Born and raised on the small Caribbean island of St. Lucia, educated in England, and now spearheading two of New Orleans’ most buzzed-about restaurants, Nina Compton has crafted a unique perspective on food.
Nina left her island home with the notion of becoming a chef, enrolled in culinary school in the United States, and has been raising the bar ever since. Nina got her culinary start at famed big-city restaurants, apprenticing at DANIEL in New York City under Chef Daniel Boulud and later working as chef de cuisine at Scott Conant’s Scarpetta in Miami.
She first stepped on New Orleans soil when the hit TV show Top Chef came calling—on which she became the Season 11 runner-up and fan favorite. After living in the Crescent City while competing on the show, Nina and her husband, Larry Miller, decided to plant their roots in the storied locale and open their first restaurant—the critically acclaimed Compère Lapin—in 2015.
At Compère Lapin, Nina’s menu embodies her roots, which extend from St. Lucia to Europe to New York to Miami to New Orleans, giving it a distinct flair all its own that locals and tourists alike can’t get enough of. And after opening a second restaurant, Bywater American Bistro, and winning her first James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: South this year, it looks like Nina has only just begun.
Tell us about your childhood in St. Lucia.
My mom loved to bake, but my grandmother was the real cook in the family, and we were very close. I learned so much from watching her in the kitchen and, as I got a little older, she’d let me help her cook. She’s British and was a nurse who loved to have afternoon tea—she’d make little sandwiches and tea with fresh fruit, and we’d sit and talk for hours. She let me help in the kitchen as I got older.
What kind of food did you eat growing up?
We ate lots of fish, like green fig and salt fish, flying fish and parsley sauce, and my grandmother also loved lamb, so we ate that, too. Of course, we had incredible fresh fruits and vegetables available to us [on the island], so that played a central role in every meal.
Was cast-iron cookware a big part of your family’s cooking?
We used cast-iron skillets to make fried accra, which is a street food on the islands, using malanga [a starchy root vegetable]. Now, I use cast-iron skillets for some of my dishes at the restaurants and at home if we want to make great fried foods.
What made you decide to move to the United States?
After I attended school in England, I came back to St. Lucia and told my parents I wanted to be in the food world. I got an internship at a hotel in Jamaica, and while I was there, I fell in love with being in the kitchen and cooking. I went back to St. Lucia after the internship and knew I wanted to go to culinary school. So I enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York, and the rest is history.
I remember going to my first Thanksgiving that year with a friend from CIA and really enjoyed the family tradition and food traditions of that holiday. We don’t have Thanksgiving in St. Lucia, but it still reminded me of our family dinners back home. I love going home as much as I can. Of course, now with two restaurants, it’s a bit more challenging.