Professional choreographer and director Jessica Chen arrived in New York as a student at the Ailey School and never left! Hell’s Kitchen “has been my home, safe space and HQ ever since,” she says. This is Jessica’s West Side Story.

Jessica originally moved to NYC for The Ailey School Summer Intensive. Photo: Naty Caez

So, what’s your New York story? Born here, or just arrived?
After college, I moved to New York City for The Ailey School Summer Intensive. I originally planned to stay for two months, but I fell in love with the city, made great friends and decided to call NYC home. With two of my Ailey School classmates, we found a three-bed apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, just blocks away from the school — and it has been my home, safe space and HQ ever since. 

What was your first job? What do you do now?
My first NYC job was as a server at a Mexican restaurant just a block from The Ailey School. It was an exciting and vibrant community filled with fellow artists, including dancers, actors, musicians, writers and costume designers. This job provided the financial support and flexibility I needed to pursue my passion for the arts. I could attend classes and auditions and manage other financial commitments while surrounded by inspiring and like-minded individuals, which nurtured my growth as an artist.

Photo Jessica Chen
Jessica Chen is a professional dancer, choreographer and director. Photo: Paul Dimalanta

Now, I am a professional choreographer and director, wearing multiple hats in the art world. As the founder, Artistic Director and Choreographer of the contemporary dance company J CHEN PROJECT, I create dance works exploring themes like identity, culture, and belonging. Alongside this role, I also freelance as a theater choreographer and director, infusing my choreographic style and direction into iconic productions. Currently, I am working on productions of Spring Awakening and Cabaret — both shows I love and have been eager to work on.

What’s your favorite New York minute (or moment) so far?
My favorite New York moment is the first show I saw at Lincoln Center. It was the first year I moved to NYC, and I went with my two roommates who were also dancers. We saw the New York City Ballet at the David H. Koch Theater. We have a photo at the theater that I will always cherish. It is a treasured memory. 

Share with us why you love Hell’s Kitchen
I love Hell’s Kitchen because it is in the heart of New York City. Every day is an adventure and the possibilities are boundless. Living practically on the doorstep of Broadway, I am treated to the spectacle of world-class shows right at my fingertips. I remember a friend texting me 15 minutes before curtain call because he had an extra ticket to Hamilton! I made it to the theater in 10! Hell’s Kitchen has captured my heart with its ever-surprising charm, bursting with cultural diversity and vibrant experiences.

What’s your superpower or hidden talent?
My superpower is adaptability. I have a natural ability to seamlessly adjust to various situations and connect with diverse groups of people. Throughout my life, I’ve cultivated a diverse circle of friends, each bringing unique perspectives and experiences. This adaptability has enriched my personal life and proved to be a powerful asset in my career. It allows me to navigate different professional environments. It keeps life inclusive and interesting, as I welcome new challenges and opportunities with open arms. 

Jessica with her husband Dave at Bird & Branch.
Jessica with her husband Dave at Bird & Branch. Photo: Naty Caez

What else should we know about you?
I was thrilled to be at Lincoln Center Damrosch Park for The Bessies Awards on Friday, August 4, where I was nominated for Outstanding Choreographer/Creator!!!

Jessica’s Favorite Hell’s Kitchen Places

Amy’s Bread — 672 9th Avenue (bw W46/47th St)
Amy’s Bread has held a special place on my list of all-time favorites throughout my years in NYC. Whether celebrating an accomplishment or seeking a pick-me-up during challenging times, it remains my go-to spot. Countless artist dates with friends have been joyfully spent at this charming haven. Amy’s Bread embodies everything I cherish about New York City — the perfect blend of comfort, creativity, and community.

Bird and Branch — 359 W45th Street (bw 8th/9th Ave)
The coffee and pastries here are SOOO good. 

Jessica at Bird & Branch. Photo: Naty Caez

Yuri Sushi House — 374 W46th Street (bw 8th/9th Ave)
I LOVE SUSHI! Whenever my craving for sushi strikes, this place is my go-to destination without hesitation. It’s a tiny little place that is take out only. 

DOMUS — 413 W44th Street (bw 9th/10th Ave)
Domus is my favorite gift store in Hell’s Kitchen. Luisa and Nicki, the owners, are nothing short of inspiring. Their tagline, “unaffected living,” resonates deeply, capturing the essence of their extraordinary store. They travel around the world, meeting artisans and craft-makers, bringing back unique treasures from all corners of the world. Their passion for sharing the stories behind each creation adds a personal touch, making every purchase an enriching experience.

Beer Cheese — 677 9th Avenue (bw W46/47th St)
The Beer Cheese store is the best. I love going there with my husband. He picks out a beer, I order a glass of wine, and we share one of the meaty sandwiches. When we want to indulge, we get the fondue.

Westville — 809 9th Avenue (bw W53/54th St)
It’s one of my new favorite spots. The food is so fresh. I love the Market Veggies, and the Sesame Chicken Rice Bowl. Their margaritas are good too! I’ve gone there by myself and also with a friend before shows. 

Westville is one of Jessica’s new favorite spots. Photo: Naty Caez

Deacon Brodie’s — 370 W46th Street (bw 8th/9th Ave)
There are SO many bars in Hell’s Kitchen. There’s something so simple and perfect about Deacon Brodie’s Tavern. 

Industry Bar — 355 W52nd Street (bw 8th/9th Ave)
It’s a great night when I go to Industry. Whether for a drag show or a night out dancing, I always leave Industry elated. 

V{IV} — 717 9th Avenue (bw W48/49th St)
My favorite Thai place in Hell’s Kitchen. The drinks and food are perfection. 

Arriba Arriba — 762 9th Avenue (corner of W51st St)
First of all… how fun is it saying Arriba Arriba?! haha This restaurant has been in Hell’s Kitchen forever, and whenever I go, I ALWAYS run into someone I know. Recently I went, and I ran into a manager I had worked with for years. He told me he bought into the business and is now a part-owner! I’m so happy for him. 🙂 

Jessica always runs into someone she knows at Arriba Arriba. Photo: Naty Caez

Anything else you’d like to tell us?
Thank you for reading!!! 

You can follow Jessica on Instagram @jessicachen.arts and her company work at @jchenproject. Her website is: If you know someone who would make a great West Side Story (or you would like to nominate yourself), please fill in this form —

You can check out more West Side Stories and reader recommendations on W42ST’s Hell’s Kitchen Local App.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *