New Orleans Chef Nina Compton Welcomes Silver Nova to the Silversea Fleet
As a child growing up in St. Lucia, Chef Nina Compton would awaken and find her grandmother in the kitchen preparing meals for the day. It was the prelude to spending time overlooking the ocean with her family. “Peeling carrots, picking herbs became joyous,” Compton says. “Then, as I traveled, I found that in any house, sitting down with family members always has to do with food. It brings people together.”
That sense of community and the creativity that comes with cooking became driving passions for Compton, who recently served as the godmother at the christening for Silver Nova, Silversea’s newest ship. “I found that being a chef you never stop learning,” she says. “I never got bored, watching cooking shows and sucking up as much information as I could.”
Partnering with husband Larry Miller, who runs operations, Nina helms a trio of restaurants, starting with Compére Lapin, named after the traditional ‘Brother Rabbit’ folk tales of the Caribbean and New Orleans. It features a sophisticated Caribbean fusion menu. Bywater American Bistro is a friendly neighborhood-style restaurant in the French Quarter. And there’s also Nina’s Creole Cottage, a fast-casual eatery in Harrah’s. The duo also co-host the Between Bites podcast, where, with special guests, they discuss their passion for cuisine — and the city’s NBA team, the Pelicans.
Compton’s sense of adventure in the kitchen and beyond made this TV Top Chef and James Beard Award winner the ideal godmother for Silver Nova, the new mold-breaking ship, Silversea President Barbara Muckermann tells me. “Nova means ‘new,’ and Nina is always creating what is new,” Muckermann says. “It’s a perfect fit with our S.A.L.T culinary program,” the Sea and Land Taste program that promotes cultural exploration through the food cultures of the destinations it visits.
Jane Wooldridge, Silversea Discover contributor, talked with Compton recently as she chopped shishito peppers in the kitchen of Bywater American Bistro.
What did you think when you were asked to be godmother of Silver Nova?
It was definitely not expected. When I got the phone call, I was shocked and very excited at the same time. Cruise ships create a unique experience centered on food and entertainment, and that’s what I do.
You’re a big traveler. How did that start?
I worked at Sandals, the resort company, for a while. That really inspired me because I was able to travel and do what I love. I’ve found you can travel and cook anywhere in the world. Food really is the universal language.
What do you do when you travel?
I like to go somewhere with my husband that we’ve never been. It’s really about drawing inspiration from different countries. We went recently to Portugal’s Madeira Island, and I found so many types of bananas there. When we went to Brazil, it was about understanding the Afro-Latin cuisine. It’s important to me to go home once a year, to immerse myself in the food I grew up in. I’m constantly learning, but I also try to take time off.
Where did you hone your cooking skills?
I worked at Daniel Boulud’s restaurant in New York. Then I went to Miami and worked at the Biltmore Hotel, then at Norman van Aken’s restaurant in Coral Gables, Fla., and then Scarpetta at the Fontainebleau Resort in Miami Beach. I met my husband when we were working at Casa Casuarina, the former Versace Mansion in Miami’s South Beach.
You’ve won many awards as a chef. Tell us what’s at the roots of your successes.
I was always pushing myself to do something, but I never thought I would be on Top Chef or win a James Beard Award. I learned from my dad [Sir John George Melvin Compton, St. Lucia’s first prime minister] to never pay attention to the people around you, because you’re then spending all your energy on them instead of keeping your eyes on your goal.
A lot of the success comes from not having an ego. It’s easy for people to get their heads filled up. It’s important for me to keep my head down and do what I do and what I love.
How did you end up in New Orleans?
My husband and I married in June 2009. When we were planning our honeymoon, we wanted to go to New Orleans, but we just never got around to it. Then when I was in the Top Chief show, it was filmed in New Orleans.
Something about this city speaks to people; it really pulls you in – the feel of it and the energy. It’s very tropical and colorful and rich with history. We’ve been here almost nine years, and I’m still learning something new about the city every day.
What makes for a great dish?
The ingredients are crucial. Seasonality is very important. So is being loyal to those farmers that have the same passions as we do about the integrity of the ingredients. A lot of dishes we create are a story that comes from a trip or from when I grew up.
Mangoes are one of my favorite ingredients. When I was a child, mango season was always my favorite time, when the air was perfumed with this sweet smell. There are over 300 types of mango, and I think a lot of people who think they don’t like mangoes get the wrong variety. If you get a nice meaty one, it’s like eating a peach.
You own three restaurants in New Orleans. How do you stay sane?
I don’t get much time out of the kitchen. It’s a long day. My down time consists of getting up and sitting outside and reading the paper. Sitting outside is really important for me.
I get up around 7:30 or 8 a.m. and check my emails and voicemails. After that, I make a cup of coffee, and my husband and I sit outside with the dogs — we’ve adopted two rescues. My husband and I talk about which restaurant he’ll be at and about the business. I’m very lucky to have my husband understand my day. It takes a bit of the stress out. A lot of people don’t know how much work goes into creating a dish or creating a service.
Staying sane really comes down to organization, I have learned the power of saying ‘no.’ We get a lot of asks, but I just have to say no to a lot of things that stretch me too thin.
What’s your advice for travelers?
I really want people to be open minded when they travel, to push themselves out of their comfort zone. So many people just stay at the resort and never go to the local restaurants. They should try to get off the beaten track and eat like a local when they go out. They’ll learn more about the place.