Fame has not gone to Nina Compton’s head yet. As a crowd favorite on Top Chef Season 11: New Orleans and chef de cuisine at Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Scarpetta Miami Beach, you could easily envision the St. Lucia native being standoffish or surrounded by handlers. But that’s the farthest thing from the case. When we heard Compton was leaving South Florida to open her first restaurant in the Big Easy, we didn’t have to weave through a labyrinth of PR agencies to score an interview; we simply emailed Compton and she replied within an hour with her phone number. Of course, when Compère Lapin debuts on June 2 in just-opened The Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery, and the culinary world has had a taste of her island flavors done with a NOLA twist, that might all change. But for now, it feels great knowing that the woman behind out-of-this-world gnocchi is still so down to earth.
How does it feel to be so near the opening?
It’s been crazy. It’s surreal, to be honest. It’s also very exciting, you know. Now it’s a matter of getting everything lined up.
What is the toughest part about getting a restaurant off the ground?
I think that the biggest thing is making sure you make money. I think other people get into the business because they think it’s fun, which it is. It’s very exciting. But it’s also a business, not just a matter of just cooking food and serving. Things have to make sense.
Did it take a while for things to make sense?
Well, it takes time for you to learn from your mistakes, you know. And I made quite a few. So, it’s just one of those things that you’ve got to keep working on and just getting better each time.
What is it about New Orleans that drew you?
The thing about New Orleans is that there is just so much soul in the city. They’re very proud people. They like to have a good time and they are very friendly, very playful. They’re about food. They’re about the music. They’re about showing people a good time. So, the first time I came to New Orleans, I was like, “This makes sense.” And it has a lot of similarities to St. Lucia. It makes complete sense because I can relate to a lot of things that they do here as well.
What are people going to love about The Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery?
I like this new hotel because it has a lot of history. It was an old coffee and chandlery before. So, it’s three buildings — three warehouses — that they basically joined together. There’s a lot of old brick in the building. And what they did with the design group, they basically left it as a blank canvas and just put some accent pieces. They left it as natural as possible so you get the feel of that building. It has a very old but new kind of feeling, if that makes sense.
How is that going to translate to your restaurant?
Yeah, a few things carry through to my restaurant as well. A lot of brick and a lot of wood from the original building is being used in the design concept. It has a very earthy feeling. Nothing too chic, nothing too flashy. Just very warming.
What is going to be the feel of the menu?
It is going to reflect my personality. You know, fun. Have a good time. Be approachable. You know, not stuffy at all. It’ll be somewhere people will want to go three or four times a week — whether it’s lunch, their dinner or whether they want to have cocktails. [I want guests to say] “I want to go there because I just enjoy going there. I feel welcomed.” [One key in] restaurants is making people feel welcome and remembering people. People have to feel recognized. But that’s definitely one of the things I want to focus on because they are going to be our friends and our family. We definitely have to make sure we focus on guest recognition because we want to get to know the community.
Has anything been finalized with entrees yet?
I’m still thinking of things, but I love curry goat. That will definitely be in there. I definitely want to focus on the seafood of the gulf, so there will be [items on the menu that are] in season, whether it’s crawfish or shrimp or fish. That’s definitely going to be on the menu, for sure. I went to the market last week and I got this red snapper and made it at home and it was outstanding. Just things like that. Very wholesome food that people can relate to.
And most folks know you make a mean gnocchi. How is that going to be incorporated?
That’s going to be on the menu. I really enjoy making gnocchi. And that’s why I think it has to be on the menu, because I’m known for it. Whether it’s a potato gnocchi or whatever it is, it is definitely going to be on the menu.
With the planning for the restaurant and all, have you had a chance to explore the city?
My nose is pretty much in paperwork, so I haven’t ventured out as much. But I live in an area called the Bywater, which I really love. It’s a neighborhood that has so much character, so many small restaurants, so many bars. I just love to walk around the neighborhood. The buildings are just so intricate and so different. And I’ve gotten to become friends with other people in my neighborhood. So, I go into Oxalis or I go into Booty’s. I go to all the local restaurants in my neighborhood. And the thing is that I haven’t had a single bad meal since I moved here. I haven’t had a single thing where I’m like, “Oh, that’s okay.” Every single thing is so good! We went to a po-boy shop on Sunday called Gene’s and we just had a simple hot, spicy sausage and cheese po-boy and it was the best thing I’ve ever had. I think I might go back again this week because it was so good.
How in the world do you stay so slim?
Well, I’m not slim anymore. It’s funny you say that, because I had a nightmare that my clothes all fitted tight. The way people eat here in New Orleans is much different than the way they eat in Miami. It’s very soulful cooking. It sticks to your ribs — red beans and rice, and fried chicken. It’s a different type of cuisine, so I definitely put a couple of pounds on. It’s not in a bad way, you know. I’m not complaining because I think food makes everybody happy. I am happy eating this food. It’s not like I’m upset. I’m having a really good time. Again, I haven’t had a single thing that was bad. Everything is just so good. And that is pressure for me. There’s a very high standard here, so I need to make sure I hit that.