A leader in the culinary world, chef Nina Compton is intentionally carving a path for more women in the restaurant industry. The first Black woman to win the James Beard Award for best chef (in 2018), during her years of training, Compton, 41, was intensely aware of the small number of women, especially people of color, in high-end kitchens. While balancing the demands of two restaurants in New Orleans, Compton is also focused on the next generation – hiring and training women, from the front of the house to the kitchens at Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro. That team-building and mentorship are guiding principles for her. “I’m very proud of that because it is very important to have people that look like you in these positions,” she said. “It instills hope. And it makes people want to move up because they can see it’s possible.”
With great care, she’s worked to make her kitchens and restaurants “an unselfish place” like her family kitchen was when she was growing up in St. Lucia.
All in thyme
As the “executive chef” of the household, Compton’s grandmother was always the first one in the kitchen in the morning, preparing breakfast and school lunches as well as creating lists for the evening meal. It was always the busiest room in the house, Compton said. Her father made juice each morning: lime, grapefruit, mango, and guava. Her mother loved to bake and make sweets for all the different family events. “So everybody had a different role” in the kitchen, Compton said.
The kitchen was the focal point for everyone in their very close family, Compton said, including her three sisters, one brother and lots of cousins. On Saturdays, there was always a casual soup lunch. On Sundays, there was a much longer, more formal lunch. “It was more of an experience where you’d sit there for two hours just eating and drinking and talking about the day and what’s happening in the world. But it was all just bringing people together. And food was the main focus,” said Compton.
From when she was very young, Compton said, she assisted her grandmother in the kitchen. “ ‘I need some thyme. I need some basil. I need some lemongrass,’ ” she recalled her grandmother would tell her, and Compton would run out to the garden. By the time she was 7 or 8, Compton had stepped up to assistant chef. “[I was] creating a dish and giving it to the people I love and seeing their faces light up,” she said, remembering how Sunday lunch “became a very big thing for me.”
Time to become a chef
Compton had always thought she would study agriculture, but when it came time to apply, “I looked at universities, and I said, ‘Do I want to be slopping around in the mud?’ It just didn’t feel organic for me.” In her late teens, Compton decided to become a chef. Her mother initially tried to discourage her, then suggested Compton get a job in a restaurant kitchen to determine if the stressful, fast-paced work suited her. At 19, Compton’s first introduction to a professional kitchen was at the Sandals Resort in St. Lucia. “I was constantly pushing and trying to learn more.” Compton said she found her future in that kitchen and the Sandals resort in Jamaica.
After two years there, an American chef with whom she worked suggested Compton’s next step should be cooking school — Johnson & Wales or the Culinary Institute of America were her two choices, she said he told her.
At 21, she was off to the U.S. for training at the Culinary Institute, the Harvard of cooking schools. While it “opened her mind” and educated her on the foundations of cooking, she found herself surrounded by men. Compton forged on and landed an externship in her final year with James Beard Award-winning best chef (1992) Daniel Boulud. She stayed at the two-star Michelin Guide French restaurant Daniel in New York City for a year. A “really intense” experience, Daniel was part of her plan and the reason she’d come to the U.S. in the first place: “To learn from the best. Because my goal was to eventually come back home [to St. Lucia] and have a restaurant.” Her time at Daniel “molded me into the chef I am today,” she said.
When she was 26, Compton moved to Miami, where she worked for seven years under the tutelage of Italian chef Scott Conant at Scarpetta in the Fontainebleau Hotel. There, she “was taught restraint,” she said. “Italian cooking is very simple … Instead of using 25 ingredients, using five, but it’s the best olive oil, the best tomatoes, the best Parmesan cheese, and that makes the dishes shine. So for me understanding that, I was able to become a chef focused more on flavor,” said Compton. The experience allowed her “to become more creative” as a chef.
At Scarpetta, Compton worked up from executive sous chef to chef de cuisine before getting a phone call that would set her on her next course.
“I was just cooking and doing my thing,” she said of the surprising offer she received to compete on Season 11 of Bravo’s Top Chef: New Orleans, which aired in 2013. She hadn’t applied to be on the show and, to this day, has no idea who put her in the producers’ sights.
Compton had never been to New Orleans, but it quickly felt like home. “The people, the music, the buildings. Everything just felt very Caribbean and very European at the same time. And I just loved it.” Immediately, she knew she wanted to find a way to come back to the city after the taping ended.
She said she “had a fun time” doing the show where she had become the fan favorite by the final round. “I was touched [by that] because I think when you can connect with the audience, that speaks volumes,” Compton said. She thinks the fan response may have had to do with that “we’re a team” attitude she’d learned in her family kitchen. “That is definitely who I am … It’s just what I practice every day.”
