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For ‘Top Chef’ star, cuisine represents both past and present

August 12, 2018

In 2017, Food & Wine Magazine named Nina Compton a Best New Chef, and this year she won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the South.

NEW ORLEANS -- For Nina Compton, who grew up in St. Lucia as the daughter of its prime minister, the idea was to graduate from her boarding school in England and then attend university there. She would study agriculture, because farming is big business back home. But, she said, after scouting some programs, she ultimately decided: “I didn’t want to be mucking around with cows.” She preferred the kitchen. Specifically, she preferred breakfast.

“In the Caribbean, we have a big breakfast,” she recalled. “Our house was fun and festive in the morning. Dad was making fresh juices, and we would sit at the table and talk about our day, what we would do.” Skipping college, she got a three-month tryout cooking at the Sandals Resort in St. Lucia before requesting a transfer to its flagship in Jamaica. The flavors she discovered there ignited her culinary path. “St. Lucia has French and British influences,” Compton said. “Jamaica has Portuguese, African, Indian, Chinese.” They also ate ackees and saltfish for breakfast. She tasted the combination of fruit and fish and fell in love.

“I went back to St. Lucia, where we have a huge ackee tree in our backyard, to find them all on the ground, and said, ‘What are we doing?’ Wasting these creamy, luscious bites. I never appreciated them because they’re not in our culture. But now, when I go home, my mom cooks them with saltfish, and everyone comes. It’s my feast. My homecoming.”

There has been much to celebrate. After shooting “Top Chef” in New Orleans in 2013 -- she lost to Nicholas Elmi but was voted Fan Favorite -- she decided she liked New Orleans enough to stay. In 2015, with her husband, Larry Miller, she opened Compère Lapin, serving a personalized mash-up of Caribbean-accented New Orleans cooking that encompasses the French and Italian influences of her earlier career. In 2017, Food & Wine Magazine named her a Best New Chef, and this year she won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the South. Last March, with Levi Raines, she opened her second restaurant here, Bywater American Bistro.

In 2017, Food & Wine Magazine named her a Best New Chef, and this year she won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the South. Last March, with Levi Raines, she opened her second restaurant here, Bywater American Bistro.

Her journey

How she got here is quite a story. Her childhood in St. Lucia was a privileged one: riding horses, sailing, traveling to Europe. That she chose a life in the kitchen seems due to her maternal grandmother, Phyllis Clark, a white Englishwoman who was a nurse in Scotland during World War II when she met her future husband, a native St. Lucian. “She is a tough cookie,” Compton said, and then shook her head. “Well, she was.” Clark died in 2017, at 95. “There were no roads then, limited power. Having a stove was unheard of; they cooked over coal. But she kept her British ways, had afternoon tea every day. We lived in Soufriere, the most beautiful part of the island, which was framed by two mountains. She hated it. She would say, ‘I felt I was trapped between them and couldn’t leave.’ I was the fourth of five children, and my parents traveled a lot, so my grandmother was the one keeping us in line.”

Clark’s insistence on the kitchen as the center of their home made its impression. “But I was young, I also wanted to travel,” Compton said. “I wanted to experience more.” That is when she spent two years in Jamaica. “Cooking there opened my eyes,” she said. “I thought to give a dish taste I had to add butter or pork.” A breakfast in Negril was a turning point. “It was at a roadside shack, and this Rastafarian with dreadlocks to his ankles offered me a coconut porridge. I said, ‘That looks terrible.’ But it was creamy and sweet with ginger, nutmeg, caramelized plantains. All vegan, and those flavors were so enticing.”

She enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America, graduating in 2001. She then apprenticed for chef Daniel Boulud at Restaurant Daniel in New York. “I looked for the best when I left St. Lucia,” she said. “I wanted that in my repertoire.”

She moved to Miami, where she stayed for 14 years, cooking first for the chef Norman Van Aken, whose sophisticated take on island ingredients such as conch and yucca inspired her. She then cooked at a private club in the Versace mansion, where she met Miller, and eventually landed at Scott Conant’s Scarpetta. “He once asked me, ‘Do you know the biggest mistake with Italian food? Too many ingredients. There should be very few, but they have to be the best, so there is no hiding.’ I learned a lot of restraint cooking Italian. I started to appreciate ingredients, letting them shine.”

