Her life has been on fast forward since she emerged as the runner-up on the popular Top Chef TV series in 2013. She’s opened two restaurants and won a heap of awards, including a highly prestigious James Beard Foundation Award — the Oscar of the food world. When I ask chef Nina Compton about finding balance in her life, her answer, with a laugh, is, “When I figure that out, I’ll let you know.”
“It’s a funny thing how the past couple of years have gone by so quickly,” she says. “It’s kind of overwhelming, because after doing Top Chef and winning these awards, things just got bigger and bigger and bigger. The demands are crazy.”
The New Orleans–based chef loves being able to fly to far-flung places to cook with her contemporaries, but her main focus is her two restaurants, Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro. “I never expected all this success,” she says, “but I’m very happy that it happened.”
Born and raised in St Lucia, Compton is the daughter of late prime minister
Sir John Compton, who, even as the leader of his country, never gave up his profession as a farmer. Sir John never much bothered with the trappings of office, and his children grew up like everyone else, walking to school and doing just as the other children did.
The farmer’s daughter grew up with a love of fresh fruit and vegetables, and also the sea. In a 2019 interview on the Bon Appetit magazine podcast, she said her first food memory was “going into the ocean and dipping a beautiful ripe mango in the salt water, then having a bite.” Her culinary journey began with her English grandmother in St Lucia. Her granny was a retired nurse, who spent a lot of time in the kitchen, preparing meals for the family. “Her life was just cooking and organising meals for the family,” Compton says. “As I got older, I’d ask, ‘Granny, can I help? Can I cut the onions for you?’ That was important for me, because we became very close. Cooking was our bond.”
Compton left St Lucia at sixteen to attend school in Britain. At first she thought it would be an adventure, but soon realised she needed to adapt quickly to the culture and the awful weather. Two years later, she returned to St Lucia and contemplated her next steps, but she knew that university was not for her. It was cooking the Christmas meal for the family with her granny that helped her to decide she wanted to enter the culinary field. “I remember seeing the reactions, how happy my family was . . . and I told my mom, ‘I think I want to cook.’”
Her mother sensibly warned her about the arduous life that chefs endure — the long hours, the stress, and generally not having a social life. Realising it was something she was intent on trying, Compton’s mother helped her get a job in the kitchen at the Sandals resort in St Lucia. After a year of working her way around the kitchen, Compton started feeling “stuck,” she says. She requested a transfer to Sandals in Jamaica, where she “had a blast,” but after two years, that familiar feeling of being stuck returned.
Advised by her head chef to attend culinary school, she applied and was accepted to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in New York City. While there, she made up her mind to work at one of the top restaurants in the city. What followed was a period in the early 2000s in celebrated chef Daniel Boulud’s “intense” kitchen. Under his exacting chef de cuisine Alex Lee, Compton built a strong foundation for the future.
Put off by the New York winters, Compton set her sights south, and applied to work with Norman Van Aken in Florida. The so-called “founding father of New World Cuisine” was a trailblazer for his use of Latin, Caribbean, Asian, and African flavours, and this was a huge draw for the young St Lucian. “He was cooking with a lot of tropical ingredients and he was doing stuff that I wouldn’t have thought of. He was using yucca [cassava], conch, and ingredients nobody else was using.”
Fast forward to 2013: Compton’s growing reputation as a brilliant chef is cemented after stints at several top restaurants in Florida. Cable television channel Bravo calls, and asks her to be a contestant on season eleven of the series Top Chef. Anyone who has watched the show knows it puts the competing chefs under the microscope in a pressure-cooker environment. Top Chef’s history is littered with a trail of chefs who simply cracked under the pressure.
Compton knew about the ultra-competitive and stressful nature of the competition, but she felt Top Chef was an opportunity to feature Caribbean food in a positive way — and, of course, bring attention to St Lucia. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” she recalls, but “Top Chef was actually a fun experience.”
Season eleven was extremely competitive. Compton reached the final, and was pitted against Philadelphia chef Nicholas Elmi — the contestant who fellow chefs and viewers loved to hate, because of his perceived lack of humility and bad attitude. In the end, Elmi triumphed, but Compton won the hearts of viewers and TV critics, and was voted People’s Choice.
Since then, life has been a whirlwind for Compton and her husband and business partner Larry Miller. The couple moved from Florida to New Orleans after falling in love with the city where some of the Top Chef episodes were filmed. “The culture was very similar to the Caribbean but also very different,” Compton told Bon Appetit. “New Orleans has a special feel, that you don’t feel like you’re in the States. It’s a fun environment, and people are about life.”
In 2015, she opened her first restaurant, Compère Lapin (named after the rabbit character from Creole folktales), to praise and accolades. In 2017, Compton was named Best New Chef by Food and Wine magazine and Compère Lapin was also listed in Eater’s top thirty restaurants in the US. In March 2018, she collaborated with her sous chef Levi Raines to open her second restaurant, Bywater American Bistro, serving a menu that reflects contemporary American cuisine. In May 2018, the hard work truly paid off, with a coveted James Beard Award for Best Chef: South.
Catching Nina Compton for an interview is not easy — she has some ridiculous working hours. We eventually speak via Skype early one Saturday morning before she heads to the farmers’ markets.
She spoke about the demands of owning two restaurants and the importance of creating positive and respectful kitchens, but she was most passionate about how welcoming the people of New Orleans have been to her, pointing out that the African-American community has really embraced her. “I’ve had people in the black community approach me and help uplift me,” she says. “People come to the restaurant and say, ‘I came to the restaurant because I wanted to support a black woman and what she’s doing.’”
So what can an eager prospective eater expect on the menu at Compère Lapin — where the chef’s philosophy revolves around the complexity of simplicity, and the power of pure flavours? First of all, don’t expect a Caribbean take on Louisana’s most famous dish, gumbo.
“If I do something, I’m going to do something different, and I want to bring my Caribbean heritage so people can understand where I am coming from,” Compton says. “One of the dishes I have on the menu at the moment is curry goat. It’s something I grew up with, it’s my comfort food.”
But although her Caribbean-influenced menu has been a hit in New Orleans, Compton is not sure if Caribbean food can go mainstream in the near future. “Caribbean food is so unique and different islands have different things,” she explains. “It’s hard, because you can’t put a collection of Caribbean food together — people say, jerk chicken is from Jamaica, or this is from here. People still identify certain things from particular islands.
“We need to be more universal, and while every island is different, the islands are also quite similar. I think there needs to be a collective exploration of the Caribbean, that’s what needs to happen.” The forty-one-year-old believes that chefs from the region are elevating our food, but they need to draw more from history in developing our regional cuisine.
As far as the future is concerned, Compton seems set to stay in New Orleans for the long term. Early in her career, she thought of moving back to
St Lucia to open a restaurant by the sea, but that is now a “retirement” plan.
“There’s a beautiful feeling when I reach home,” she says. “As soon as I land, there is no stress. The Caribbean, a lot of people take it for granted. Every time I go home, I think, man, this is where I’m from, this is the land.”
Find out more about chef Nina Compton’s New Orleans restaurants:
Bywater American Bistro