In that final round, Compton made a first course of tuna and escolar tartare with tomato water and jalapeno. The judge, “Tom [Colicchio] loved that you could taste the island in the basil and chili threads,” entertainment writer Stephan Lee wrote in his review of the final episode for Entertainment Weekly. Judge Hugh Acheson called her second course, an orecchiette with roasted goat sugo, cherry tomato confit and whipped goat cheese, “sublime.”
In the end, “the wrong person won,” Lee wrote in his column condemning Colicchio for Compton’s loss to Nicholas Elmi.
The experience, however, was not a loss for Compton. While she said, “You can never train for [a TV food competition show] because you’re out of your element,” it did teach her how to “think on my feet.”
Time to make New Orleans home
In 2014, Compton was appointed St. Lucia’s culinary ambassador, and later that year, she received an offer to return to New Orleans that would change her cooking career. It meant returning to a city where she “felt welcome,” where the people are “very warm and friendly and inviting,” she said. “A city you feel that you could integrate into the community, where you feel like you are appreciated, you feel seen,” said Compton. Provenance Hotels was transforming a historic building, an old coffee warehouse turned chandlery that was built in 1854, into a hotel, The Old No, 77 Hotel. The hotel group wanted Compton as executive chef for the hotel’s restaurant. In the port district, just about a half mile from the French Quarter, Compère Lapin opened in 2015.
The menu tells “the story of my journey growing up in the Caribbean, living in Miami, living and working in New York, and now living in New Orleans,” said Compton. “And I think people do appreciate that because … everybody loves a story. You know, it’s just not food on the plate. You can taste the feeling of it.”
The most “impactful dish” she said she serves is the curry golden sweet potato gnocchi. “Curry is my comfort food … curry is gold. It’s a staple. And it’s treasured” in the Caribbean, she said. Curry goat, an uncommon menu item in the States, she said, “just made sense of time and place — of where I started and where I ended.”
Another dish that fuses the food of her island home with the flavors of New Orleans is the Creole stewed conch. A popular menu item in the Caribbean, conch is only found on a few menus in New Orleans, Compton said, but Creole seasoning is popular. “So, it just makes sense, also, to have that dish.”
A year and a half after Compton opened Compère Lapin, Food & Wine magazine named her a best new chef in 2017. That same year, the James Beard Foundation nominated her as a finalist in the best chef: South. In 2018, she won the category.
“It wasn’t just about the achievement for myself, but the achievement also for my team,” Compton said. “Everybody is treated equally because everybody’s position is very important. If we don’t have a bartender today, we’re gonna feel it, because who’s gonna make the drinks? If the dishwasher is unable to come in, it cripples the team. So I always tell people, it is a team sport and we’re playing the game every night of service and we’re passing the ball to each other and we have to be unified.”
Compton’s success (and long waiting lists for Compère Lapin) led her to open a second New Orleans restaurant in 2018. Bywater American Bistro is a very different restaurant, she said, with a neighborhood feel.
It’s time for more women in the restaurant industry
Even without the pull of two restaurants, Compton said, there’s a lot of extra work that goes into being a female executive chef. It’s a problem that plagues most female leaders, she said. “You have to try harder. You have to prove yourself more because there’s doubt” from others and a lot of criticism. She said she’d hear it constantly: “ ‘Nina Compton is so hard-nosed,’ or ‘She’s mean.’ Those stigmas are attached to women leaders, whereas for men, it’s expected.” In her opinion, most female chefs run better operations than men because “women are more even-keeled. They have less of an ego. They minimize the drama,” as well as being “more thoughtful” and “intentional” in their approach, she said.
Compton wants to help create a path for the next generation of women in the restaurant industry. Her general manager and assistant general manager are both female and she employs female sous chefs and many female line cooks. Having someone who looked like her was missing as she rose through her career, and she wanted to make sure it was different for the next generation. She insists that her female staff be “better, faster, stronger than their male counterparts because we have to instill that confidence.”
Meanwhile, she is seeing a “very powerful” shift, she said, as more female chefs, restaurant owners, general managers and sommeliers rise in the ranks. Making herself visible as one of the few Black women to win a James Beard Foundation Award is also vital to Compton. It’s one of the reasons she participates in chef events such as the Georgetown Wine & Dine showcase at Four Seasons Hotel restaurant, Bourbon Steak, in Washington in November. “When you [bring together] a great group of chefs from all backgrounds, I think it’s a great thing,” she said. Ten award-winning chefs, eight men and two women, came from around the country to participate in the event.
As Compton looks ahead to the next decade, she plans to be part of a movement that will change the restaurant industry, including “diversity, work/life balance, less stress,” she said. Her focus will be “just trying to keep our team as whole as possible,” so the kitchen remains the place of her childhood — an unselfish place where joy and passion for food are shared.