto the judging side of television, which is amazing,” she says. “I love doing Next Level Chef on FOX. From an empathetic standpoint, I know what it feels like to be in the position of the contestants. It enables me to feel close to them. I love to feel that connection with people. It can be so heartbreaking sometimes and it’s very challenging because, I want to get in there and get close with people and then I have to let them go. The entire team is amazing on the show.
“I’d love my own cooking show so that I can cook and chat to guests at the same time. Kind of like a talk show but over food in the kitchen.”