Kitchen Conversations with Norman Van Aken: Nina Compton

From St. Lucia to 'Top Chef', and beyond, find out how this culinary great became the chef and restaurateur she is today

Hailing from St. Lucia, Nina Compton has brought her love of spice and the Caribbean flavors of her hometown to New Orleans.

Norman Van Aken, a member of The Daily Meal Council, is a Florida-based chef–restaurateur (Norman's at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando and 1921 by Norman Van Aken in Mt. Dora), cooking teacher, and author. His most recent book is a memoir, No Experience Necessary: The Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken. This is the one in a regular series of Kitchen Conversations — informal but revealing interchanges with key culinary figures — that Van Aken contributes to The Daily Meal. He also writes a regular series of Kitchen Meditations for us. You can find all of Norman’s contributions on his Daily Meal page.

Compère Lapin chef/owner Nina Compton has more than 15 years’ experience manning the stoves of some of the finest restaurants in the country. Graduating in 2001 from The Culinary Institute of America, Nina began her professional journey at Daniel in New York City, working and continuing her culinary education alongside world renowned chef/ restaurateur Daniel Boulud and his team. In the following years, Nina continued to work with the best, including the crews of Norman Van Aken at Norman’s then Philippe Ruiz at Palme d’Or, Casa Casuarina, and Scott Conant at Scarpetta.

During a star turn on BRAVO’s acclaimed cooking competition show, Top Chef, on which she was a finalist and fan favorite, Nina fell in love with the Crescent City. An opportunity with Provenence Hotels lured Nina to New Orleans where she opened her first solo restaurant, Compère Lapin, at the Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery in the Warehouse District in 2015. In addition to her huge success on her first restaurant, Nina is also currently the culinary ambassador for St. Lucia. 

Norman Van Aken: What is the very first thing you remember eating and enjoying? Where were you?
Nina Compton:
I grew up watching my grandmother and mother in the kitchen, my dad was always juicing fruit from the garden, so we had a very busy kitchen. I was always snacking on various pieces of sweet mangoes or guavas that my dad would send us to pick from the trees.  I think growing up in St. Lucia really cemented my love for cooking.  Our garden has every fruit or vegetable you can think of, so I had a good childhood seeing where how everything grows.

Are you the first ‘Chef’ in your Family?

When did you start cooking?
My first introduction to cooking was baking with my mom, I was 10, my sister and I would always have "bake offs" that my mom would judge, somehow we were always tied.

When did you realize that it was ‘serious’ to you?
The first time I cooked Christmas dinner for my family and seeing their face light up, I knew this was for me, cooking became very personal and I wanted to bring joy to anyone that I cooked for.

Where were you cooking when that moment took place?
In my parents’ house in St. Lucia, we always eat on the veranda together. We have a beautiful view of the island and can see neighboring Martinique as well.   

What was the first dish you made you felt proud of?
Lamb neck agnolotti with minted breadcrumbs, the first dish made when I became chef de cuisine at Scarpetta that received numerous write-ups as well.

Who was the best mentor you had when it came to your profession?
I have many. Chef Norman really inspired me in many ways, very fatherly, but most importantly he recognized how to elevate ingredients that no one was using on an international level, these were that same ones I grew up with. I loved the way he used them, exacting the true favors of Caribbean cooking.

Scott Conant really directed me to streamline cooking and also focus on cooking simple and delicious food using three or four, instead of 10 that get lost. Also Daniel Boulud; he is very intense, very precise. I took a little bit of each one and applied it to my cooking style.

Do you feel this kind of life caused you to sacrifice having a ‘normal life’? 
I think chefs get married to the life; they know what they are getting into because they love what they do. Being a chef looks glamorous but it is a lot of work and dedication — many are underpaid. I remember the first Christmas I had to work, I was 18 and so sad because I imagined my family opening gifts and here I was peeling carrots.

I remember the cooks telling me that you will get used to it, and I did, my staff has become my family, we spend so many hours together creating special moments, so at the end of the day this is normal to me. 

