After spending five days in St. Lucia with chef Nina Compton, the island’s culinary ambassador, I witnessed her love for this magical place. She has a deep passion for its food and the people who live there. During our tour of Castries Market, where local vendors peddle everything from curry spices to fresh fish, one by one, people would walk up to Compton and give her a big hug. And although she didn’t win season 11 of Top Chef, she is certainly considered a hometown hero.
After a long day out and about town, I asked Compton if she was up for an interview. She obliged and invited me back to her suite at Jade Mountain. We plopped down on the couch and began our chat. Without any hesitation, Compton opened up and shared her experiences about growing up in St. Lucia, what’s next now that she recently left Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Scarpetta Miami Beach as its chef de cuisine and why she always travels with a pair of flats.
Cooking With Chef Compton
Did your mom or dad teach you how to cook?
My mom was a baker, and she loved baking. My dad loved making stews with vegetables and saltfish. My grandma was a nurse, and she loved cooking. Along with my mom, she was the orchestrator of the lunch and dinner services. She would be like, “Today, we are having flying fish with a parsley sauce and red fruit.” She was like the chef, and she ran a very tight ship. She was always in the kitchen. She is British and she loves doing her lunch service. She loves tea. Every single day she would have tea sandwiches with a banana. I got very close to my grandmother and we enjoyed cooking together. We would sit down, drink tea together and talk about life. It was very interesting because my grandmother was a nurse during World War II, and she would talk about the rationing of food. She had a great respect for product. She would wrap up an onion that we would normally take for granted and probably throw away. Every single ounce counted for her. We never went through that. We never went through people saying, “This week, you are going to have a can of corned beef and that’s it.” So seeing that for the first time really made me respect cooking because you had to make everything stretch. It was very eye-opening at a very young age.
Now that Top Chef is behind you, what are your goals?
My goal has always been to elevate Caribbean cooking because I think there have been generations of not knowing how to do things right. I’ve always wanted to come back and say, “Listen, I’ve learned all these things from living in Miami, working in New York, going to Europe, and seeing all these things we can do ourselves with local ingredients.” So that’s always been my goal, to come back and say, “Listen, guys, we can do this.” It’s a very important thing for me because St. Lucians are very passionate people. They are very loving, and they have the best resources. It just goes hand-in-hand. It makes sense to do those things.
Is your end goal to come back to St. Lucia and start a business or teach?
When I did Top Chef, I wanted to win and have a cooking school and show people what we can do with local ingredients. How can we elevate that? You look at a national dish like green fig and saltfish. I enjoy it, you should enjoy it, but the typical tourist might not enjoy it. So my whole point is to bridge the gap between what we enjoy and what a tourist might enjoy. My thing is, I do saltfish with breadfruit gnocchi. It is something that both people can enjoy and relate to. That’s my aim — to elevate Caribbean cooking that is approachable, not just to St. Lucians but also to tourists, whether they are American, European, etc.
We have a very good cuisine here. It’s very fresh, very local and very easy to get fish and vegetables we can pick off the tree. I want people to say, “I want that.” You look at Italian cuisine in America — people love that. People love Spanish cuisine and French cuisine. You don’t really hear about Caribbean cuisine because it’s not on the map. I think we can put it on the map, but it needs to be approachable.
Are you going to put Caribbean cuisine on the map in the United States as well?
You look at Cuban cuisine in Miami and that is already Caribbean cuisine. It’s readily available. We can do it in Miami, and that is an easy fix. The problem with hotels and chefs in the Caribbean is that they think it is OK to have a hamburger available. People don’t want that. The biggest complaint I get is people saying, “I went to the Caribbean and I didn’t have local food. I had a hot dog.” They want to know what the locals are eating. I think that’s my biggest complaint. Why aren’t we cooking what we eat every day?
With a cooking school, you can teach hotel chefs to cook local fare.
Yes, I really enjoy teaching people. I did that at Scarpetta [located inside of Forbes Travel Guide Recommended Fontainebleau Miami Beach] with my waitstaff because they wanted to learn how to cook food. I really enjoy teaching people how to do the basics. People are more intrigued by cooking now, and they want to learn more about how to cook things quickly, how to come home and make a 30-minute meal. How do I make it tasty? How do I make pasta? A cooking school makes it more readily available. I take for granted how I cook because I do it every day. Maybe someone else doesn’t know why we do things the way we do. I might cook a piece of beef on high heat because I want to seal the juices, or I might cover something with foil because I don’t want it to dry out. These are little techniques that some people just don’t know.
In terms of cooking, what cuisine do you want to master next?
I’m at a point where I’ve done French, Italian and a little bit of Asian. I think right now I want to do a fusion of my journey of what I have learned over the years from different chefs and make it my own cuisine. Like, how can I incorporate Italian cuisine into Caribbean food? And the same with French and Asian. That’s my next thing that I will make into my own. Every cuisine is a fusion of somebody else’s. Whether it’s tamarind-braised pork belly with something else, it is about educating other people on how they can do this. We can all teach each other something, and I think that is the beauty of cooking. It’s not selfish; it’s very organic.
When you stay home, who does the cooking, you or your husband?
