Home » Nina Compton; Breaking the Boundaries of Southern Cooking

One of America’s best and hottest Southern chefs, St. Lucian native Nina Compton has just opened ShaSha Lounge: Social Aid and Pleasure Club in New Orleans. Along with Compère Lapin, BABs (formerly Bywater American Bistro), and Nina’s Creole Cottage in celebrity chef food hall, ShaSha is the newest of boundary-breaking Compton’s three NOLA restaurants.

The James Beard Award-winning ”Best Chef: South” and semi-finalist for James Beard’s “Outstanding Chef” Award, Nina Compton was born and raised in St. Lucia, the daughter of St. Lucia’s three-time late prime minister, Sir John George Melvin Compton. At the Compton home of seven, the kitchen was the center of activity, and young Compton wanted to spend as much time as she could there. Like her siblings, she was sent to England for secondary school. When she returned home, she told her parents she wanted to be a chef. They tried to discourage her, but she insisted, so they arranged a two-year internship at a friend’s hotel in Jamaica. We caught up with the busy chef in New Orleans.

What did you learn in the kitchen at the Jamaican hotel?
For me, the biggest thing was never stop learning. I thought I knew everything and then the chef said the next step was for me to go to culinary school. I went to The CIA [Culinary Institute of America] in Hyde Park and, after, decided to learn from the best: Daniel Boulud at his three-star Michelin restaurant in NYC: Daniel.

What was the most important thing you learned from Boulud?
It was excellence or nothing. He really pushed to make the people around him excellent.

You met Emeril Lagasse. What did he say to you?
He said, always engage people; when they come up to you, always smile. People have this expectation of you, so you need to be engaging.

You moved to Miami to work at the iconic Norman’s and, eventually, Casa Casuarina, the former Versace Mansion in Miami’s South Beach, where you met your husband and rose from sous chef to executive chef. Wasn’t this a very fast-track advancement?
It was, but it’s about paying attention and reading and researching and pushing yourself. I think that’s why people excel; you learn from your mistakes and try to be better each day.

In 2008, Fontainebleau Miami Beach re-opened, and you joined Scott Conant at Scarpetta there as sous chef. Then you were appointed chef de cuisine. What was that like for you?
I was able to learn Italian food from the Maestro, who is very, very talented in what he does and the way he’s able to showcase food at that level.

You fell in love with New Orleans and opened your first solo restaurant, Compère Lapin, which has become a hugely successful restaurant included in “Best Restaurants in America” and Food & Wine’s “40 Most Important Restaurants of the Past 40 Years.” What makes Compère Lapin so successful?
Some of those flavors that I grew up with as a child are very unique to people who’ve never had them before. There are green figs and salt fish, conch croquettes, callaloo soup with spinach okra, nutmeg, coriander and chili flakes, and much more. We don’t make food for everyone else, we make food for you.

Why is NOLA such a great foodie town?
I think it’s the most culturally rich city in the U.S. There are influences here you don’t find anywhere else in the country or world. But it’s really about the people who live here and the people who came before us and instilled such strong cultural roots for us to carry that on.

What is your comfort dish?
I think, coming from the Caribbean, curried goat is probably something that people can identify with. That is definitely my comfort food.

In 2018, you opened Bywater American Bistro, recently relaunched as BABs this past January. Why did you change the name and what kind of food do you serve?
It was always supposed to be a neighborhood restaurant: casual, no frills. But the name was very long, and I just felt like BABs, the abbreviated version, would be more playful. We focus more on Italian cuisine.

You’ve opened Nina’s Creole Cottage, a fast-casual concept featuring affordable, heritage-inspired dishes which offers bold flavor combinations traversing St. Lucian savors with Louisiana Creole flavors. Why did you open it, and what’s your favorite dish there?
Doing fast-casual is really a nod to pretty much all the things I love to eat, but in a fast-casual format. My favorite dish there is the Hot Fire Chicken because with each bite the flavor builds, which I love.

How can you run all these restaurants at the same time?
I don’t know. I haven’t figured it out yet.

You were recently named the Godmother of  Silversea’s newest ship. Silver Nova. How did that feel?
I’ve always explored the many ways in which the world’s cuisines – especially St. Lucia and the Caribbean – strengthen human connections and honor heritage, tradition, and identity. I believe food and drink have the power to bond people together and serve as a unifying language.

How do you describe your cuisine?
I would just say it’s fun. It’s not meant to be too crazy, where people don’t feel comfortable, but adventurous people can enjoy lots of flavors.

What is your guilty pleasure?
Pig. I’ve compared it to crispy savory gummy bears. I’ve tried to cut back on it and it’s just not possible.

When you taste a dish, what exactly are you tasting for?
It depends. Whenever we try a new dish at the restaurant, a lot of the young kids say, ‘Oh, Chef, I think it needs more acid or more lemon juice’ or something. And my response to that is, ‘Do you put lemon juice in your macaroni and cheese?’ And they always say no. I think having the balance of the flavors to build within the dish is very important, and having complexity where it’s not just one note. I like things to either be salty or spicy or acidic, not where it’s just one flavor you’re tasting.

You are the culinary ambassador for St. Lucia. What do you do to promote it?
I take visitors to my home island, St. Lucia, every year for a week [this year it’s July 21-27, 2024, at the luxury resort Cosmos]. I focus on the history and technique of the island’s food, but we also explore everything from markets to waterfalls. I try and show the special secrets St. Lucia holds for me and get people to understand the beauty of the island through my eyes.

Do you have any new restaurants on the horizon for the future?
I’m trying to retire.

What advice would you give to those who want to be a chef?
Don’t give up. Don’t lose sight of your goal. And have fun. We spend too many hours in the kitchen not to have fun.

What’s the most important thing about being a chef?
Get rest. Take time for yourself in the day, whether it’s 10 minutes or an hour. And go outside. When I wake up in the morning, I make a cup of coffee and sit outside and either plan out my day or disconnect for a second. My husband/business partner, Larry Miller, and I run the business together and talk about our day together. It helps to have somebody.
Also, I think the most important part of it is to stay grounded. You have to really know who you are and be comfortable with everything you’re doing and not doing it for social media or anything like that. It’s just really about how you’re projecting yourself to the people.

What’s the most favorite meal you’ve ever eaten?
It could be having grilled lobster on the beach or eating dinner in Paris. It’s really about time and place, not so much about the food but really about where I am and who I’m with.

What’s the biggest mistake you ever made as a chef?
Everybody makes mistakes. I try and look at it as a Bob Ross situation where they’re happy mistakes. At the time, we think it’s terrible, but I think everything happens for a reason in a very Seinfeld roundabout way. I think it all makes sense.

What do you want your legacy to be?
I want my legacy to be Caribbean food is unique. The Caribbean is very big and very diverse with a lot of culture people don’t know. If you venture to the Caribbean, I think you should really go to underdeveloped places. Don’t go to the touristy places. Go to areas that are off the beaten path because sometimes that’s the most authentic food that you can get to understand the island.

By Margie Goldsmith

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