CIA Alum Finds Success in The Big Easy
I became aware of Chef Nina Compton ’00 back in October of 2013, the same time that millions of other viewers of “Top Chef” did. The thing that struck me about her was her ability to always produce exceptionally polished and well-balanced dishes. Watching her devise, then cook these dishes was similar to watching an artist conceptualize and then produce beautiful paintings. I believe that I was just as shocked as the rest of America when she was announced as the runner up that season. Thankfully for us all, Chef Compton remained posed and driven. After having been at the helm of CIA alum Scott Conant’s Scarpetta Miami, she left in 2014, resurfacing in New Orleans just last year.
Chef Compton opened Compère Lapin in New Orleans in the Central Business District. Perhaps the greatest description of this restaurant can be found on its website:
“Inspiration for the menu comes from the traditional Caribbean folktales featuring a mischievous rabbit named Compère Lapin that Chef Nina Compton read during her childhood in St. Lucia. Drawing on the story’s themes of exploration and play, she mixes the indigenous ingredients and rich culinary heritage of New Orleans with those of her Caribbean roots.”
While I was home for Christmas break, my dad and I had the chance to dine at Compère Lapin. Eating at this gem of a restaurant was both thrilling and inspiring. While I did not get the chance to talk to Chef Compton during my visit, I was able to talk to her once I had returned to CIA.
|Chef Nina Compton, from myneworleans.com|
Sarah Lubitz: First of all, I want to say that I enjoyed eating at your restaurant when I was home.
Nina Compton: Oh, thank you.
SL: It was wonderful. I got the curried goat.
NC: Oh, good, good, good.
SL: I know that you filmed “Top Chef” in New Orleans. Was that a big deciding factor for you when you decided to open a restaurant there?
NC: I always wanted to live in the city. My husband and I, we wanted to have our honeymoon here, but it didn’t work out. So, when we filmed the show here, I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the charm of the city. It does have a lot of soul; it has a lot of character. And, I think for a chef, having people that really enjoy eating out, I think that it’s a big thing. I think for me, it was an easy move to open a restaurant here.
SL: How has New Orleans changed the way that you look at food?
NC: I’ve only been here for nine months, and, when I moved here, they’d just had the ten year anniversary of Katrina. Speaking to a lot of locals, you try to understand what they go through, and I don’t think people really understand what they went through when Katrina hit. And, to rebuild and get to where they are ten years later I think is huge, because you would never know that the whole city was wiped out. You hear different stories of what people went through and people almost say that it’s a good thing that it happened because it was able to start fresh. So, to be able to rebuild the city to where it is right now I think that’s a great thing. There are so many restaurants opening up, there are so many hotels. I think the economy is better than it has ever been, post and pre Katrina. I think that that’s really a great thing.
SL: I know, for me, that I grew up two hours away, so being able to watch the city rebuild was really inspiring. It’s hard for me to even keep up with the amount of restaurants that are opening right now, so I think it’s really great as well.
SL: One of the biggest issues that we are focusing on right now is sustainability. What do you think are some of the biggest issues that we are facing in the industry regarding sustainability?
NC: I think you see it in a lot of restaurants now, and people are a lot more conscious of certain species that they want on their menus. Some species are being overfished, and I strongly believe in that. Things like Chilean sea bass are being overfished. I think supporting the farms, especially local farms, because the city of New Orleans has so many farms around it, it’s a very big thing to support. That’s one of the things that I try to have on my menu, supporting the local farmers, getting the goats from the local farms, getting the pigs. The vegetables are from twenty miles away, not even. But, getting those things in, it makes a difference.
SL: How do you feel that the landscape has changed for women in the industry?
NC: I think it’s changed a lot. I think it’s an even playing field for women in the kitchen. I think that you always have to try harder and excel because, for a very long time, it was a man’s kitchen, which is funny because “a woman’s place is in the kitchen.” I think now that you see a lot of really good female chefs that are coming out on top and are really pushing to get things done and get recognized. I don’t think that it’s as sexist as it used to be. I think people are more open-minded to female chefs; we’re not frowned upon in the kitchen.
SL: Who has inspired you the most as far as cooking concerned?
NC: A lot of people played parts in my career. My grandmother was always cooking in the kitchen. My mom loved baking, so I grew up around that. I also got into cooking because I enjoy eating, and I enjoy making people happy. As a child, I would cook for my family. And seeing the reactions on their faces, it made such a difference. I think that’s why people cook, because the want to make people happy. That’s a genuine feeling.
SL: I know you graduated in 2000. How has CIA influenced your career?
NC: Hugely. I definitely wanted to go to one of the best facilities in the country, if not the world, and learn from the best. I think it’s a great facility. It’s definitely one of the best in terms of providing the right tools and knowledge for young cooks. I don’t think anybody has kitchens or wine programs available like that. It’s so well versed. Having different guest chefs doing cooking demos or speaking to students, I think that’s huge. And I don’t think that anywhere else does that as well as the CIA does.
SL: What is the most important thing that you took away from being a student here?
NC: To be discipline, organized, and very professional. I think that the way that you carry yourself shows. You see the way that people from the CIA carry themselves, and it’s different. It’s more polished, more refined. I think they have a better chance of excelling in any program or in any restaurant because of the tools that they have been given.