When she and Miller opened Compère Lapin here, they encountered a labor shortage. “I had no team behind me,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘There are tons of restaurants, we’ll be fine.’ ” Desperate, she called a chef friend in Miami who recommended Raines, who was 24. “He drove out that weekend,” she said. “We never met; it was all on blind faith. I watched him cook, the way he thought about things. It was way beyond anything I’d seen.” Eventually, Raines grew restless, and Compton and Miller opened Bywater to make him chef and a partner.

A footprint in New Orleans

“When I moved here, I was petrified,” Compton said. “The city is so rooted in culinary history, but my food is a mix: Jamaica, New York, Miami, then New Orleans, where I can now leave my little footprint. When we opened Compère Lapin, I wanted to put goat on the menu. I could have just done it with curry and white rice, but I wanted to show more technique.” She brined, braised and shredded the goat, cooked it in a cashew and coconut curry and served it with sweet potato gnocchi. “I wasn’t sure it would sell,” she said. “We bought one goat a week. We serve 300 pounds a week now.”

Ackee and Saltfish with Warm Bakes

6 to 8 servings

This dish represents a fairly simple and satisfying taste of home for folks from the Caribbean -- including New Orleans chef Nina Compton, who loves the combination of fruit and fish for breakfast.

“Bakes” is a term used for the rolls of fried dough that often accompany this dish. They are surprisingly easy to do.

You’ll need a thermometer for monitoring the temperature of the frying oil.

Canned ackee, a tropical fruit, is available online via Amazon.com.

Make ahead: The saltfish needs to be cooked and drained a total of 3 times, which will take a little more than an hour to complete; this can be done in advance. The dough for the bakes needs to rest twice, for a total of 45 minutes.

Ingredients:

For the ackee and saltfish

1 pound dried salt cod

2 tablespoons canola oil

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced

1 each red and green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into very thin strips (julienne)

1 Scotch bonnet or habanero pepper, seeded and minced (if you like it less spicy, use half)

2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves

Kosher salt

2 large tomatoes, cored and chopped (about 4 cups)

2 scallions (white and green parts), thinly sliced

Freshly ground black pepper

One 19-ounce can ackee, rinsed and drained (see headnote)

For the bakes

3 cups flour

2 tablespoons baking powder

Pinch kosher salt

1/4 cup sugar

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1 cup water, or as needed

6 to 8 cups canola oil, for frying

Steps

For the ackee and saltfish: Place the dried cod in a large saucepan and cover by 2 inches with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and cook for 20 minutes. Drain the fish, return it to saucepan and repeat the process two more times. Transfer the drained cod to a bowl, then use a fork to break it up into large chunks.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the garlic, onion, all the peppers, thyme and 1/2 teaspoon salt; cook for about 5 minutes, stirring, until soft. Add the tomatoes; cook for 3 or 4 minutes, then add the drained cod and scallions; cook for a minute or two to warm through.

Add the ackee, stirring gently so it and the fish remain in large pieces. Cook for 5 minutes to warm it through. Taste, and season with salt and pepper as needed. Turn off the heat; cover to keep warm.

For the bakes: Use a fork to whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar in a mixing bowl. Use the fork or your clean fingers hands to rub the butter into flour mixture to form a coarse meal.

Add enough of the water to make a firm dough but not stiff; the dough should be easy to roll. Cover with a towel or plastic wrap and let it sit for 30 minutes.

Roll out the dough into a rectangle, to a thickness of about 1/2-inch. Use a 3-inch biscuit cutter to create portions (using all the dough) or divide the dough into 3-ounce balls, then press them into little patties. Cover and let rest for 15 minutes in a warm place.

Just before serving, line a baking sheet with paper towels. Heat the oil in a pot or small roasting pan (that can handle stovetop cooking) to 325 degrees. Add the bakes without crowding the pan and fry for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, until golden brown. Transfer to the baking sheet to drain.

Cut a little pocket in each bake, and fill with the ackee-saltfish mixture. Serve warm.

Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.

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