Three female chefs are showing New Orleans diners’ that a woman’s place is running the kitchen. With James Beard Award nominations, big-time television shows, and some of the best food in the city, you’ll want to make reservations at these girl-powered restaurants now.
– NINA COMPTON –
Chef / Owner, Compére Lapin
Nina Compton’s love affair with New Orleans began while she was there shooting Season 11 of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” where she easily charmed audiences across the country and placed runner-up on the show. The chef was already basking in success at the helm of Scott Conant’s Italian restaurant Scaråpetta in Miami, but when she returned to South Florida, she couldn’t stop thinking about NOLA. “I wanted to get back there. The cooking and the music just pulls you in. I especially loved the architecture which reminded me of home,” recalls Compton who’s a native of St. Lucia.
When the opportunity presented itself to open a new restaurant at the Old No. 77 Hotel in the Warehouse District, Compton and her husband, Larry Miller, jumped at the chance. But being accepted as a chef in a place deep-rooted in Creole cuisine and Southern traditions worried Compton. Turns out, she had nothing to fret — the city’s finest chefs couldn’t wait to extend their Southern hospitality. “It was actually amazing. John Besh, Donald Link, and all these big male chefs welcomed me with open arms. We became fast friends,” says Compton, who also believes that female chefs are on even playing fields in New Orleans. “It’s not a boy’s club, it’s an everybody’s club.”
Since opening Compère Lapin (named for a folk tale about a mischievous rabbit that Compton read about during her childhood) in 2015, the restaurant has received rave reviews, and this year, Compton was a James Beard Award finalist for “Best Chef South” and was also one of Food & Wine’s “Best New Chefs in America.” She’s captivated diners with her effortless way of blending Caribbean, French, and Italian cuisine, while still creating food that tastes like homegrown Louisiana. “It felt like second nature being able to cook and adapt to the cuisine here. I could identify with the flavors, which are like the heavy spices of the Caribbean,” she explains. Depending on what you order, a meal for two can easily look like an international meeting of the mouths: supple homemade Scialatielli pasta dotted with clams and shrimp, a pot of black-eyed peas mixed with bacon and topped with crispy shallots, and Compton’s signature curried goat with melt-in-your-mouth sweet potato gnocchi. “When we first opened, I would order one goat. Now, we get up to six if we’re busy. The goat is number one every day,” explains Compton of the comforting dish that hails from her homeland.
Even with all her success and a consistently packed house, Compton won’t rest. “With 1,500 restaurants in New Orleans, you can’t relax. Every day you must grind and train. If you’re not hitting the mark every single time, you’re losing a customer.”
Compère Lapin, 535 Tchoupitoulas St., New Orleans; 504.599.2119; comperelapin.com
– SAMANTHA CARROLL –
Chef / Owner Sac-a-Lait
If you didn’t know what Samantha Carroll looked like, you might mistake the fresh-faced chef and co-owner of New Orleans’ popular Sac-a-Lait restaurant as your server. It’s not unusual to see the 27-year-old brunette dropping off food at tables, explaining the intricate details of each dish with a sweet Southern twang. “I like to be the voice of the kitchen and to really meet my customers,” says Carroll when she stops by our table.
Soon, Food Network fans will certainly recognize Carroll. She and her husband, Cody, recently landed their own show “Cajun Aces,” which will premiere on the network later this year. “This is something we didn’t seek out. It came to us,” Carroll says about the show which follows them from their bustling restaurant kitchens to spots around Louisiana. “Now that we’re in it, it’s a pretty crazy experience. I hope everyone will love it.”