Did you ever come close to quitting the business and finding something ‘more sane’?
Never crossed my mind, I could not think of doing anything else.

Who is the most important American born cookbook author of the past 50 years in your estimation? Why?
That's a tough one, David Kinch wrote a beautiful book and I really enjoyed and understood his thought processes on cooking.  I also enjoyed "Flour and Water," as pasta making is something I really enjoy as well.

Who is the most important chef of the past 100 years?
That a hard one, there are so many old school chefs such as Paul Bocuse whom I have met. He took my breathe away because he is a legend, but on the other extreme are chefs such as Ferran Adria who has made modular gastronomy something very big. Then there is Rene Redzepi or Alex Atala, who have been able to define their regional cuisine, as well as make it recognizable worldwide. Nobody was talking about Amazonian or Nordic cuisine 10 years ago.  But there are truly admirable chefs such as Thomas Keller, Alain Ducasse, and Daniel Boulud who have been able to maintain cuisine at the highest standard

Who is the most ‘mischievous’ chef you have ever known?
Mike Pirolo, he is one of my best friends but he is such a radical person who always made me laugh and enjoy cooking. I think I made the best food with him because I was so happy. He would fly off the handle and have these rants and do these things that people — even today — still talk about. We would plot to get greedy servers by molding larding into quenelles to look like desserts and stage them and hide patiently waiting for them to take a bite.

If you could go out for drinks and dinner with a ‘food person’ (can be living or from the past in this hypothetical question!) who would it be and why?
My late father, he never got to see my blossom as a chef, I think he would be very proud to see what I have done. I would also like to tell him that he helped in many ways to mold me into the person I am today.  Now, I am older and I can tell him I know how to cook to green beans after all these years. I remember him yelling at me because I under cooked them one day for dinner at home.  I think we would have more interesting discussions about food especially from his childhood. I would have loved to have applied this to my cooking more as I look back on it.

What was the best live concert that you have ever been to?
Jimmy cliff at jazz fest  last year… he still knows how to get people dancing, it rained so hard and thundered, he did not want to stop but they stopped the show because it was outside and the lightening was so severe and people were at risk but still kept dancing and singing  while walking off stage.

What band or musical performer do you regret never having seen?
I have always wanted to see the Nutcracker! I am mystified by ballet and the gracefulness of the dancers, maybe one day.

What food or ingredient do you adore?
That’s tough. I love acid whether through citrus or vinegar but I also love spices, we make a great pepper sauce in St. Lucia, the sauce is spicy but acidic so it's the perfect match. I think people forget that sometimes a little pop goes a long way

What is your favorite “Food/Wine/Drinks Holiday” item?
Milk punch, think eggnog on the rocks with spices, bitters and of course rum.  My dad made this even year and friends and family always stopped at our house on Christmas day to have some of his punch, we would all sit for hours on the verandah sipping on the porch each person telling stories for hours.

What are your thoughts on cooking TV reality shows?
Cooking shows will always have a place in this world, I grew up watching Emeril, great chefs of the world, and Jacques Pepin, who doesn’t like to watch or learn something knew from these masters… people love to cook, it’s about love, passion, and also entertainment. I have done them, recently on Top Chef, at first hesitant but I have no regrets, as a chef I think I pushed myself harder than I would have at any restaurant because I had one shot.  I left the show energized, made new friends and was able to become a role model for women chefs and also made my entire island proud by getting very far on national television and putting St. Lucia on the map. 

What food, drink or ingredient will never enter your body again?
Tripe….. I had a friend make it. I took two bites not to offend him, don't get me wrong it was tasty. I followed his recipe, but cooking it and that smell…… I just cannot do it again.

Where in the world would you like to dine now and why?
Somewhere in Asia, anywhere I have never been, always wanted to go and just embrace everything about it. Just to learn different cooking techniques, ingredients that we have in the island that were brought over and really apply that cooking to what I already know.

