"When I think of the Caribbean, I think of vibrant flavors and bold colors like: turquoise, yellow, green, blue, red. And all of that is in our food," Chef Nina Compton recalls of her home island of St. Lucia. "When I got the opportunity to do my own thing and was asked what the concept would be, the first thing I said was, 'I'm just going to cook my food, I'm going to put Caribbean food on the map.'"
Compton's journey in the culinary world is a storied one. Like many, her love for cooking was born from the fond memories and warm feelings of family gatherings. Seeing her mother and grandmother put their soul into creating dishes that evoked happiness for all. She, too, wanted to be able to do the same—especially as a way to honor the women in her life for their time and effort.
But one would be remiss to mention that her father also played a major role in that influence. A farmer by trade, Sir John George Melvin Compton was the first prime minister of St. Lucia after gaining its independence. According to Nina, he was a man of the people and was instrumental in propelling the island's tourism sector as well.
"When I would wake up in the morning, my mom would be there, my dad would be up making juice. There was just always something going on in our kitchen. I also remember all the time seeing my aunts, mother and grandmother with piles of dishes around them after cooking a big meal. They looked so tired. So, I told them that I wanted to return the favor, and I did, and they loved my cooking. That really inspired me to become a chef."
Before taking the leap fully, Compton's mother told her to first work to ensure that culinary was her true passion. Starting at the St. Lucia Sandals Resort, she worked her way up through various roles and positions. Nevertheless, her passion never died.
Fast-forward to present day, and the St. Lucia-born chef has now been named a James Beard Award recipient, she competed on season 11 of Bravo's Top Chef—where she was deemed the fan favorite and overall runner-up—and she has not one, but three bustling restaurants under her helm, all in New Orleans. There's Compère Lapin, Bywater American Bistro, and the latest, Nina's Creole Cottage. And with each, she's marrying her beloved Caribbean flavors with the boldness of Creole fare.
"Being from the Caribbean, and cooking something that I grew up on, I feel such an immense sense of pride. For a long time, immigrants or people of color, we never had the confidence to truly cook our cuisine. We do it, but we typically only do it at home. I’m showing people through my restaurants, especially people from St. Lucia, that we can do this! And, I think they are following suit."
We had a chance to dine at Compton's Compère Lapin, located in the heart of the warehouse arts district of New Orleans. When you walk through the doors, there's lots of chatter, the tables are filled, and people are truly enjoying themselves. After all, it's one of the most sought-after restaurants in The Big Easy.
Chef tells us she's going to curate our tasting experience so that we are able to try some of her most popular and signature offerings. She starts us off with an order of her warm buttermilk biscuits that come with a honey butter as well as a bacon butter. She pairs it with her blackened pig ears and smoked aioli. We'll admit, hearing the words "pig ears" caught us off guard, but the way the bold flavors danced on our palette, it quickly dissolved any uncertainty.
Next up was the snapper collar with hot honey and a collard green tarter sauce.
"It's my play on hot chicken," Chef Nina Compton explains. "But, with fish."
As our bellies expanded, we were welcomed with her pork belly and plantain purée. The crisp edges and saltiness of the pork, paired with the mild sweetness from the ripe plantain, were heavenly. We rounded out the meal with her signature curried goat and sweet potato gnocchi—a dish that she gushes over, as it was also similar to her first dish while competing on Top Chef.
"People really embrace flavor here in New Orleans, so that makes my job easier. I don't have to hold back, for sure. When I first put the curry goat on the menu, I didn't think anyone would like it. But, it's my highest selling dish. It's a hug in a bowl filled with flavor. I'm happy with that!"
And in the spirit of something sweet, we ended the meal with her mango crème brûlée. Let's just say, we had to be rolled back to our hotel.