Nina Compton and Larry Miller, acclaimed owners of Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro welcome friends into their latest New Orleans restaurant for a Christmas gathering that harkens back to their childhood.
When chef Nina Compton was growing up in St. Lucia, Christmastime was more than a family affair. Friends and neighbors would pop by the house, unannounced, for a drink and greeting before heading on their merry way. There was the traditional meal of ham and roast beef and her father would contribute the prized dish: his milk punch.
This holiday season, alongside her husband, Larry Miller, the dynamic is different. While Miller’s duties typically keep him at the front of the house, today he’s donning an apron and bearing a carving knife. “I’m going to put Larry to work,” Compton says, laughing, as she seats a group of friends in a back nook in one of her restaurants.
Nina Compton and Larry Miller’s Partnership
Larry Miller and Nina Compton met while working at Casa Casuarina, a luxury boutique hotel in Miami Beach.
They married in 2010, and in the years since, they have racked up accolades. Compton was voted fan-favorite on the eleventh season of Top Chef . In 2018, she became the first black woman to win a James Beard award for Best Chef: South for her cooking at Compère Lapin.
Compère Lapin was her first joint venture with Miller opening in June 2015 at the bottom of a New Orleans hotel in the midst of the summer tourist doldrums. Compton and Miller were happy with the timing, since it meant the first diners would be locals—and potential new friends—as they had just arrived in the city themselves. A year and a half later, the Times-Picayune named it New Orleans’ restaurant of the year, in large part because, somehow, a hotel restaurant had become a homey place that was beloved locally.
The couple chose New Orleans because Compton fell in love with how the locals live.
“I feel like I’ve been here for a lifetime because of the people,” she says. “They’re about life—how do we do this, how do we work and play?”
Compton and Miller live a twelve-minute drive from Compère Lapin, in an apartment inside of a converted rice mill just downstream from the French Quarter. They assumed it would be temporary quarters, but four and a half years after arriving, it’s still their home. “And we opened up this place, so we’re definitely not leaving now,” Compton says.
By “this place,” she means Bywater American Bistro. It opened in 2018, named for the neighborhood and the restaurant’s eclectic approach to American cuisine. It sits at the foot of their apartment building, which means their regulars are, quite literally, their neighbors.
Befitting its location, they designed the space—which features well-spaced tables and a bar around an open kitchen—so it would feel like “hanging out with friends a dinner party,” as Compton told Eater last year.
Caribbean Communal Dining
Rather than squeezing into the apartment and jockeying for oven space, the couple has prepared a feast in the restaurant kitchen and set guests at a table with a view out to the artfully graffitied Bywater streets
“When you have holiday stuff, it’s more like potluck,” she says. “What are people going to like? What’s going to work?”
Today, she’s kept the menu fun, updating tradition: okra and roasted delicata squash; rice and pigeon peas, a Caribbean New Year’s Eve good-luck tradition to match hoppin’ john; and a creamy stuffing made from her famous Compère Lapin biscuits—they’re so good diners have been known to sneak them out of the restaurant in napkins.
The centerpiece is a ham, marinated in Cuban mojo. Miller carves it using one of Raines’ kitchen knives, and is gently ribbed for his technique.
It is very much Compton’s and Miller’s meal, and their most personal touches bookend the beginning and end. At the bar, over a West Indies punch—reminiscent of Christmas afternoons on a St. Lucian veranda—the group snacks on Miller’s riff of his mother’s Chex Mix.
He grew up in Atlanta with “regular mom cooking,” he says, but this was a constant holiday snack, accompanying Thanksgiving football and Christmas unwrapping. It has its own gourmet secrets. She was a fan of Paul Prudhomme and used his Blackened Redfish Magic seasoning; Miller later added his favored Crystal Hot Sauce.
Miller also contributes the dessert. While living in Miami, he embarked on a quest to taste the city’s many variations of key lime pie. His recipe, with a salty crust and a smooth, subtle sweetness, reflects the lessons he learned. It’s served alongside the milk punch in honor of Nina Compton’s father.
Nina Compton’s Holiday Recipes
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