The New Orleans Chef Nina Compton Weathers the Coronavirus Storm – The New Yorker

Compton was an infant when St. Lucia declared independence from Britain, on February 22, 1979, after centuries of colonial rule. That day, her father, already the island’s leader, was sworn in as its first Prime Minister. John Compton, born on a tiny island in the Grenadines and educated in St. Lucia for secondary school, had studied law at the London School of Economics. Upon his return to the islands, he became involved in St. Lucia’s anti-colonial movement. John was a charismatic speaker with a flair for dramatic gestures—early in his career, he’d made his name by drawing a gun on a white sugar-factory owner who had refused to recognize an employee union. By the time he came to govern the island, in 1964 (before independence, he held the titles of chief minister and premier), he was the face of the conservative establishment, which he headed until his death, in 2007. For almost all of Compton’s upbringing, she was a First Daughter of a young nation.

“I had the best childhood, I really did,” Compton told me. Alongside his political career, John was a prosperous banana and coconut farmer, and the family’s large house, called Moulin-a-Vent, after an old windmill on the property, was set on a hillside, with a sunset view over Rodney Bay. One of Compton’s most indelible memories, she said, was of her father squeezing fresh juice each morning, for the family’s breakfast. Another was afternoons spent at the beach, where her parents would slice mangoes picked from the family’s trees, and Compton and her siblings would race into the ocean to dunk the sticky fruit in saltwater before eating it.

I was surprised by the pastoral, apolitical glow of Compton’s childhood stories, given her father’s reputation among St. Lucia’s hundred and eighty thousand citizens. Months after becoming Prime Minister, he had been voted out of office by a furious opposition; three years later, he staged a return, with the backing of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. “Don’t get me wrong,” Compton said at one point. “It wasn’t an island where every single person loved my father. We would be driving to school and hear people be, like, ‘Down with Compton!’ ” She felt self-conscious of her privilege, and learned to downplay her family name. The New Orleans chef Donald Link, a friend of Compton’s, recalled a recent trip to St. Lucia where, at Compton’s insistence, he spent an afternoon being shown around the island by her mother, Janice. “Everywhere we went, people were like, ‘Hello, Lady Compton!’ ” he recalled. “I was, like, O.K., she seems to be someone of stature on this island.” Outside the central market in Castries, the island’s capital, Link saw a statue of John, and texted a picture of it to Compton. “You didn’t tell me everything about your life here,” he wrote her.

The family had a maid who did much of the cooking, and it wasn’t until Janice’s mother—a white Englishwoman who had relocated to St. Lucia after falling in love with Compton’s grandfather—moved in with the family, when Compton was eight or nine, that Compton started to develop an interest in food. “She especially loved cooking flying fish with parsley sauce, and I became her sous-chef,” Compton told me. “I’d say, ‘Yeah, Granny, what do you need? I’ll peel the onions, I’ll chop the carrots.’ ” At sixteen, while home from boarding school in the U.K., Compton volunteered to take over the family’s Christmas dinner. After the meal, Compton recalls feeling a great sense of rightness. “I was, like, ‘You know what? If I can make them happy, I’m sure I can make other people happy.’ And that was kind of my driving force,” she said.

When Compton was eighteen, Janice arranged for her daughter’s first professional kitchen job, a summer gig at a Sandals resort on the island. Compton loved the work so much that she stayed for a year, then spent another two at a Sandals in Jamaica. There, she worked under a chef who had graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, in New York’s Hudson Valley, and who told her that it was one of the only culinary schools worth the money. In 2000, Compton enrolled, and after graduating she secured a coveted job at Daniel, one of Manhattan’s most rarefied French restaurants.

At Daniel, she was exposed to a new kind of kitchen: hierarchical, male-dominated, cutthroat. “Yelling, screaming, demeaning—just high anxiety all the time,” Compton said. As a Black, immigrant woman (“That’s the trifecta,” she said), she felt there was little space for her to advance. “There was a woman who worked appetizers, Leslie,” she recalled. “I’ll never forget her. She said, ‘Nothing’s going to change. Even though you’re the best cook, you’ll never make it to the hot line’ ”—the center of a kitchen’s action, where line cooks work to prove themselves crafting a restaurant’s main courses, jockeying for promotions and mentorship. “And that’s just how it was.”

Disillusioned, Compton left Daniel after a year, for work in Miami, where she remained for more than a decade. She met Miller, who was then a restaurant consultant, when they were both working at Casa Casuarina, a luxury hotel in the Miami Beach mansion formerly owned by Gianni Versace, and they began dreaming about opening a place of their own. In 2013, when Compton was working as the chef de cuisine at the Miami outpost of the pasta restaurant Scarpetta, she received a call on the kitchen phone. It was a “Top Chef” producer, inviting her to be a contestant on the show’s next season, which would film primarily in New Orleans. (Scott Conant, the former chef-owner of Scarpetta, had previously been a judge on the show, but he told me that the producers found Compton independently.) If Compton won, she would get a prize of a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars. Even if she didn’t win, the show would also allow her, on a national stage, to cook the St. Lucian food she loved. “I called my mom, and she said, ‘Don’t do it, it’s too stressful for me,’ ” Compton said. “I told her, ‘Mom, this could be good. Maybe I’ll win the money. I can put Caribbean food on the map.’ ”

Bywater American Bistro occupies the ground floor of a converted rice mill in the Bywater neighborhood, which in normal times buzzes with tourists.

Bywater American Bistro—often called BABs by its regulars—is named for the Bywater neighborhood, which, with the adjacent Faubourg Marigny, sits to the “downtown” side of the French Quarter, atop a natural levee along the curve of the Mississippi. Before Katrina, the Bywater was a bohemian enclave of artists and working-class families; as in New Orleans at large, six in ten neighborhood residents were Black. After the storm, as the city worked to rebuild both its infrastructure and its population, the demographics of the Bywater inverted. Real-estate prices soared, and—at least until the COVID-19 era—the streets buzzed with tourists, who cycled through the neighborhood’s hundreds of short-term Airbnbs. Many of the area’s old factories were converted into loft apartments; Bywater American Bistro occupies the ground floor of a converted rice mill, where residents’ amenities include bike racks fabricated by an Estonian design collective and a lap pool set in an “Italian citrus grove.”