A Top Chef finalist, Nina Compton is ready to move forward with her life and career. Her journey until now has been an exciting one. Oddly enough, Nina began her A-levels with the study of agriculture, following in her father’s footsteps, which was her goal at the time. She attended the Beverly Girls School in Kent, a boarding school in England.
It was during boarding school that Nina first began her exploration of cooking. Each holiday, she returned to her family for a week or two and treated them to culinary delights. Everyone enjoyed themselves immensely, providing Nina with inspiration and motivation.
The early culinary years
Once she finished her A-Levels in 1997 and returned home to St. Lucia, she told her parents that she wanted to pursue working with food professionally. Her parents suggested that she begin at the Sandals le Talk, a local hotel. After three months at this location, Nina transferred to the Sandals, in Jamaica, where she remained for the next two years, until the end of 1999.
Nina wanted to progress higher up in the culinary field, so she asked her HR adviser for guidance. He suggested returning to school for training, so Nina attended the College of America in Hyde Park, New York, where she earned an Associate’s Degree after 18 months.
Nina took a job at Restaurant Danielle, a 3-star Michelin, and a 4-star restaurant, as rated by the New York Times. Her experience in this restaurant’s intense kitchen led her to realize that she wanted to pursue a career as a chef. She discovered that cooking is an experience that includes continual learning and self-improvement.
Initially, Nina wanted to learn from the best chefs in the world, which is why she chose to take the job in America. She wanted to learn a diversity of cuisines, exploring cultural recipes from around the world, so that she could take this knowledge back home with her, using it to craft new variations of traditional Caribbean cooking. In America, Nina discovered that the French, Italian, Cuban, and Spanish chefs used ingredients differently in order to bring out amazing flavors and unique twists to foods of many kinds.
Nina particularly enjoys making nioki (gnocchi). Even though it is an uncomplicated dish to make, Nina says that it must be done just right! Only potatoes, flour, and eggs are needed to make this dish, so the difficulty exists in the temperature and handling of the recipe. Both must be perfect in order to get the right consistency, one that is not too firm or too soft.
Cooking: close up and personal
Finesse and an emotional connection are two ingredients that Nina likes to include regularly with each of her dishes. She believes that cooking is a deeply personal experience, one that is greatly enhanced when performed during a happy state of mind. In fact, Nina fully embraces the idea that the chef’s mood is the most important ingredient of all.
The driving force behind Nina’s quest to provide perfection in each of her dishes comes from her love of cooking. For Nina, cooking is an organic experience that encompasses the sound of food preparation and cooking, the smell of each individual dish as it nears readiness, and the sight of other chefs doing what they love. She loves everything about cooking. Even ordinary tasks like turning on the kitchen lights and ovens become integral components of an honored activity that Nina longs to share with other chefs around her.
Although cooking is a high pressure job, Nina loves the rush that it provides. She is constantly pushing to do better, striving for perfection in each dish, and staying in love with her chosen craft.
Even the best chef can have a bad day. Cooking is all about moments in time – moments when a chef creates the perfect dish or fails to do so. For Nina, each dish creates a moment when she is judged as a chef. Although Nina finds this to be a difficult experience, the triumphs far outweigh the disappointments.
Food, memories and school lunches
For Nina, cooking is about creating memories for the people eating her dishes. She believes that everyone relates to food and to the variety of smells it creates, aromas that evoke memories from the past or create new ones when people have an opportunity to try something new and unusual.
When asked how she would prepare school lunches, Nina talked about trying something new to get the kids interested. She believes that kids can learn to enjoy healthier foods if given a chance to experience them in ways that are fun.
Many chefs have influenced Nina’s skills, both in cooking as well as in mentoring her kitchen staff. From Norman Vanacan, she learned to experience Caribbean and Latin food in a whole new way. From Scot Conant, Nina learned the simplicity of cooking as well as the skills needed to mentor those individuals working with her. These are only two of the many chefs who have taught her something along her journey to becoming a brilliant chef herself.
Designers of the plate
Nina’s future plans include a desire to open her own restaurant, perhaps in Miami, Florida first, and then, maybe in St. Lucia. Before that, however, she wants to continue teaching people how to eat healthier simply by using the fresh ingredients within their reach. In the next five to ten years, Nina would also like to develop a culinary program in the Caribbean, while also doing more charity work.
Nina’s advice to anyone who is thinking about becoming a chef is to love the idea as well as love everything that goes along with it. She wants people to realize that a career as a chef takes dedication, hours of training, and the willingness to learn. Although cooking is stressful, Nina says that the stress can be handled by staying focused on the task at hand. For Nina, chefs are “designers of the plate”.