In a city where the term “Creole food” has become about as murky as its signature dish—gumbo—and its bastions—such as Galatoire’s and Antoine’s—are described as “classic” and “historic” (you could say “old,” but let’s not…), French-and-Italian-trained Caribbean Chef Nina Compton is in the curious position of being able to reintroduce part of the city’s culture to itself.
Drawing on her culinary experience from her home island of St. Lucia, her years of training at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York and working alongside Chef Scott Conant as chef de cuisine at his Italian restaurant Scarpetta in Miami, Compton brings a fresh approach to the new/old world of shrimp remoulade and turtle soup. Even on a bad day, Compton can out-Creole most of us, and you can welcome the challenge at her first restaurant, Compère Lapin inside the Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery, which opened this June in the CBD.
You might remember Compton as the runner-up and fan favorite in Bravo’s 11th season of Top Chef, which was filmed in New Orleans, but you’re likely to soon start thinking of her mainly as your personal dealer of plantain gnocchi. Now this is interesting: gnocchi are Italian dumplings—soft clouds of starch (usually potato). Plantains or “cooking bananas,” on the other hand, are tropical—a major staple in West and Central Africa, Central America, the Caribbean and the northern, coastal parts of South America.
By bringing the two together, Compton creates a miniature version of fufu, common in West Africa. Chances are that the slaves brought to colonial Louisiana 300 years ago were familiar with fufu. It’s essentially a big ball of starch—a giant dumpling made from boiled and pounded yam, cassava (tapioca), or plantain, and usually served in a rich stew or soup, often made with nuts—especially peanuts.
At Compère Lapin, plantain gnocchi are served with tender morsels of curried goat and cashews, reminding diners that they’re in the northernmost city in the Caribbean, with open routes to Europe and Africa.
Adding to that mix, Compton is speaking Spanish in the kitchen.
“When I moved here from Miami, I thought it was going to be so easy to find staff,” she says. “But it wasn’t, and I needed a team that I knew and could trust to help me open the restaurant. So I have a core team of people from Miami who I sold my dream to, who moved here after me. One of my prep cooks is from Honduras, another’s from Venezuela, Cuba, Dominican Republic, so we speak Spanish in the back.
“Opening a restaurant is not the easiest thing. There is so much to think about. Picking out the tables, the plates, the linens and the glassware, and the right vendors for your meat, produce, dairy and fish. The last thing I wanted to worry about was my staff.
“For me, the hardest thing about this restaurant is that it’s mine. It’s my name. It’s very personal. I overthink every single detail. Is this straight? Is that the right lobster head? I’m not hiding behind somebody else. I can’t hide behind myself; it’s me!”
St. Lucia, Compton’s home island, lies just south of Martinique and is absolutely beautiful. During colonial times, the island became known as the Helen of the West Indies because its attractiveness literally launched a thousand ships—it was seven times each ruled by the French and the British. One could see how “mixing it up” became part of the culture. For Compton, her biggest challenge at the new restaurant is finding the right balance between the strange and the familiar.
“My original menu for Compère Lapin, I planned it in Miami,” she says. “I had some dishes on there that were too complex that I figured out would scare people away. I don’t want to be called a fancy restaurant. I want to be called a great restaurant.
“As a chef, you can get so caught up in your creativity that you go away from your original idea. Truffles! Caviar! Stone crab! I had to pull it back in again, because food should never be about the chef’s ego—what’s the point?
“I wanted a neighborhood restaurant where people could come in three-four times a week. I wanted a menu that was simple and not too over the top where people would be freaked out.”
In the dining room, a lady in her 50s with big hair sits down for lunch for one. She asks the waiter for a recommendation. Curried goat, perhaps? Her eyes widen and roll. “I’ve never had goat. And I’m not about to try it now,” she says and orders something else instead.
In the kitchen, Compton takes the news in stride. “Curried goat was one of my comfort foods growing up,” she says. “So I had to have it on my menu. And goat is a completely normal thing to eat, like lamb. The best part is the leg, the roasted leg, or the shoulder, just coming out of the oven. I could eat it all day.
“As a chef, when you become too adventurous, it turns people off. ‘This is not for me.’ When you start doing stuff like veal brains—which I enjoy—it’s not going to sell. ‘Veal brains?!’ You have to find a balance… We’ll get to veal brains one day. Just look at sweetbreads and how long it took people to enjoy them.
“Planning for Compère Lapin, I wanted to do offal, like sweet breads and blood boudin; I wanted to do different things. But then I decided I had to establish myself first and ease things in as we go. If you come out a little too forward, it scares people away. It’s like coming to somebody’s house. You offer the guest a cup of tea and a biscuit; you sit down and feel them out. You have to ease into it as you go.”
Something Compton was not willing to compromise on was conch, large sea snails whose texture is similar to octopus. But how was she going to get New Orleans diners to enjoy conch? By tearing the meat into small pieces and stirring it into a rich, thick béchamel sauce, and then breading and deep-frying the cooled mix as conch croquettes, served with a pickled pineapple tartar sauce. It’s become the restaurant’s number-one-selling snack.
When it comes to spice levels, Compton sees many similarities between Louisiana food and what she cooked on the island.
“I recognize the punch,” she says. “We’re used to spice and people in New Orleans aren’t shy. Miami was different. Many people there, their spice levels are lower. But here, in New Orleans, the spicier the better.”
Just as she says this, one of the servers brings a plate of fried chicken back to the kitchen. It’s billed as “Hot Fried Chicken” on the menu, but Compton admits it’s somewhat “atomic.”
“I told him, ‘It’s not for the faint of heart,’” the server explains. “But he wanted to try it…”
Compton takes a sip of coffee and gets back to work. Next to her station stands half a carafe of French press coffee (“homier than regular coffee”) and the cup develops concentric circles as she sips throughout the day—lines of time and comfort.
“The city is at a great point right now with so many new restaurants opening up,” Compton says. “I was nervous about how people were going to react to me moving here. But it’s been so positive, people sending me flowers, even thanking me for moving here. I don’t think any other city in the world would do that. It could have been ‘Who is this hot shot trying to open up a restaurant here?’ But since we opened, maybe 30 people have come in, ‘Chef, you need anything?’ or ‘I know a produce guy…’ That says a lot about the city. People here are about life. They’re not just about the money. There’s a bigger picture.”