Ask many non-native New Orleanians, and some of them will tell you they ended up here because they came for Jazz Fest or Mardi Gras and just never left. It was sort of the same thing for chef Nina Compton, except the experience that made her never want to leave was competing on Bravo’s “Top Chef.” While she did return to Miami after the show, where she worked for celebrity chef Scott Conant as chef de cuisine of Scarpetta, the St. Lucia native soon returned to New Orleans and wondered why she hadn’t done so sooner. On “Top Chef New Orleans,” Compton was an early favorite to win, sweeping elimination challenges – more than the season’s eventual winner, Nicholas Elmi – and hilariously bristling at Galatoire’s chef Michael Sichel’s “booboos” and “baby’s.” While her eventually losing to Elmi was a big upset, she was awarded the Fan Favorite of the season. This month Compton, who lives in Bywater with her husband, Larry Miller, opens her restaurant Compère Lapin in the Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery in the Warehouse District.
Q: You had never been to New Orleans before being on “Top Chef”? No. And it’s funny because my husband and I wanted to come here for our honeymoon – we got married in June – and I thought, “It’s probably going to be too hot, let’s just go somewhere else.” So it was clearly on my mind, and when they told me [“Top Chef”] was going to be in New Orleans I thought it was meant to be. When I came here I was just blown away by the culture, the food, the music. It doesn’t feel like you’re in the States; it feels like you’re somewhere else. We walk down by Jackson Square and my obsession now is to look down alleyways and corridors. You’re transported to Paris or just somewhere in Europe.
When we moved, we were like, “Why didn’t we move here earlier?” There are so many layers to this city. There’s so much history. It’s not just about throwing beads and drinking a hurricane; there’s more to it. Like now we’re approaching festival season – every weekend there’s something going on, I couldn’t believe it. There’s a festival for everything. It just shows you the kind of city you live in that people just celebrate life.
Q: Was there anything about “Top Chef,” as someone who’s watched the show before, that surprised you? I’ve watched the show and would say, “I’d never make that sauce” or “I’d never do this” … I think a lot of people judge you, but you have no idea what equipment you’ll have. There are so many facets you just don’t know about. Every single day was a new chapter. You’re cooking in a swamp, at Dooky Chase, cooking here, cooking there – so you can’t really prepare for it.
Q: Was being runner-up disappointing because you were so close, or are you just happy to have had the experience? Winning would have been the cherry on the sundae, but I got to point where I was like, you know what, I’m just happy to be here. It was a good path for not only me but to showcase my island. After the show I was made a culinary ambassador. So I basically got to travel and educate people about our cuisine, our island. A lot of people back home want to be a chef because of me, so that says a lot. Also because I’m a woman, that’s also very tough in this industry because people see it as a very macho, man-driven industry. So being a woman and to get this far and to be the runner up that says a lot. There are a lot of things I took away from the show.
Q: Did you always want to be a chef? I wanted to be a farmer because that was something I grew up with. My dad had a farm in the south of the island. That was his thing; that was his passion. I always wanted to do that because I think people underestimate farming and they don’t understand it’s the temperature, it’s the weather, it’s the wind, it’s just nature. It’s a very hands-on thing. It’s very delicate because you have to baby that plant. When you get that fruit or vegetable that’s like, “I grew this.” It’s a very personal thing, like cooking is very personal, because you made that dish for somebody to enjoy.
[Becoming a chef] just happened when I started cooking at home. I did a cocktail hour for my family. Made some hors d’oeuvres and a fancy drink and we sat out there for hours, just talking about our childhoods and growing up; I had my niece and nephew with a little tray, passing the hors d’oeuvres around, and it was fun because people were enjoying it. For me it was focusing my family, surrounding us with food and having a good time… I thought, “This is what I want to do.”
Occupation: Chef and Owner of Compère Lapin Age: 37 Born/raised: Saint Lucia Favorite movie: Casino Favorite hobbies: Tennis and horse riding Favorite restaurant: “There are too many in NOLA.” Favorite food: Curry and fried plantains Favorite book: The Fourth Star. “It’s about Daniel Boulud, whom I worked for.” Favorite vacation spot: “I love Europe. Hopefully Turkey or Greece is next on my list to visit … but I also love a nice beach.”
I love fashion and always say, “Keep your standards high and your heels higher.”