Meet Compère Lapin
Top Chef Nina Compton’s New Orleans restaurant takes its name from a mischievous folktale rabbit and promises the cuisine will be just as playful.
Fans of Bravo’s hit show “Top Chef” will remember season 11’s Nina Compton for her island accent, delicious seafood dishes and how close she came to becoming Top Chef. Being on the show was Compton’s first time in the city of New Orleans, which she recently came to call home. She says she fell in love with the food, music and local pride, noting connections between the cuisine and architecture of her native St. Lucia.
When it came to scouting a location for her first restaurant venture, Compton decided to relocate from Miami to The Big Easy and open a spot inside the Warehouse District’s Old No. 77 Hotel. And when it came to choosing a name, she turned back to the islands, discovering another connection that will become her namesake.
Compton’s restaurant Compère Lapin — translated to brother rabbit — opens June 2 for dinner nightly. Diners can look forward to a raw bar, small bites like Conch Croquettes, entrees of Curried Goat and Sweet Plantain Gnocchi (pictured below) and Smoked Banana Torta for dessert. Award-winning mixologist Ricky Gomez will helm the bar, serving up a twist on the classic Pimm’s Cup and cocktails like the Panache.
We interviewed Compton by email in New Orleans to ask her more about the inspiration behind the restaurant’s name, her love affair with New Orleans and how she feels about crawfish.
Compère Lapin is a mischievous rabbit character in both Creole and Caribbean folktales, known as Brer Rabbit in South Louisiana and Georgia. Did you grow up with tales of this rabbit, and why did you choose to name your restaurant after him?
I always loved the story of Compère Lapin and grew up reading it in St. Lucia. When I started researching Louisiana history for the restaurant, I discovered that the same folktale was originally written in Creole French. There have been multiple variations of the story, but the overall theme is the same — a playful, trickster rabbit. I loved the connection between my home where I was raised and my new home in New Orleans.
Why is New Orleans the right location for your first restaurant?
The city is just magical and I knew I wanted to move here. The people are incredible and the dining scene is exploding and evolving every day. When the opportunity with Provenence Hotels came about, I knew it was meant to be. Chefs around the city have been so incredibly helpful, from giving me vendors and resources they like to being so embracing. Their support definitely shows I picked the right town to put down roots.
Your menu has been described as inventive and mixing the flavors of New Orleans with those of your Caribbean roots. Why do these two flavors complement each other so well?
There are a lot of similarities in the cooking style of St. Lucia and New Orleans. Both lean toward hearty food. In St. Lucia we don’t make gumbo, but we do a bouillon. We use calaloo, which is basically the same as collard greens. It’s an easy connection and I’ve heard New Orleans called the Caribbean’s most northern city. Even the architecture in New Orleans is very similar to St. Lucia.
I read that you hadn’t visited New Orleans before filming “Top Chef” there. What was your first impression of the city and do you have a favorite indigenous dish?
That’s correct, “Top Chef” filming was the first time I visited New Orleans and I fell in love immediately. People are connected to food and to music like no other place I’ve been. Everyone is passionate about being a New Orleanian — there’s a pride that you can feel just talking to locals. And the food is, well, just out of this world. I love all things crawfish! I tried crawfish bread for the first time this Jazz Fest and it’s just amazing how many ways you can cook with it.
You were voted Fan Favorite on “Top Chef.” Why do you think viewers connected with you and are you getting the same positive reception from the people of New Orleans?
From the beginning, so many people were behind me. They would come up and tell me they were rooting for me. I felt like the people’s champion when I won Fan Favorite. It was a really great feeling and it seemed like it was the viewers’ way of saying thank you. Yes, the reception in this city has been so warm and friendly. Everyone has made me feel right at home.
Photo credits, from top: Featured photo of Chef Nina Compton by Elsa Hahne, Brer Rabbit at the Uncle Remus Museum in Eatonton, Georgia, by Deep South and Curried Goat and Sweet Plantain Gnocchi by Sara Essex Bradley.