Do you feel culinary schools are preparing young folks for a life as a chef? 
That's a double-edged sword, I went to culinary school, learnt a lot, and was exposed to a lot of things in a very formal, in-depth way. On the other hand being in a restaurant, it is a faster track as you are kind of thrown to the wolves and it's sink or swim. Nowadays restaurants are cooking very elevated food. Some are almost like schools and cooks are learning a lot more because chefs are becoming more technical with their cooking.

What part of your body has taken the biggest beating over the years in the kitchens?  
My arms; I have a lot of scars from getting burnt, but they are fond memories. Either from a wooden burning oven or searing short ribs a week before my wedding 

What famous guests have you enjoyed cooking for the most? 
I have cooked for many famous people, my favorite was Samuel L. Jackson and his wife — very sweet people that love to eat . I also enjoy cooking for other chefs, I love seeing or hearing their reactions when they eat.

Which guests (famous or otherwise) will not be welcome back and what did they do to ‘get fired’?  
We had a guest come in and ask for a gluten free pasta and insisted we make it for her, meanwhile we see her munching on house made biscuits. It's annoying when people say they have an allergy which chefs take very serious and then someone is just doing it because it is trendy.

Favorite ‘Food Movie’ of all time?  
‘Goodfellas’ when Paulie was slicing the garlic with a razor blade, the scene was great seeing these mobsters all cooking together.

Is ‘molecular’ or ‘modernist cuisine’ something you feel has made cuisine better?
It's interesting and definitely has a wow factor, that's not good that people crave, I don't sit at home craving a carrot foam, I crave a bowl of spaghetti with a great sauce. I admire creative people that can manipulate ingredients differently and this has made diners more interested in eating out and trying something new but it's not my style 

If it all came down to the world knowing your life’s work via ‘one dish’…like an author via a single book they’d written…what dish would be the one that you would choose you created or best became known for?
It's very hard to reinvent the wheel but curried goat with sweet plantain gnocchi really showcases something I grew with but making it different by adding the gnocchi, it's my comfort food, all the spices that go in, coconut which I love. This dish is me on a plate — sounds simple but very complex .

You’ve created a meal for three guests from all of history. Who are your three guests? What items did you cook?
My late father, Ferdinand Point, and Bono. A group from all backgrounds. Oysters with Champagne sabayon, steak tartare with foie gras emulsion, roasted suckling pig sugo, farro pappardelle, Ackee and salt fish and bakes. Fresh mango and vanilla ice cream. My dad would make them for dessert. He would take the seed out and make a ‘cup’ and put ice cream inside. Very fond childhood memories.

If you had not made it as a Chef…and money were not an issue…what profession would you choose?
Something with music, it's the other thing that I cannot live without, it brings me so much joy.

Would you want your child (or a niece or nephew) to become a chef?
My 12 year old niece loves baking and I am hoping that she will continue doing so … that’s how I started cooking was baking with my grandmother and mother.

What do you say to people with how your cooking works into the long, storied cuisine of New Orleans? 
New Orleans is such a food driven city embedded with tradition, so when I moved here I decided on allowing my food to integrate into that same culture but also making it different, there are a lot of similarities and differences and I needed to find a balance that people could relate to. People have embraced the spices I use in my cooking as well as ingredients that people are not used to such as conch or curried goat. 

What is the ideal meal you would eat at home? Who would prepare it?
I won't say a meal really, but I do enjoy some cheese, warm baguette, and wine, that's my go to. I do not really cook at home, but if someone does it is me, if I really want to treat my husband by making pasta.

If you wrote a book on ‘advice for aspiring chefs’ what would you choose for it’s title? 
"May Get Burnt A Couple Of Times”. I think many aspiring chefs want to take the high road without putting in the long hours or sacrifice it takes to be a chef. Cooking may seem glamorous but it is a lot of work and you have to keep being motivated and passionate. I think a lot of young chefs tend to lose the passion and end up chasing the money instead of really falling in love with food and why they got into this industry.

For more Kitchen Conversations with Norman Van Aken, click here.