Of Chex Mix and West Indies Punch
At their home away from home—their latest restaurant in New Orleans—Nina Compton and Larry Miller welcome friends for a Christmas gathering with a menu inspired by their childhoods
When chef Nina Compton was growing up in St. Lucia, Christmastime was more than a family affair. Friends and neighbors would show up at the house, unannounced, for a drink and a greeting before heading on their merry way. There was a traditional meal, too, of ham and roast beef. Her father—a longtime prime minister of the country—would contribute exactly one dish: his milk punch. The dynamic is different at today’s little gathering. “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—closed today, but repurposed for a casual dinner party. Her husband, Larry Miller, works plenty hard. They both do: Together, they run two of the nation’s most acclaimed restaurants. While Miller’s duties typically keep him at the front of the house, today he’s donning an apron and bearing a carving knife.
Miller and Compton met while working at Casa Casuarina, a luxury boutique hotel on 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 and in 2018, she became the first black woman to win a James Beard award for Best Chef: South for her cooking at Compère Lapin. The restaurant, her first joint venture with Miller, opened 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 after filming Top Chef here, Compton fell in love with how people 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 a converted rice mill just downstream from the French Quarter. They figured this 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. (As they prepped this meal, Levi Raines, the third partner in the restaurant and the chef who leads its kitchen, noted that he’d just seen one return from walking his dog.) 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.
Now that’s happening. Rather than squeezing into the apartment and jockeying for oven space, the couple has prepared this feast in the restaurant kitchen and set guests at a table with a view out to the artfully graffitied Bywater streets.
Compton attended boarding school in England, which made Christmas holidays at home all the more precious. She eagerly prepared hors d’oeurves, and eventually graduated to making the full meal—some of the earliest experiences that launched her culinary career.
“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. “I just sharpened my knives yesterday, man,” Raines says, before inquiring about the lack of gravy for the ham. Such is the danger of cooking for chefs. But Miller replies, with a grin, that this is not Raines’ holiday meal.
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. Both ingredients preceded his arrival in their home city—suggesting why Miller is such a good fit here. (His impish sense of humor helps, too.)
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 Compton’s father. Though by the time the last drinks are poured, Miller is gone already, clearing dishes—the pleasant and important work of welcoming friends.