One of the stories New Orleans likes to tell about itself is how cool the locals are around celebrities, how we leave them alone to enjoy themselves in our city and don’t make a big fuss over big names.
Whether that’s truth or fantasy when it comes to movie stars and rock ‘n’ roll idols, chef Nina Compton has been getting plenty of attention since moving from Miami to New Orleans earlier this year, and for her it’s all been positive.
Wearing a floppy hat and big sunglasses at Jazz Fest, just like thousands of others, she was still frequently called out by admirers around the Fair Grounds. At the grocery store one day, another shopper stopped her in the aisle to share her dream of becoming a chef.
Tuesday, June 2, Compton and her husband, Larry Miller, will officially open Compère Lapin, a Warehouse District restaurant mixing French and Italian influences with Caribbean flavors from Compton’s own upbringing in St. Lucia. The project has enjoyed a drumbeat of local media coverage as its pieces have taken shape and it’s attracted top-flight talent to its staff, including the well-known bartenders Ricky Gomez and Abigail Gullo.
So it goes for a celebrity chef. But Compton is a celebrity chef on a different trajectory than the usual path of star chefs on the rise.
She isn’t famous for her restaurants, for a breakout cookbook or kitchen memoir or for a haul of culinary awards. Instead, she’s famous, and in some cases adored, for her role on “Top Chef: New Orleans,” the Bravo reality series that was filmed here and began airing in 2013.
That has created a unique situation for Compton as a first-time chef/owner opening a new restaurant in a new city for an audience that may feel they already know all about her. She’s well aware that some may wonder how the qualities they saw during a TV show competition will translate to the real-life challenges of running her own restaurant.
“I know I have to work that much harder because there’s so much hype behind me,” Compton said. “There’s that added pressure to live up to the expectations people will bring here.”
But if that sounds daunting, some who worked closely with Compton before the cameras came calling say she’s just the woman to pull it off.
“Nina is the real deal, and she truly gets down into it, I love watching her cook,” said Scott Conant, a celebrity chef in his own right with six restaurants across the country.
Conant hired Compton in 2008 as sous chef for Scarpetta in Miami.
By 2012, he had promoted her to chef de cuisine, entrusting her with day-to-day leadership of the kitchen at his highly-rated Italian restaurant.
“She can outwork anybody, and that can be intimidating, but she always used that to motivate people, not to bring them down,” Conant said. “She utilized her passion for the work to engage their passion, and that’s a good leader.”
Winning hearts, courting appetites
Compton didn’t win “Top Chef: New Orleans.” She was runner up to Philadelphia-based chef Nicholas Elmi. But she made a strong impression on the show’s audience, which voted her the season’s “fan favorite,” and many avid observers reacted with disbelief and disdain when the judges picked Elmi over her.
Coming in second, however, didn’t stop the phone from ringing. As soon as the show wrapped, offers came pouring in from developers and prospective business partners with proposals for new restaurants.
“I didn’t know the impact the show would have, but it was overwhelming. There were so many offers,” Compton said.
She initially returned to Scarpetta, but then took time off to savor the experience and attention, and to weigh the options. Eventually, the right proposal came from Provenance Hotels.
This Oregon-based company had recently purchased the Ambassador Hotel on Tchoupitoulas Street and was in the process of rebranding it as the Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery. They wanted a new partner for its restaurant space, which had seen a string of forgettable operations (most recently a sports bar).
Compton and Miller said they liked the scope of the project, which has 86 seats as opposed to the 226 she oversaw at Scarpetta. They liked the idea of returning to New Orleans, which she had gotten to know during “Top Chef” production. And they saw a chance to truly strike out on their own in a new city.
“We saw this place and thought it could be something very special. We picked up and decided to start a new life and see where it would go from there,” Compton said. “I always wanted to live in New Orleans. There’s something about it that just pulls you in.”
Island roots, diverse interests
Compton drew the name Compère Lapin (French for “brother rabbit”) from a character in a popular Caribbean folktale.
Flavors of the islands wind through her menu between French and Italian influences, for dishes like conch croquettes, curried goat with sweet plantain gnocchi, dirty rice arancini and a smoked banana torta. After the restaurant gets rolling, she said, dishes specific to St. Lucia — like the stuffed crabs dish known as crab back — could make appearances, too.
Compton was born to a prominent family on the tiny island nation. Her father, the late John Compton, negotiated St. Lucia’s independence in 1979 and became its first prime minister.
Nina Compton said her father never pressured his children to follow him in politics. Instead, she moved to New York for culinary school and started her career at French chef Daniel Boulud’s Michelin-rated Manhattan restaurant, Daniel.
She later moved to Miami, where she continued working with high-profile chefs, including Norman Van Aken, the acclaimed pioneer of modern American fusion cuisine.
“So many people have come through our kitchen over the years, but Nina was one of those that really made an impression on us,” said Van Aken. “It was her incandescent and palpable love for what she was doing.”
Though Van Aken has appeared on reality cooking shows, he’s critical of their penchant for rewarding telegenic style over culinary substance, calling them “a distortion of the way I’ve always gauged my admiration for people in this business.” In Compton’s case, however, he’s convinced her work ethic and curiosity will have more bearing on her future than her reality TV exposure.
“She’s one of those people who look like an overnight success story that was really many years in the making,” Van Aken said. “My advice, which I think she already knows, is that you’ve got to keep it real. You’ve got to be humble and keep on it. The guests who are in your dining room have to be the focus, not the people making lots of noise about you online.”
Compton herself knows “Top Chef” fame is fleeting, and she’s out to turn it into something more lasting as she starts a new chapter at Compère Lapin.
“It’s so much work to build this, and being a woman in the kitchen, I learned you have to work 10 times harder, because if you show one weakness or a shred of doubt, you’re dead meat,’ she said. “I know the buzz will only last so long, so it’s about building a culture with your staff, not just saying things but following through and being consistent.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.