Words and Photos by Lemar Arceneaux
We recently sat down with Chef Nina Compton, one of the Caribbean’s most accomplished chefs. You may know her from her appearance on season 11 of Bravo’s Top Chef series, but that represents only a small portion of Chef Compton’s success. Prior to (and after) her appearance on Top Chef, she served as Chef de Cuisine at Scarpetta at Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel, working under celebrity chef Scott Conant, whom she credits as one of her mentors. Born and raised in St. Lucia, she also serves as that island’s culinary ambassador, a role which further validates her skills in the kitchen.
Earlier this year, Chef Compton decided to embark on her latest mission, spreading the flavors of the Caribbean to New Orleans. At Compère Lapin, located at the The Old No. 77 Hotel in the city’s Warehouse District, she plays the role of both executive chef and owner. Compère Lapin is French for brother rabbit, the title of a folktale from Nina’s upbringing in St. Lucia which also has ties to Louisiana. It’s the perfect title for what Chef Compton has brought to New Orleans: Just as the folktale has made its way through different places and cultures, so has the food prepared at Compere Lapin. While Nina delivers dishes originating from various places, we still get a taste of St. Lucia in every bite.
Although New Orleans is considered the home of Creole cuisine, it is rarely seen delivered in this manner. Being from a Creole culture herself in St. Lucia, New Orleans was an ideal place for Chef Compton to land after Miami. “I always wanted to live here,” she says. “I was very intrigued by the charm and history of the city… I think it’s a beautiful place to live.” She’s now one of the few New Orleans restaurant owners who has actually grown up in a true Creole culture, other than New Orleans itself. Hopefully her move inspires more chefs from Creole islands to join the city’s culinary conversation.
Chef Compton is soft spoken and humble, but well aware of her impact in the kitchen. During our conversation she recalled how it was the reactions from friends and family which assured her that cooking was her destiny. “When I came home and first cooked Christmas dinner for my family, I noticed the response was so positive,” she recalls. “I said this is something that I want to do: I want to make people happy by cooking.” Memories of milk punch, roasted hams, and boudin noir also came up as she reminisced on the holiday season during her childhood in St. Lucia. “My grandmother was very big into cooking, so I would always hang out with her in the kitchen,” she says. “Growing up, Christmas time was like the biggest time of the year because everybody, my aunts and my uncles would come by.” Even though the holidays were filled with great foods, it’s the curry from back home that brings the most satisfaction to Compton. “I love curry. Any type of curry. Whether it’s curry goat, curry beef, curry chicken. I really enjoy that.”
We were lucky enough to have Chef Compton prepare her version of curried goat for us, which also includes plantain gnocchi. In case you didn’t know, gnocchi happens to be one of her specialties: During her time at Scarpetta she was crowned the kitchen’s “Gnocchi Queen.” Combining an Italian classic like gnocchi with island favorites like curried goat and plantain isn’t obvious. But you don’t get to Chef Compton’s spot by taking the obvious route.
Join us below for some photos of Chef Compton, Compère Lapin, and the food that has placed her in such high demand.
Images and sculptures of brother rabbit (Compere Lapin) are sprinkled throughout the restaurant. “It’s a folktale that I grew up with,” Chef Compton says. “When I was doing the research on New Orleans I saw that there was the same folktale from the Laura Plantation [in Vacherie, Louisiana]. So I thought that it would be a nice way to tie what I grew up with, with this city as well.”
“I definitely try to use ingredients such as coconut milk and scotch bonnet peppers, things that I grew up with, but also tying it in with the cooking that we have here. That makes sense because it’s very similar cooking, but [we’re] also giving it a different twist.”