From TV Screens to History Books: Chef Nina Compton

Nina Compton proves that African-American contributions to American cuisine are about more than fried chicken and cornbread or pit barbeque and pecan pie.

Story by Ginger Warder
Recipe by Chef Nina Compton

When Chef Nina Compton was named the runner-up—rather than crowned the winner—of Top Chef’s Season 11 New Orleans, I almost threw my wine glass at the TV and was instantly soured on what had been one of my favorite food shows. Compton’s creative Caribbean-fusion dishes had been winners throughout the season and her personality had garnered her the fan favorite title, while the male chef who was announced as the winner had narrowly escaped elimination on several occasions, had thrown one of his teammates under a proverbial bus, and had repeated verbal explosions (including during the finale).

A week after the finale, pop culture writer Joshua Alston, wrote this critique of the ill-behaved Nicholas Elmi’s win: “It’s a result that lacks the basic ring of fairness, especially given the optics of a white male winning over two women of color (Compton and second runner-up Shirley Chung) who spent the season steamrolling him. Elmi’s win over Compton tarnishes the Top Chef brand.”

The reality television show mirrored attitudes that have existed for centuries. In a country founded by European immigrants, in the world of associations like Michelin and the James Beard Foundation, fine dining chefs are often males cooking Euro-centric food. Contributions to our national cuisine by African-American chefs have long been overlooked, even though it was Thomas Jefferson’s Paris-trained chef, slave James Hemings, who introduced America to French fries, ice cream, and other European foods that we think of today as quintessentially American.

But changes are happening.

Making History

As it turns out, being on Top Chef was the catalyst that helped Compton define her Caribbean-fusion cuisine and chart her culinary course. For the first time in her career, Compton was free to create her own flavor profiles, showing her love of the Caribbean on a plate. She says she fell in love with the city of New Orleans while filming the show there: “The Chef community in New Orleans was so welcoming when I was there filming. Everyone offered to introduce me to their bread guy, their produce people. It was really unbelievable how embracing they were. That, combined with the amazing people, great food, live music and Caribbean flare; I knew I belonged there.”

With one of the most diverse food cultures in the country—mixing Creole, Cajun, French, Spanish and African-American influences—New Orleans is a perfect fit for Compton.

Compere Lapin Dining Room - Foodie Travel USA

Photo Credit: Paul Broussard

In 2015, she opened her critically-acclaimed restaurant, Compère Lapin—named after a mischievous rabbit in one of Compton’s favorite Caribbean folktales— at the Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery, where her playful dishes meld the Caribbean flavors from her homeland of St. Lucia with African, Indian, French and Italian influences, many with a bit of a Southern twist.

Classically trained at the Culinary Institute of America, Compton worked with renowned chefs including Daniel Boulud, Norman Van Aken, and Scott Conant, so it’s no surprise to see French techniques and Italian influences in her dishes like curried goat with sweet potato gnocchi or dirty rice arancini. In a nod to her Caribbean roots, island-style jerk chicken and a snapper pepper pot evoke warm breezes and views of the Pitons—St. Lucia’s signature twin volcanic peaks— while black-eyed peas with bacon and crispy shallots celebrate Southern soul food.

Legend in the Making

Compère Lapin garnered rave reviews and Compton was named one of Food & Wine Magazine’s “Best New Chefs 2017”.  And while those accolades were important and well-deserved, it was her historic win as the first female African-American chef to be named “Best Chef: South” in the 2018 James Beard Awards that has catapulted her onto the pages of culinary history.

Why is her win so significant? In the history of the James Beard Awards—established in 1990—only five black chefs had ever been nominated as finalists in the Best Chef categories. In 2016, the allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault against some of the food world’s most venerated male chefs and the #MeToo movement rocked the Beard Foundation. The organization created a women’s leadership program and, that same year, awarded African-American chef, Leah Chase, a lifetime achievement award. Also from New Orleans, Chase—who passed away in 2019— was known as the “queen of Creole” and her restaurant, Dooky Chase, was a gathering place for Civil Rights activists in the 1960s. Dooky Chase is still serving its founder’s signature dishes today, as well as continuing to function as a gallery for African-American art. Recognizing Chase’s achievements was a step forward for the foundation.

