“Wow, you can use these in a fancy restaurant?!”
Chef Nina Compton on a nomadic culinary life, and the things she’s learned along the way.
I was raised in St. Lucia, which is half British and half French, so from a very young age, I was introduced to both cuisines—my British grandmother’s plum pudding was so rich! I always enjoyed cooking, but my mom told me to get experience first and understand that I would be working long hours, holidays and with a lot of stress for the rest of my life. But back then I was very eager—I was 16 when I started working in a hotel kitchen and by 17 I moved to Jamaica to work in another hotel.
So began my mix of influences and my nomadic life. People think all the Caribbean islands are the same, but in Jamaica, there’s a lot more use of coffee and cocoa, and with the Rastafarian movement there’s more of a vegetarian focus. Living away from home at such a young age, you miss things, but I was trying to learn. I told my chef in Jamaica that I wanted to move up. He told me to go to culinary school.
I moved again, this time to upstate New York to attend the Culinary Institute of America, which led to a job with Daniel Boulud in Manhattan. It was a very intense kitchen to work in—very French, very traditional, very strict. It was my foundation as a chef. One day, Daniel Boulud came up to me and sternly said, “If you don’t have respect for the ingredients, they won’t have respect for you.” Now, whether it’s fish, meat, vegetable or sauce, I have respect for it. It’s hard to describe but it shows in your cooking.
I admit that I didn’t really enjoy living in New York—it was just too cold! So I made the jump to Miami and worked with Norman Van Aken. He was doing Caribbean and Latin food on a very elevated scale—something nobody was doing at the time—using yucca, plantains, ingredients that I grew up with as a child! I was like, “Wow, you can use these in a fancy restaurant?!” It was an eye-opener. Later, I had the opportunity to work for Scott Conant as a sous chef at Scarpetta in the Fontainebleau Miami Beach. At previous jobs, I’d felt I had to put lots of ingredients in a dish, but in the seven years I worked for Scott, I learned the simplicity of cooking. He taught me that less is often more on the plate.
In 2014, I went on Top Chef in New Orleans. With no recipes, I had to think outside the box. In the process, I found myself and my voice, and fell in love with New Orleans. Opening a restaurant there was a natural move for me—there are a lot of Caribbean and French influences, and when I researched Creole and Cajun history, I came across a book I’d read as a child that kids also read in New Orleans titled Compère Lapin (patois for “brother rabbit”). I felt I’d come full circle, in part, thanks to all the places I’d been, so that’s why I named my restaurant after the book.
On my menu, dishes like curried goat with gnocchi trace my path—it’s just me in a bowl. It’s very approachable and I want it to make people feel welcome. After living in so many different places, that feeling of being welcome is what’s most important for me.
Nina Compton will appear at an American Way panel during this month’s South Beach Wine & Food Festival; sobewff.org