James Beard Award Best Chef South: Chef Nina Compton
Last night's 28th James Beard Foundation Awards Gala crowned New Orleans Chef Nina Compton as Best Chef: South. Former MIAbites contributor and host of NOLAbites, Paula Echevarria, who like Nina left Miami for New Orleans, reports on Nina's rise from a small town in St Lucia, to the prestigious James Beard Award.
There has been a significant shift in recent years seeing more women as head of the most important kitchens of the United State, but it is still, unfortunately, a very male-dominated world. This year, a record number of women were nominated for the James Beard Award, the “Oscars” of the culinary world. As the Daily Meal noted, out of the 104 nominations, 82 were people and 39 of those were women.
Nina Compton is one of these nominated women, and short of a month after opening her second restaurant in the city she calls home--Bywater American Bistro in the burgeoning Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans--she is bringing back the award for the Best Chef: South for her first baby, Compère Lapin.
Born and raised in St. Lucia, Nina grew up with the flavors and beauty of the Caribbean. After a stint in a hotel kitchen in Jamaica introduced her to the intensity and camaraderie of the hospitality industry, she decided to embark on a passionate career, trading her warm lax island upbringing for the chilly and fast-paced environment of Hyde Park’s Culinary Institute of America.
Her drive and passion have taken her through some of the most important and influential kitchens of America, including Daniel Boulud's New York flagship Daniel, where she continued to hone her technical skills.
But cold is one thing Compton is definitely not known for- ask any of her regulars who patronize her establishments in part due to the chef’s friendliness and approachability. And as much as New Orleans has nestled her talents, none of this could have been possible without the years she spent in Miami.
Whilst in our sunny shores, she continued to work with the best, joining the crews of Norman Van Aken at the iconic Norman’s, and then alongside Philippe Ruiz at Palme d’Or at the historic Biltmore Hotel. But it was at Casa Casuarina, a private club and boutique hotel in Miami Beach, where she rose to the highest echelons, from Sous Chef to Executive Chef of the small yet highly acclaimed property.
As she made her strides through Miami’s kitchens, she got on Scott Conant’s radar when in 2008, the reopening of the refurbished Fontainebleau Miami Beach granted her the chance to work at Scarpetta’s pre-opening team as Sous Chef, and following in the footsteps of her mentor, colleague, and now bestie, she took over as Chef de Cuisine when Michael Pirolo stepped down to open his beloved trattoria, Macchialina.
During a star turn on BRAVO’s acclaimed cooking competition show, Top Chef New Orleans, where she was a finalist and fan favorite, Compton fell in love with the Crescent City, and decided to relocate when an opportunity with Provenance Hotels lured her back to New Orleans where she opened her first solo restaurant, Compère Lapin, at the Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery in the Warehouse District.
At Compère Lapin, Compton cooks dishes that are heavily influenced by her Caribbean heritage and her experiences cooking at the aforementioned high-end Italian and French restaurants. It has won over not only the city’s toughest critics--which believe it or not you are more likely to find more so in Nola homes and kitchens than in its print rooms-- but has gained numerous local and national accolades since opening three years ago. In 2016, NOLA.com The Times-Picayune named Compère Lapin its restaurant of the year.
It’s a long way to the top, but Nina Compton has managed to do it with a smile and charming grace, making everyone around her feel as warm as the cities she hails from.