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This Award Winner Stays Grounded Amidst Sky-High Success

Nina Compton Aims for Humanity, Balance, and Respect

Stephanie Carter

October 11, 2018

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Nina Compton Photo by Denny Culbert
Photo: Denny Culbert

The James Beard Foundation is committed to supporting women in the food and beverage industry, from chefs and restaurateurs to entrepreneurs dreaming up new ways to make our food system more diverse, delicious, and sustainable. Our Women’s Leadership Programs (WLP) presented by Audi, provide training at multiple stages of an individual’s career, from pitching your brand to developing a perspective and policy on human resources. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to advancing women in the industry, we’re sharing stories from female James Beard Award winners, Women’s Leadership Program alumni, and thought leaders pushing for change. Below, Stephanie Carter takes a peek into the hectic schedule of James Beard Award winner Nina Compton, and explores the chef’s efforts to find balance amidst the demands of two restaurants at the heart of New Orlean’s dining scene.

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Nina Compton is deftly demonstrating how to whip up her spicy curried goat and pillowy sweet potato gnocchi in front of a party of 50 in Compère Lapin’s private dining room, quickly rolling the long gnocchi dough between two fingers into thumb-sized footballs and tossing them into boiling water as she juggles enthusiastic questions and hopeful requests for selfies and signed aprons.

Beyond the party, Compère Lapin hums with diners, and the James Beard Award–winning chef skillfully splinters her time between the dark wood and exposed brick main dining room; the kitchen, itself partially exposed and also slightly hidden behind a bar studded with Caribbean blue tile; and this party and all its tricks.

As she sprinkles the steaming dish with toasted cashews, she pauses to inhale the heady scent of the curry. Compton loves this dish so much that she could cook it every day, she tells the group.

The goat pulls from the worldly flavors of Compton’s native St. Lucia; while the sweet potatoes embody the spirit of the American South and her adopted home of New Orleans. It’s this kind of original and precise Creole-meets-Caribbean concoction that earned the chef a respected voice in the ongoing conversation about the city’s revered cuisine, especially its Caribbean roots.

When she moved to New Orleans and opened Compère Lapin three years ago, she wasn’t sure the curried goat would catch on, but it soon became her most popular dish and now she goes through 300 goats a week. “New Orleans is a beautiful place. People are so open-minded here—they are so open to new cultures,” she says.

The Crescent City worked its charm on Compton while she was filming Top Chef: New Orleans. She has said that the city reminds her of her childhood home, where she grew up the fourth of five children raised by her father, the prime minister, and her mother, a stay-at-home mom who taught her that “you have to respect the people around you.” For Compton, everyone means everyone: your family, your friends, the people you work with, your guests, and—most recently for her—yourself, by valuing your own time and happiness.

“I think there was one lesson that I learned later in life: to really enjoy the moment a little bit more. [A] lot of people get so bogged down with work and everything else, they don't have that happy balance of personal life and work life,” she says. “You know what? The restaurants are not going to burn down if I wake up and I have a cup of coffee.”

In March of this year, she opened Bywater American Bistro in the converted rice mill that she calls home. She says that she was fine with one restaurant, but she wanted to give her Compère Lapin sous chef, Levi Raines, a platform for his talent. Raines is a partner with Compton and her husband, Larry Miller, at Bywater, which Eater has already called one of the best new restaurants in the country. By May, Compton had also nabbed the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South. Meanwhile, she’s maintained a boundless calendar of appearances and charity events, all while serving as the culinary ambassador to St. Lucia, which calls her “a national treasure.”

The professional kitchen, with its fast pace, 16-hour days, and weeks that blend into other weeks and holidays that come and go, celebrated by those who don’t pass through the swinging kitchen doors, hasn’t historically embraced taking time for oneself. It’s called the service industry, after all.

Only recently has the industry begun asking at what point “service” more closely resembles “servitude.” Add to that the frenzied ambition of many young chefs hoping to achieve Compton’s status, and you’ll find it’s no surprise that it can be difficult to get them to think about pausing to enjoy the moment or about taking time for themselves.

Humanity, balance, and respect can beat at the heart of a good restaurant—but for Compton, those elements are mandatory.

“That's how you get the best out of people—by making them happy. And, they can cook really good food because they're in a good position, a good place.

“I met Daniel Humm from Eleven Madison Park a couple of years ago and he said to me, ‘I make sure that I have my days off. I spend time with my family because that kind of life brings me down to earth a little bit more. And I feel more like a human—not a machine.’”

Compton says it’s just a healthier way to live. “And, especially in this industry, it's unheard of. I think now that we have to really shift [things] and let people know that it's okay not to work 16 hours a day. Nobody's judging you.”

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Stephanie Carter is an award-winning freelance writer and editor living in New Orleans. Find her on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

The JBF Women’s Leadership Programs are presented by Audi.