Dining by the ocean in Los Angeles is a common tradition. What’s not so common? A bistro headed by a Black female chef and co-owned by a Black powerhouse couple. Welcome to Leona, a restaurant that sits just one block away from the faddish Venice pier. Named after the original street name for Washington Boulevard, Leona celebrates the best of modern California cuisine with the dreamy ocean vibes that both locals and out-of-towners have come to love.
But the popular restaurant’s draw is due only in part to its location, and more importantly to Chef Nyesha Arrington’s unpretentious and creative approach to food. Her creations include bulgogi braised short ribs served with roasted bone marrow, lamb belly wontons, and even an adult spin on traditional Frosted Flakes with condensed milk and rice pudding.
Arrington’s interest in worldly flavors that highlight the best of Californian local produce is evident through her dishes and relationships with local farmers. She partnered with co-owners Kristian and Breegan Vallas to create a space that celebrates not only California’s coastal flavor, but also its community.
Arrington, a Top Chef alum and former executive chef at Wilshire Restaurant in Santa Monica, was recognized by Zagat.com as one of the 30 Under 30 in 2012. EBONY.com chatted with the chef about her first restaurant and valuable lessons she’s learned inside the kitchen.
EBONY: What does progressive Californian cuisine mean to you?
Nyesha Arrington: Progressive California cuisine means that we take inspiration from global dining and put a California spin on it. We mix flavors from around the world with seasonal produce and try to think outside the box with each dish.
For example, our Coctel Mixto is a kind of representation of Venice and its multicultural demographic: it mixes fresh seafood in ceviche form, similar to what you might find at a local taco truck, with a market-fresh tomato-watermelon jus and rice cracker in place of tortilla chips. Our Kimchi Latkes are a play on traditional Jewish potato pancakes with house-made kimchi.
EBONY: How have you seen the culinary world change or grow in regard to African-American chefs?
NA: I’ve seen the culinary world change and grow in regard to African-American chefs more and more every year. The James Beard House in New York City hosts the Iconoclast Dinner each year, which features and celebrates notable food, wine and spirits professionals of color and supports scholarships for students from Jamaica and sub-Saharan African countries. Being able to be a part of that experience last year was a dream come true.
EBONY: What is your first memory of being in the kitchen?
NA: When I was younger, I used to spend hours in the kitchen with my grandmother, rolling wontons and learning amazing Korean homemade recipes. I was introduced to things like bulgogi, octopus and kimchi. It inspired a lot of what I cook today.
My first memory of being in a professional kitchen was at a place called the Jonathan Beach Club in Santa Monica. I remember chopping an entire case of bell peppers and wanting to cry because my legs hurt so badly. I walked out the kitchen door—but then turned around and walked right back in, and have continued to fall more in love with the kitchen every single day.
EBONY: What is one of the most important lessons you learned on Top Chef?
NA: One important lesson I learned from being on Top Chef is the ability to be able to trust yourself: to trust that your food is delicious, to trust that your vision comes across at all costs.
EBONY: What advice do you have for someone pursuing a career as a chef?
NA: My advice for someone pursuing a career as a chef is to align yourself with the best. Understand what you want to do with your career and find the person who does it best. Work hard for them: work for free, work on the weekends, be the first one there and the last one to leave. Immerse yourself and never stop.
I had the amazing opportunity to work with world-renowned chefs like Eric Ripert and Josiah Citrin, who taught me French technique and skills that I still use every day. I tried to soak up every bit of knowledge I possibly could, because not everyone gets those opportunities. And when you do, you can’t waste it.
EBONY: Is there anything you’ve ever made and thought, “Wow, I’ll never do that again,” or “Damn, that’s perfect”?
NA: One of the most delicious things, I think, I’ve ever made is my honey mustard black cod. That dish is something I’ve been perfecting over seven years and gets it better with every incarnation.
Address: 123 W Washington Blvd., Venice, CA 90291
Phone: (310) 822-5379