Warning: Visiting Nina Compton’s Instagram page may lead to hunger, increased wanderlust and the making of a new friend in your head. The Miami chef, whom you might recognize from TV’s Top Chef, is the culinary ambassador for St. Lucia, a job that takes her around the world serving up a little island flavor at every stop. Among her biggest inspirations from her Caribbean childhood: her father’s emphasis on a farm-to-table diet and the open-air market, where before sunrise shoppers can find a host of just-picked produce, get fish straight from the ocean and grab a chicken that’s running around. “Having those fresh ingredients at my fingertips stuck with me,” says Compton. “We used a lot of curry, ginger, turmeric, infused spices and oils, so now I try to use them as much as possible.” The homage to home is important to this South Beach chef, who is known to add a Caribbean touch to French and Italian techniques. “I tell people that whatever you are cooking, that’s an expression of yourself that you put on a plate,” she says.
For nine years, Bravo’s hit show Top Chef has introduced millions to rising culinary stars. Still, Compton was hesitant about joining the competition. When I got the call, I was pretty shocked,” explains Compton, who was chef de cuisine at the Fontainebleau hotel’s Scarpetta Miami Beach restaurant at the time. “I almost said no because I was scared and wondered if I could handle the pressure.” After encouragement from her boss, chef Scott Conant, she joined the show’s eleventh season—and hasn’t looked back. “It made me fall in love with cooking all over again. It was a very important chapter in my life.”
Designing Her Own Path
After coming in second place on Top Chef and being voted fan favorite, Compton took another big leap and left Scarpetta. “When I got hired, it was just four walls. I saw it built from the ground up. That was an exciting point in my life, to witness such an iconic property transformed,” says Compton. Last year she joined forces with the tourism board of her native St. Lucia and now splits her time between there and Miami spreading the good news of Caribbean food. Compton initially planned to study agriculture, but when she started creating holiday meals for her family as a teenager, she realized her true calling was cooking and decided to attend culinary school. “I’m happiest when I’m in the kitchen because I get to create moments and memories for people,” she says.
Nina Compton has witnessed firsthand the culinary expansion of southern Florida and is enjoying every minute of it. “The great thing about Miami is there are so many things to do when it comes to eating. You can get great Cuban in Calle Ocho, Italian at Macchialina or Japanese at Makoto,” she says. “When my husband and I are both off, we have a date night.” The couple met at the former Versace mansion, where Compton was a chef and future husband Larry Miller was a manager. They will soon celebrate their six-year anniversary, starting with a scenic stroll. “We go to the beach during the day and pick a restaurant that we haven’t been to for dinner.” When she’s in a party mood, Compton heads to LIV nightclub, and for a more chill experience it’s cocktails at Foxhole or The Broken Shaker. On weekends off from sharing the many culinary offerings of St. Lucia, you can catch the chef at the farmers’ market on Lincoln Road in Miami. “I grew up with fresh meals,” she says. “The biggest thing when people try my food is I want it to be approachable and comforting.”
This article was originally published in the February 2015 issue of ESSENCE Magazine, on newsstands now!