It’s funny because normally when we are off, it is date night. We go to the beach, eat some fruit and take a nap. We have to take a nap. It’s our thing. Then we choose a restaurant. If we do stay home, I normally cook. I like a good roast pork or roast beef or I make a pasta dish. I like baked macaroni and other hearty dishes. It’s usually one course, not multiple courses.
How The Toque Likes To Travel
What kind of packer are you?
I overpack to the point where I am packing for every occasion possible. Whether it is a black-tie dinner, the beach or a casual day out, I always overpack because I don’t want to be the person who doesn’t have clothes for certain occasions. Just in case something pops up, I want to have the outfit.
What are the three traveling essentials that you take with you on a trip?
A light jacket because you never know where you are going to end up. I’ll go to Paris during May and think it will be great weather, but it ends up being chilly. ChapStick because my lips always get chapped, even in the summertime. And a pair of flats because nothing is worse than when you go out and have a great time but your feet hurt.
Are you a check-your-bag girl or a carry-on girl?
I am a carry-on girl because my mom told me that you never know if your bag will get lost or not. It is a convenience having your bag checked, but just in case your bag gets lost, you don’t want to be that person.
What are your must-bring items for your carry-on?
A swimsuit, a pair of flats, a nice pair of heels, a button-down shirt and a pair of jeans. I like to have a basic black dress in case I go out for dinner.
What are the top three U.S. hotels that you love to stay in?
[Forbes Travel Guide Recommended] Gansevoort New York in the Meatpacking District is definitely one. It’s like a club. I went there on a Monday and was like, “What’s going on?” It’s a lot of fun, and it is also very central. I’ve stayed there a couple times and there was great energy and vibes. It’s good for shopping and restaurants. You really feel like you are in New York when you’re there.
I also enjoy the [Five-Star] Montage Beverly Hills. It’s actually a tie between Montage Beverly Hills and [Five-Star] Montage Laguna Beach. Montage Beverly Hills is very central to the city but also has a garden. Montage Laguna Beach feels like you are really in Laguna Beach and like you are right there with the ocean and the hills. It is stunning. Another one would be [Five-Star] Mandarin Oriental, Miami. It is right on Biscayne Bay and is stunning.
What are your top three destinations that you have visited in the U.S. or internationally?
Paris was my favorite, hands-down. You can’t beat Jade Mountain in St. Lucia, and New York because it is a fun city that is always evolving.
If someone were traveling to St. Lucia for the weekend, what are three things that they must do?
Definitely Sulphur Springs because it’s almost therapeutic. People treat it like a spa treatment. To go into this black, bubbling water and get that medicinal feeling is definitely something you have to do. Experience the Pitons because it is so breathtaking. I grew up on this island and it still takes my breath away. Definitely scuba dive here because it so beautiful and not done enough. The water is crystal clear. You have to do that.
What souvenirs do you recommend someone leave St. Lucia with?
Rum is a must. Some kind of wooden craft, whether it’s a basket or something, and maybe even a spice. But definitely rum — the brands are Admiral Rodney or Chairman’s Reserve.
What is your favorite childhood memory of St. Lucia?
I have so many. Let’s start with going to the farm in Mahaut, which is on the other side of the island. It is near the rainforest. I remember going there with my dad to the riverside and eating mangos. Also, my fondest memory is growing up in Moulin-a-Vent, where my mom still lives. We had three guava trees in the front of the house. We would play hide-and-go-seek until it was 8 o’clock at night. Sometimes, we would play gymnastics. There was one time I was playing gymnastics with my little sister and we would swing from these branches. I wanted to swing from the highest branch, but my sister was like, “No! No! No!” I told her to stop being a chicken and just do it. She had to jump from one branch to another branch. The first time I counted to three, she didn’t do it. So I counted to three again, she jumped and missed the branch, fell all the way to the ground and started crying. I told her to quit being such a baby. She kept crying and saying that her wrist was in pain. Then I looked and it was broken — I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there with a stone-cold stare on my face. I was scared. We went to the ER and my parents were asking me what I did. I told them we were just playing in the tree, but that is definitely one of those things that really stuck out in my mind. My sister and I were very close.
We would do that and also go bird-watching after school. We had a little booklet that my mom got us and we would go into the garden and look at all the birds. My sister is a fashion designer in London now and also a photographer. I look back at those days and think about how we were so silly. I’m glad we had those times.
What has been your best travel experience?
My best travel experiences are going to undiscovered places where you can really appreciate what they are known for. When I went to Maui, it was a small island just like St. Lucia. I love trying different cuisines — that is my thing.
Also, just appreciating life a little bit more. My biggest thing is when you go to these big cities, you expect so much. When you go to places with no streetlights, you can enjoy the moonlight. I like being able to enjoy the simple things that you take for granted. I enjoy the quietness and not having a TV in the room. I’ll never forget when I left St. Lucia and came back home for the first time, I really got to enjoy my family’s company. We would make cocktails and hors d’oeuvres with no TV and we would sit and really enjoy each other’s company. It became like a cocktail hour in our family. That’s what made me want to cook. My family would tell me that I was really good, and that made me want to pursue it as a profession.
Being in Miami has pushed me toward wanting to be around the simple things, not going to clubs and spending thousands of dollars. Just having dinner with friends and family helps me appreciate life a little bit more.