In 2018, both Compton and Mashama Bailey of The Grey in Savannah, Georgia, were the first black women to ever receive a finalist nomination, largely due to a change in the foundation’s rules to be more inclusive in the selection process. Compton’s win not only opened the door for future female chefs in general, and African-American female chefs in particular, but it also heralded a sea change in the attitudes of the culinary elite.

In 2019, Mashama Bailey won Beard’s “Best Chef: Southeast” and the New York Times ran a feature titled, “16 Black Chefs Changing Food in America”, featuring both Bailey and Compton. National food magazines jumped on board as well. Finally, African-American chefs were being recognized for their contributions to our national cuisine.

Compton’s second restaurant, Bywater American Bistro opened in the spring of 2018. Think of it as New Orleans’ version of “Cheers,” a casual, friendly eatery that embraces fresh locally-sourced ingredients, as well as the many cultures of the region. You can try a rabbit curry or some locally-made boudin, enjoy some fried Gulf oysters or savor a simple roast chicken.

I don’t know Nina Compton personally, but watching her on Top Chef six years ago I saw a chef who was confident, but not arrogant, who exhibited great composure under pressure, who stayed true to her vision, and who took criticism—as well as her loss in the finale—with grace and dignity. Those qualities will serve her well in her historic role as the first African-American female chef to win a coveted James Beard Best Chef award. She’s an inspiration!

Get inspired by her recipe:

Compère Lapin Dirty Rice Arancini

Recipe by Chef Nina Compton

3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 pound chicken livers, chopped fine in robot coupe
1/2 pound pork sausage
1 habanero pepper minced
1 cup finely chopped yellow onion
3/4 cup finely chopped green bell pepper
1/4 cup finely chopped celery
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 pinch chili flake
1/8 teaspoon paprika
2 Tablespoons salt
1 Tablespoon onion powder
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 Tablespoon chopped oregano
1 Tablespoon chopped thyme
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
6 cups chicken stock
2 bay leaves

For Rice:

¼ cup butter
1 onion, minced
1 sprig of thyme
3 cups Arborio rice par cooked (see note below)
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley leaves
2 cups grated parmesan cheese
.08 ounces fontina, cut into small pieces
8 eggs
3 cups flour (seasoned with salt and pepper)
3 cups panko, finely ground in robot coupe

Nina Compton - Foodie Travel USA

Method

In a large heavy sauté pan, heat 2 Tablespoons of oil over medium-high heat. Add the chicken livers and sausage and cook, stirring until the meat is browned, about 6 minutes. Add the remaining Tablespoon of oil, the onion, bell pepper, celery, garlic, spices, salt, and pepper. Cook, stirring for 5 minutes. Add a little of the stock and bay leaves and scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen any browned bits. Bring to a simmer then lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes and reserve.

In a separate pot, melt the butter, add the minced onion, and cook on low until the onions are tender. Add the rice, toast the grains, then add the stock in thirds, continuing to stir until the liquid is gone before the next addition of stock. Keep stirring until the rice is cooked. When the rice is finished, remove the bay leaves and add the rice and sausage mixture together. Add the parmesan cheese, let cool and then add the diced fontina. Stir in the parsley and roll into a 1.5 oz. ball. Bread using standard procedures. Fry in 4 inches of oil at 350 degrees F until golden brown, about 4 minutes.

Makes 35 servings

Sour Orange Mojo (Dipping Sauce)

6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 Scotch bonnet chile, stemmed, seeded, and minced
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds, freshly toasted
1 cup pure olive oil
1/3 cup sour orange juice (you can substitute 1/3 cup combined orange and lime juices)
2 teaspoons Spanish sherry vinegar
Freshly toasted and ground black pepper to taste

Method

In a mortar mash the raw garlic, Scotch bonnet, salt, and cumin until fairly smooth. Scrape this into a bowl and set aside.

In a saucepan over medium heat warm the oil until just hot and pour it over the garlic-chile mix, stirring the ingredients. Remove the pan from the heat and let it stand for 10 minutes. Add remaining ingredients.

Makes 1.25 cup

Plan A Trip

Ginger Warder

Contributor

Ginger Warder is a contributor to the Fodor’s Guide to Virginia & Maryland and is the author of Fido’s Virginia.