The Gonzales, Louisiana native has never let age define her success. She opened her first restaurant, Hot Tails, near Baton Rouge at just 19 years old with Cody, whom she met at culinary school — and after the restaurant quickly gained recognition and numerous accolades, the power couple decided to break into the New Orleans food scene. They opened Sac-a-Lait in the trendy Warehouse District in 2015, focusing on what they know best: fishing, farming, and hunting. Carroll was raised in what’s considered the “Jambalaya Capital of the World” with parents who loved to cook, and the smell of roux for gumbo regularly fanned through her home. “One of the cool things we did as a family on the weekends is load up the car to discover and try new restaurants, explore plantation homes, and just become submersed in our environment,” Carroll says of her food-focused upbringing. Her husband grew up on a farm, and their Sac-a-Lait menu reflects real-deal Louisiana cuisine like pig ears, frog leg and alligator sausage gumbo, spicy crawfish pie, and deviled crab, but with a sophisticated touch. “A lot of people think we’re cooking crazy food to get attention, but this is what my husband ate as a poor farmer. They had to sell the major animal parts, so they were left with the ears and the tail,” she says, adding, “I think my strength is the finesse of modernizing these foods and bringing them into today’s world.”
Even with a two-year-old daughter and two restaurants in different cities (the duo drives back and forth between their restaurants each week), Carroll shows no signs of stopping. In addition to their new Food Network show, the couple is working on a cookbook, and Carroll is always looking to inspire other young chefs. “Even at this age, we have people working under us, and I feel like we’re raising the next generation of chefs, so we can preserve Louisiana cuisine for what it is.”
Sac-a-Lait, 1051 Annunciation St., New Orleans; 504.324.3658; sac-a-laitrestaurant.com
– KELLY FIELDS –
Chef / Partner, Willa Jean
After years of fashioning over-the-top, decadent desserts for posh restaurants, Kelly Fields’ approach to food these days can be summed up with a chocolate chip cookie: simple, yet highly complex.
When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, the pastry chef left John Besh’s lauded Restaurant August to travel the world, and during that time, she tasted what she describes as a “life-changing” cookie at Craftsman & Wolves in San Francisco. “That cookie is my muse. It reminded me how good simple can be,” says Fields, who also quickly found out that people have very strong opinions about chocolate chip cookies — from the amount of chocolate to softness and crispiness. “I made cookies at least once a day, every day, for two and a half years before I was like, ’This is the perfect chocolate chip cookie.’”
Fields’ cookie, created with five varieties of chocolate, sprinkled with sea salt and served with a beater of cookie dough and milk, is just one of many reasons why Willa Jean, the Besh Restaurant Group bakery where she now serves as chef/partner, is always packed. Locals and tourists alike line up to devour her Southern-inspired goodies such as griddled banana bread, moist cornbread, and hearty shrimp and grits reminiscent of étouffée. “This is what I would feed you at my house,” the 39-year-old says, adding that she may have a slight obsession with biscuits — her breakfast menu features five different types stuffed with everything from crispy fried chicken to boudin. “Every so often, I like to throw big biscuit parties at my house with different stations and have a mountain of Popeyes in my kitchen. There are never enough leftovers!”
The Charleston, South Carolina native admits that she inherited her baking skills from her mother, but it was her grandmother, Willa Jean, who made her promise to enroll in culinary school. “Despite being a woman in the South, she taught me to put myself out there and never apologize for anything,” Fields says of her sassy grandmother who ironically was a horrible cook that made Melba toast hors d’oeuvres and walked around with a fake martini in hand.
If Willa Jean were alive today, Fields says she’d be angry that the bakery was named after her, but it’s safe to say that she would certainly be proud of her granddaughter, who was recently a James Beard Award nominee finalist for Outstanding Pastry Chef. Taking on the spirit of her cheerleading grandmother, Fields recently started “Yes Ma’am,” a foundation to inspire and mentor the next generation of women chefs. “As a woman in the kitchen, I get called ma’am, not chef, and it’s driven me crazy,” says Fields who immediately admits that top jobs for female chefs are now becoming readily available. “It finally feels like we can talk about women and male chefs in the same breath without pronouns.”
Willa Jean, 611 O’Keefe Ave., New Orleans; 504.509.7334; willajean.com