Nyesha Arrington Draws from Her Multicultural Heritage at Leona

The chef pays homage to her Korean grandmother and a myriad of global influences at her new Venice restaurant

As a child, Nyesha Arrington spent hours peeling garlic while watching cartoons. “I remember I loved it because I always trying to find out ways to do it faster, but my sister was hating it,” she says. The time-consuming task was regularly delegated to the girls by their grandmother, a Korean immigrant whose influence is now peppered throughout the menu at Arrington’s first restaurant, Leona.

Arrington describes Leona’s food as “progressive Californian cuisine,” which focuses on local ingredients while drawing from her multi-cultural heritage and childhood stint as grandma’s prep cook. But even more evident is the classical training she developed while working under famed L.A. fine-dining vet and owner of Mélisse, Josiah Citrin, who became a mentor during the earliest days of her professional career. The result is a menu with Korean influence, French technique, and a global point of view that could only come from a native Angeleno.

Nyesha Arrington
Nyesha Arrington

Photo courtesy of Leona

“I think all food is soulful,” she says. “And I think on this menu it plays so well together—there’s Indian influences, and Latin influences, and Asian influences, and they all are very quintessential Los Angeles dining.” Arrington admits she’s grown tired of the “pork belly and Brussels sprouts, bacon, put an egg on top” conventions of many New American menus and wanted to create something truly original. She did.

The flavors, techniques, and ethos that mark her style are showcased in dishes like bulgogi braised shortrib with bone marrow, served with potatoes plucked from the ground less than 20 miles away at Weiser Family Farms. Her lamb belly wontons are punctuated by tat soi and crispy artichoke. Korean latkes, a hybrid of kimchi and potato pancakes topped with crème fraiche, show up on the brunch menu next to a beach-appropriate soft shell crab Benedict with avocado. There’s Japanese inflection in the wakame-cured hamachi, hints of the Mediterranean via flatbreads and hummus, and the Latin-leaning coctel mixto, a seafood cocktail in a tomato-watermelon jus that comes topped with crispy rice paper.

Creme Fraiche tops Arrington's Korean Latkes
Creme Fraiche tops Arrington’s Korean Latkes

Photo courtesy of Leona

Arrington started configuring the menu after leaving her executive chef position at Wilshire Restaurant. “Once I was able to be in my own space and just free up my mind, I really started doing a lot of research and development, going to farms, and just meeting the makers of a lot of these products and things I’ve been using for years. And doing lots of traveling,” she says. For two years after leaving her executive chef gig, Arrington did private parties around L.A. and New York until meeting up with her would-be partners, first-time restaurateurs Kristian and Breegan Vallas.

“I just got chills because this is 100 percent of what I’ve been looking for, what I’ve been preparing for professionally, creatively, who Nyesha Arrington is as a person: a bi-racial young woman in Los Angeles, trying to figure life out,” she says. “My business partners, they believe in me so much and give me so much confidence that it’s easy.”

The Vallas have had a significant influence on her cooking by encouraging experimentation and expression. They asked Arrington to put more of herself, her identity, her soul into the food—and she delivered. As a child, she fantasized about opening a restaurant that served food from a different ethnicity every day of the week; Leona is the all-grown-up facsimile of just that.

“I knew that [being a professional chef] is what I wanted to do, and I said, ‘I want to know everything about it,'” Arrington says, attributing her multi-faceted cooking to the diverse paths she taken in her professional career—from cooking in a taco shop on the beach in Hawaii to her days as saucier at Mélisse. “I’ve picked up a little bit here, a little bit there, and really honed my skill set and flavors I was familiar with throughout my childhood.”

Arrington plans to continue building on her past experiences and knowledge at Leona and eventually branch out into other concepts. She’s playing with the idea of going fast-casual with a wonton or dumpling shop someday, and—more than anything—is just plain excited about about what the future holds.  “I’ve always really had it in my heart to have something like this—no borders, no boundaries,” says Arrington. “I never want to be stifled.”