A few years ago, Nina Compton repped her native Saint Lucia on television screens across the country (and world, really) when she served as a contestant on Top Chef: New Orleans. Since then, Compton has adopted New Orleans as her home. And now, the innovative chef channels Caribbean dishes mixed with Creole character at Compère Lapin, her award-winning restaurant in New Orleans’s Warehouse Arts District. We caught up with Compton about culture, cuisine, and the Crescent City. Here’s what she told us.
First, why did you decide to open a restaurant in New Orleans? “I always wanted to live in New Orleans. I originally came here a few years ago to film Top Chef, and after the show wrapped, I kept thinking, ‘How can I get back to New Orleans and live there permanently?’ The lifestyle here is all about food and music—it’s just the culture. I connected to that and I wanted to be part of it.”
Tell us a little bit about your restaurant, Compère Lapin. What’s in the name?
“When I was opening Compère Lapin, I thought to myself, ‘How can I tie in my Caribbean heritage with New Orleans’s existing culture?’ I wanted the restaurant to be fun and adventurous, but also respectful of traditional New Orleanian cuisine—and still approachable to the masses. I was doing some research and I came across a famous Louisiana folk tale about a mischievous rabbit, which turned out to be the same story I’d grown up listening to in Saint Lucia. I thought that naming the restaurant Compère Lapin, which translates to ‘brother rabbit’ in French, would be a perfect, fun way to fuse the Creole and Caribbean influences together.”
Let’s talk about how those influences end up on your menu.
“Well, New Orleans is truly what people call it, ‘the northernmost part of the Caribbean,’ so there are already a lot of similarities between the two cuisines. Still, we didn’t want to do something totally generic, like serve only traditional Caribbean jerk chicken—we wanted to make our menu fresh and different. Our best-selling dish is actually curried goat with sweet potato gnocchi and cashews. I think it’s different from what people are used to and somewhat unexpected. We also have a sweet dish—soursop semifreddo with coconut and cucumber—that resembles something my mom used to make. It’s a childhood memory I have, and I’m trying to bring it to other people so they can enjoy it, too.”
Why is New Orleans an exciting place to be a chef and to visit as a food lover?
“Culinary attention used to be more commonly focused on traditional French, Italian, and Chinese dishes. Now, we’re seeing that a lot of chefs are feeling more comfortable expressing their heritage. In New Orleans, there are so many amazing chefs bringing their backgrounds to the foreground and showcasing their cultures on their menus.”
And there’s no better place for that than New Orleans, a city that’s extremely proud of its unique heritage.
“Exactly. New Orleans is such a proud city—people really celebrate Creole and Cajun cuisine. When you cook for people, it’s like you’re inviting them into your home. It’s a family affair. And here, I feel like I’ve found my second home. It’s amazing to be here, cooking the food I grew up with, expressing myself, and having people appreciate and embrace it. That’s the biggest thing for me.”