The Sundance Film Festival draws Hollywood elite to Utah every winter to celebrate film. But the film festival also coincides with a lesser-known but equally star-studded event that draws chefs from around the country to Park City to celebrate food.
Known as ChefDance, the event last month featured as a headliner Nyesha Arrington, executive chef of the restaurant Leona in Venice, CA, which opened in July 2015.
Arrington's resume includes the kitchens of Josiah Citrin’s Mélisse; Joël Robuchon’s L’Atelier and The Mansion; and the Los Angeles restaurant Wilshire. She has also appeared on a number of TV chef competition shows, including Top Chef and Chef Hunter. Leona is owned by Kristian and Breegan Vallas.
At Leona, Arrington has staked her claim for what she calls California progressive cuisine, reflecting her biracial background and growing up in Southern California with an appreciation for the seasonal bounty of farmers' markets.
Here’s how Arrington describes the ChefDance event and how Leona represents her style of cooking:
What did you do for ChefDance and how was it?
I was invited to cook a four-course dinner for 250. It was amazing—an awesome experience. It snowed the whole time.
The premise behind the dishes was they hug you from inside. So for the first course I did a coconut roasted tomato soup. I cook what I call California progressive cuisine, or food that’s really globally inspired. That dish was North African with fresh turmeric and coconut and tomato and some ginger. It was sort of a ray of sunshine from California.
From there, it went to tuna tataki with smoked potatoes. We got the pine from a pine tree out near the event and smoked the potatoes naturally.
From there went into a dish inspired by French onion soup. It was Snake River Farms Wagyu beef with these really amazing bruléed sherry onions and aged cheese crumbles with cognac beef jus.
For dessert, a dish that’s on Leona’s menu: Adult frosted flakes, which I make with a brown rice pudding base cooked down with dark rum and a lot of love. We take toasted jasmine rice with clarified butter, cook the rice down, pour off the water and cook the brown rice with that starchy water so it get this amazing texture, then do an icy condensed-milk froth. So you get this amazing brown rice base with crunchy corn flakes and this frothy milk over the top.
How does the food at Leona represent who you are as a chef?
It is everything that is me. I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘Finally Nyesha opened a restaurant,’ and ‘Why did you wait so long?’ I’m not in any kind of rush. I ran my first kitchen at 23. Now being 33, I feel I have an amazing arsenal to draw from. I feel very prepared for this and want to open more concepts from here.
For me, Leona being my home base is about global inspiration. I wanted to align myself with the best French chefs because I feel that cooking in the French style is really a huge facet in how we cook today, in terms of braising and different techniques and how we break down various products and develop flavor.
I’m also very fond of the Japanese way of discipline and how fish is cared for. I worked with one of the best three-Michelin-star Japanese chefs who ran the Robuchon kitchen. I really learned what finesse means and the staying power of what it means to be a chef.
All of those thing are unfolding at Leona. But it’s a comfortable setting. We have people coming off the beach and ordering the three-course truffle menu, and we’re paying jazz and Stevie Wonder or hip hop music. A common denominator around the restaurant is that you feel the love, whether it’s in the food or the staff.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect photo credit, and title for Arrington, and neglected to mention the restaurant’s owners.