Chef Nina Compton is an award-winning chef having won Food & Wine magazine’s “Best New Chef” award in 2017 and followed up in 2018 with the coveted James Beard award for Best Chef. Compton is also adored by fans of Bravo’s Top Chef. The New Orleans chef became a top contender on Season 11 of the cooking competition and earned runner up in 2013. Compton is not new to this. She is a seasoned chef who brings a wealth of culinary experience and Caribbean-inspired flavor to New Orleans, where she owns–not one but–two restaurants: Bywater American Bistro and Compère Lapin. MADAMENOIRE caught up with the accomplished chef at SAVOR & SOUL™— a music and culinary experience presented by American Express during Essence weekend—to discuss what she brings to the table, both figuratively and literally.
MN: Tell us about this collaboration with American Express.
Chef Nina Compton: Doing something for and with the community was a really big thing, and I think Amex really wanted to have that local connection. And really put people that live here in the forefront. That was really nice.
When I came in, I had a shrimp remoulade and I decimated it. Tell me something about the dish.
The menu I curated for this event was really about soul satisfying things I really enjoy. So, things like the hush puppies, things like the shredded pork, things of when I moved here, I say “Oh my God this shrimp is amazing” we have beautiful bell shrimp, beautiful crab, beautiful seafood. I am like why not put this on the menu. I wanted to have things that are full of flavor. So, when you try the pork chops, when you try the chicken, when you try all those things it like so much flavor … There are no bad cooks here [in New Orleans]. This is not just professional; this is like the home cooks. It’s like you have to put your best foot forward. So, if something is bland or like hmm …
It’s like [in] New Orleans, that’s problematic. We came across a venue that was serving a large group of people. We noticed that the cook was outside frying fish for this large body of people [inside]. He was tearing it up, outside. So, you said when you ‘moved here,’ where are you coming from?
From Miami, I am originally from St. Lucia, but I have been in Miami for 14 years. I really enjoyed living in Miami. I always knew I loved being by the beach but for me coming to New Orleans for the first time, I fell in love with it. Because it is something about the city. I got so many (friends that come from the Caribbean) it’s just like home. It feels like home for me.
Right. I’m guessing, I am going to make an assumption that I know is true but coming from St. Lucia, you’re bringing something else to this large melting pot that is New Orleans. So, tell me how you went from St. Lucia and formed something meaningful here with New Orleans cuisine.
So, it stems from what you have locally. So, the beautiful seafood, the beautiful black-eyed peas. I take all of those things, process it and put my spin on it. So, for example, black-eyed peas—and cook them with tomato. So, people are like “I’ve had black eyed peas but nothing like this.” A lot of those things I grew up with I want to share with people. So, when I had the goat for the first time, I was like “Oh, it’s not going to sell, just take it off the menu after a month.” We cannot keep up, it’s our #1 selling dish. Because people are so intrigued by those flavors because people have never had goat before. I’ve never had goat before, sweet potato gnocchi with the goat. So, I take a lot of southern influences. So, things like sweet potato that we got for the restaurant because it’s something we’re trying to sell. Collard greens is the same thing, but I take my spin on those flavors and people are like “Oh, yeah I get it”
Oh yeah, I like that kind of layering … How important is it for you to be a part of this … as a black woman?
I think it’s really important. When I first moved here, Leah Chase— the grand dame of Creole cuisine—she basically pulled me aside and said that I have to make it. So, I’m like “I’m trying”… you have to make it. When she’s giving me a tap on the shoulder, I feel like she’s passing the fortunately. I have to keep that going because as a black woman chef that has two restaurants, there aren’t many of us in the city. So, I think setting this example and showing people like, hey, you can do it, so can I and there’s so many women like, I want to be just like Ms. Leah, which I was growing up. Now I feel like we have to keep growing that brand and pulling people up with you.
Tell me, is having two establishments the pinnacle of your career or is there more?
Tell me more. What’s coming?
I was telling somebody today we did a brunch thing, and we were talking about culture and cuisine when I was coming up and I got my first restaurant and my second restaurant. It became a thing of showcasing my Caribbean cuisine and I want to get to the point where I am making Caribbean people feel confident and make them feel proud of their culture and food.
I think that there’s a sense of pride that we have in our little communities, but I want people to be like “I want that, I want this.”
I want it to be on the tip of everybody’s tongue because I think Caribbean cuisine, when you look at the journey of the islands—each island is so different and so similar at the same time. If we talk about the origin of things that happened in Africa and that came to the Caribbean, and then came to New Orleans. A lot of people don’t understand that the Caribbean settlers were here. They were here so when you talk about Nevis, it came from Nevis, and it came here. So, a lot of those things are intertwined, and I think showing that common thread to food is really important to me.
Is a cookbook on the horizon?
It’s in the works, it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot but I’m working with Osayi Endolyn, who is a genius. She is just so smart with everything, and the way she takes my words and puts it on paper. I’m like I would have never been able to say that. Osayi Endolyn has a gift. I met her many years ago
Osayi Endolyn just won a James Beard award for The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food with decorated chef Marcus Samuelsson. I had a chance to dine with her a few weeks ago.
Yes, I was. I want to see you there next year.