Modern Belle: Nina Compton

Modern Belle: Nina Compton
Words by Will Farley
Photos by Randy Schmidt
Childhood memories coalesce around sensation: smells coming from a grandmother’s kitchen, the electric heat coming off of an old TV, or seeing the ocean for the first time. Nina Compton’s cooking at Compère Lapin is all about the primacy of these memories and experiences. She wants diners to remember the past through her cooking. The name itself is a reference that bridges her native St. Lucia to her adopted home in New Orleans.

When planning the restaurant, Compton had a strong sense of how she wanted to cook. In her research she stumbled onto a Creole children’s book she had read as a little girl. It was the story of Compère Lapin. This story is not only familiar to those with a francophone upbringing; most of the South has heard the insane exploits under the name Brer Rabbit. She says that the book “bridged the gap of patois and connected Lucia to Louisiana.” The dishes served at Compère Lapin incorporate elements from both of these places and beyond.

Born in St. Lucia to a father who served as Prime Minister of the nation on three separate occasions, Compton was surrounded by history and diplomacy. She developed a love of cooking from a young age and followed her passion to the United States where she worked with Daniel Boulud in New York and Scott Conant in Miami. As a contestant on Top Chef she was taken to New Orleans for filming and never left. The syncretic nature of the crescent city was the perfect mirror to showcase her idea of what a Louisiana restaurant can offer.

In an essay penned for Oxford American, John T. Edge explores the parallels that exist in the cuisines of India and the South, and how food can be so familiar but have such different flourishes. The work of shining a light on how diverse the region really is has encouraged young chefs to push the boundaries of what Southern food can be. Edge describes this beautifully as “the transnational identities now being forged in this newest of New Souths.”

New Orleans is lucky to have a chef like Nina Compton. She has applied world-class training to a Southern context. For her, “Southern cuisine is comforting, it’s about family tradition; I want to carry my upbringing into that. I can use the techniques and presentation that I learned from working in fine dining restaurants to make something that is at once about memory as well as innovation.”

The menu at Compère Lapin reflects her itinerant nature and cooking pedigree. Dishes blend ingredients from her entire sphere of influence. Her curried goat with sweet potato gnocchi and cashews has garnered praise from the New York Times as well as other publications across the region. Other spices and Caribbean ingredients work their way into her dishes tastefully layered so as not to overwhelm. Her biggest missive to diners is to come with an intention to explore. She says, “We aren’t doing the typical Louisiana food. This may be the first time someone eats conch or a goat curry; I want diners to come with an open mind because we are focusing on the bounty the South has to offer, and for me that includes the food of the coast and the Caribbean.”

Compton’s blending of foodways offers a glimpse into the future of the South. There is a cadre of talent that is banding together to challenge the idea of what a “traditional” Southern restaurant is, and Compère Lapin is not “traditional” New Orleans food. Nina Compton is cooking with soul and leading hearts and minds and mouths to see how bright the future of Southern food is. Thankfully, the diners are in good hands.