After finishing as runner up on season 11 of Bravo's cooking competition Top Chef, which took place in New Orleans, chef Nina Compton moved to the Big Easy and will open her first restaurant, Compere Lapin (www.comperelapin.com) in June in the Old 77 Hotel and Chandlery (535 Tchoupitoulas St., 504-527-5271; www.old77hotel.com). Compton grew up in St. Lucia, trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York and built her reputation in Miami. She spoke to Gambit about progress at the restaurant, Jazz Fest and dining in the Crescent City.
How is Compere Lapin coming along?
Compton: It's going well. It's nice to see all the equipment coming in. We have an amazing design team that got nominated for a James Beard Award. They worked with what we had in the building — with all the brick and wood. When you walk into the restaurant it feels rustic and industrial, because it used to be a factory. It's not shiny. Too shiny doesn't work in New Orleans; it works in Miami, not here.
What are you doing with your menu to adjust to New Orleans?
C: I was in Miami for 14 years. At Scarpetta, I did Northern Italian cuisine. When I left, it was hard for me to not cook Italian food. It really opened my eyes to cooking simple food. When I moved to New Orleans, I thought I had a blank canvas to do whatever I wanted. The approach is modern American, which encompasses all of my training and my background and where I am right now. There will be a little bit of French, Italian and ingredients from Louisiana, and I am going to make it fun and different.
Eventually I will use crawfish. I love crawfish. I definitely want to make in-house sausages. I am not going to try to make gumbo — I am not going to set myself up for that. The great thing about New Orleans is that it's so traditional and so deep rooted. There's such a connection to food here. I found that out when I went to Jazz Fest. It's about food as much as it's about the music. People said, 'Oh, you have to go see this guy, he makes the best crawfish bread.' For the amount of people that go to Jazz Fest, it's pretty amazing that the food is so well-seasoned; if it's meant to be hot, it's piping hot; if it's meant to be cold, it's cold. It's restaurant-style food, and you can tell people really care.
I think the food culture here is a lot stronger than in Miami. Miami is still a very new city. It has come a long way foodwise. I think here the focus is neighborhood restaurants. In Miami, it's hotels and bigger restaurants. People here support each other a lot. People say, "Have you gone to see David Slater at Emeril's or Alon at Shaya?" It's tight-knit and supportive. I have only been here for seven weeks, but everything is so good. I haven't had anything (at a restaurant) that's just OK. We're eating out all the time. The level of cooking here has very high standards.
New Orleans is sometimes called the Caribbean's northernmost city. Does it seem so to you?
C: When I first came to New Orleans, I told people that the architecture is very similar to architecture in St. Lucia — the old French buildings. The cooking style [in St. Lucia] is hearty. We don't do a gumbo, but we do a bouillon. We do pig tails, yams, potatoes and we put in calaloo, which is basically collard greens. There are a lot of similarities in the cooking. It's an easy connection.