Nina Compton's Expert Advice For Up-And-Coming Chefs

Few arenas metamorphose so dramatically and comprehensively as the food world — and, consequently, today's chefs have to be master wave-riders. Chef Nina Compton knows a thing or two about navigating the dining world as an up-and-comer. The James Beard Award-winning NOLA chef is the chef-owner of Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro, so she can tell you why oysters and a Ramos Gin Fizz are a match made in heaven and point you to the best drinks to pair with jambalaya. But, before shaking up the landscape with her famous fusion of Caribbean, French, and Italian culinary styles and becoming the Culinary Ambassador of St. Lucia, Compton had to learn to navigate the rocky terrain of the culinary scene.

Tasting Table spoke to Compton at an event for Shake Shack and Tabasco, where she offered some advice for chefs who find themselves treading waters like these: "Practice makes perfect." It might seem a little corny, but honing your craft is the key to transforming yourself into a standout professional. 

"Don't say you've mastered one thing after getting it right the first time. You have to keep on practicing something," says Compton. "I think doing research, reading, understanding things, and being patient is definitely the best tool you can have."

Culinary careers are becoming more popular

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 2001, Nina Compton cut her teeth at fine-dining pillar DANIEL in New York City, where the dining scene is especially famous for how quickly it tends to change. Perhaps fittingly, Compton's former teacher Daniel Boulud tells Harvard Business Review that the brand of excellence and dedication that Compton encourages is exactly what he's looking for when selecting a new chef to join his team. "I need to be sure that the person is fully committed to excellence and is respectful and has a certain discipline," says Boulud. Surely, the avant-garde creations of restaurants like Disfrutar or neo-Futurist chefs with a penchant for "deconstructed" presentations are not to be discounted. But, when it comes to rising up in the industry, says Compton, a Rolodex of thoroughly-mastered basics is the best tool in an aspiring chef's arsenal.

Indeed, the professional scene is full of more aspiring chefs than perhaps ever before. In an episode of "A Cook's Tour," fellow C.I.A. alum Anthony Bourdain recalls that when he told his parents he wanted to be a chef, "They were about as happy about that as if I'd announced at the dinner table, y'know, 'Mom, dad, I wanna be an arsonist.' Now, [parents] are cheerfully sending their kids off to culinary school and bragging about it. It's an honorable profession." 

According to info analytics platform Data U.S.A., roughly 10,000 cooks graduated with culinary arts degrees in 2020 alone.