New Orleans Chef Nina Compton Creates a Thanksgiving Menu of Worldly Flavors
Once Again, Nina Compton will be away for the holidays. She will spend Thanksgiving at her restaurant, Compère Lapin, in the Central Business District of New Orleans. Diners will enjoy her menu of a traditional Thanksgiving meal. For many chefs, this scenario would hardly be groundbreaking news. But for Compton, who grew up on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, the idea of Thanksgiving is as foreign as the concept of a white Christmas. “We didn’t have Thanksgiving, but we certainly spent other holidays at the table,” Compton says.
Holiday cooking is what drew her to her life as a chef in the first place. She attended school in England and when she would return to her native island for the holidays, she would take it upon herself to make her large family hors d’oeuvres and cocktails as they gathered on the veranda to drink and catch up. The sight of her family reunited—eating and drinking—filled her with such happiness that it begat a lifelong passion for feeding people. Soon thereafter, the making of Christmas dinner became her responsibility.
Another memory of holiday cooking is less joyful. “I was eighteen and going into work for my first day in a kitchen. My mother dropped me off. I was in the kitchen peeling carrots and thinking about my family who was at home laughing, opening presents, and I wanted to cry,” she explains.
Compton recalls other holiday memories, ones in which Christmas and New Years would last for weeks and feature hams, roasted beef, and breakfasts of boudin noir. She and her family would visit fishing villages and roam the markets eating fresh seafood, lobsters, and fish from stalls. Over New Year’s, sweet plantains and rice and beans would be worked off with hikes to inland waterfalls that included a tailgate of sorts. A large fire would be built and a cauldron of pig tails would simmer as they spent the day swimming under waterfalls. Easter was a particularly happy and nostalgic holiday for Compton. Her family would set sail down to the Grenadines and everyone looked forward to a particular one-pot stew her father made on the oceanic voyages. “He’d put in the pot whatever he found—pasta, meat, fruit, anything and everything went into that pot. My whole family looked forward to it,” says Compton.
One can recognize the stamps of Compton’s passport through the food she serves. Her time spent working at Scarpetta in Miami is reflected in a pici carbonara with smoked mushrooms. Her hot chicken delivers fistfuls of fried chicken thighs coated in a fiery sauce the color of ancient bricks. A slaw of wispy vegetables and cilantro, mango, and pickles rounds out General Tso’s trip through the Caribbean with a layover in Nashville.
Compton will continue this culinary journey this Thanksgiving with pumpkins, squash, and sweet potato taking on many permutations and combinations at Compère Lapin. She has a near fanatical appreciation and understanding of stuffing, breaking down its components like a football coach studying film: “It is all about the herbs. You need rosemary and sage. Have to dice the carrots finely. The crust needs to be crunchy, but the interior has to be soft, never dry.”
Spicy food is equally at home in New Orleans as in the Caribbean. But whereas the heat of New Orleans is often expressed via one blasting note of cayenne, Compton showcases the complex, fruity spices of island peppers. The similarities between St. Lucia and New Orleans go beyond just heat, both literally and culinary. Both locations have a heavy French and Catholic heritage and have creolized those two traits. Whereas New Orleans celebrates carnival in the winter, in St. Lucia, the fest helps to enliven the month of July. Eating, drinking, and carrying on seem to be the focus of not only the holidays, but of the everyday. So this year when the twenty-sixth of November rolls around and Compton peers into a dining room filled with people eating her food and enjoying one another’s company, she should feel right at home.