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Lessons from a James Beard Award-winning chef and the tight-knit New Orleans restaurant community

As businesses start to reopen after the nearly nationwide shutdown, restaurant owners, workers, and customers are facing a brave new world of COVID dine-in experiences. 

In a recent episode of the Full Comp podcast, James Beard Award-winning chef Nina Compton of Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro compares the current COVID environment with previous disasters that have affected the great city of New Orleans. She discusses the opportunity restaurateurs in New Orleans have to come together as a community, share their struggles, and contribute to the rebirth of the once-vibrant restaurant industry in their town.

Listen to the full episode below, or listen and subscribe on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.

Photos: Bywater American Bistro by G G. on Yelp / Denny Culbert / Bywater American Bistro by Timothy B. on Yelp


Ready for more? Check out more episodes of Full Comp:

Episode 1: Building a Restaurant Empire in a Recession: Tender Greens’ Erik Oberholtzer

Episode 2: Creating Opportunity from Tragedy: Serial Restaurateur Darin Rubell

Episode 3: Redefining Cocktail Culture: Death & Co’s Alex Day

Episode 4: The Art of the Pivot: Iron Chef Eric Greenfield

Episode 22: The Art of the Pivot: Mark Canlis, owner/operator of Canlis

Episode 26: The Future of Restaurants: Dean Alex Susskind, Cornell University

Episode 34: Becoming a Brand: Celebrity Chef Jet Tila

Episode 36: Fighting the Good Fight: Celebrity Chef Rick Bayless


Full Comp, episode 14 transcript
The Benefits of Community Building: Chef Nina Compton, Chef/Owner of Compère Lapin

[Josh Kopel]

Today’s episode is brought to you by Yelp, whose mission is to connect people with great local businesses. They’re also helping me connect with you, which is totally awesome. Now here we go.

[Nina Compton]

Restaurants deserve a place in this world, and I think people want them and they need them to kind of step it up. If you want to have your neighborhood restaurants, support them.

[Josh Kopel]

Welcome to Full Comp, the show offering insight into the future of the hospitality industry featuring restaurateurs, thought leaders, and innovators, served up—on the house.

On today’s show, we chat with James Beard Award-winning chef Nina Compton about how community building is our secret weapon in the fight to save our industry.

What I miss most about Louisiana is the sense of community that I felt there. What I miss is exactly what compelled chef Nina Compton to move there. Since arriving, she’s opened multiple restaurants and has achieved every imaginable accolade. Nothing could stop that momentum, except for a global pandemic. Today, we discuss the long road ahead and the need to come together as a community if we’re going to make it out of this alive. 

[Josh Kopel]

What year did you move to New Orleans?

[Nina Compton]

2015.

[Josh Kopel]

And why New Orleans?

[Nina Compton]

Why not? I mean, I think the food here, the culture, the people, it’s just, I think for somebody in my industry, I think it’s just the perfect package. I lived in Miami for quite some time and I wanted to change and I think this was just a natural progression for me. And it’s also very similar to the Caribbean back home, so that was something I just really wanted to just dig into.

[Josh Kopel]

Well, and it’s a poignant place to be at the moment. It’s a mecca for resilience and recovery, wouldn’t you say?

[Nina Compton]

Yeah, especially during these times now.

[Josh Kopel]

Well, and how would you say New Orleans has reacted to the pandemic?

[Nina Compton]

Once the pandemic hits, we just didn’t really know anything like this. We formed a pretty solid group of, I would say, 70 chefs around town. I wasn’t here for Katrina or the BP oil spill, and everybody’s like, this is just like, it’s a disaster, but we need to support each other and try to help each other out because it is a very uncertain time. And we just have to share resources of information that we get along the way and just stick together—a safety in numbers kind of thing, which I think is really important.

[Josh Kopel]

Yes ma’am. I mean, as a fellow restaurateur, I’m scared myself. Having said that, I feel like I’ve always been on the brink of huge success and huge failure all at the same time.

[Nina Compton]

Right. It’s very up and down. When we first closed and I’m like, “Okay, a month is fine. I can take the time off, relax, kind of regroup.” Well now we’re going on two months and each day that goes by, it just seems like it’s just longer and longer and it just gets scarier.

I think a lot of people say, “I can do with a month of being closed.” But once you start getting two-three months, then you start to say, “Listen, I’m not going to be able to reopen.” I have to really muster the courage and say, “Listen, I’ve come too far to fail. And it’s going to be a really long, it’s going to be a long game.” It’s not going to happen overnight where things will just switch back to normal. Restaurants are going to be viewed differently. Eating habits are going to change. I guess dining etiquette is going to change as well.

There’s a lot of change that we don’t know how to deal with because it is a quick change and restaurants have been hit hard in terms of anything you read in the news, that I don’t go to restaurants, it’s a germ fest and you can get coronavirus because one person sits there and it can infect 10 people with them now. It’s like, nothing is positive in terms of going to a restaurant to dine right now.

I think the scariest thing is people say, “Oh, well, you can just do to-go food and you’ll be okay.” But that’s not really viable. When you start looking at the check average, when you do to-go compared to full service restaurants, people not buying cocktails, they’re not buying wine, they’re ordering only, maybe just an entree instead of an appetizer, an entree and a dessert so the check average definitely goes down. And when you start seeing the money at the end of the day, you’re like, “Oh my gosh, all that work for that little bit of money,” and it’s scary.

[Josh Kopel]

It is.

[Nina Compton]

I just really think that you have to stick it out because we’re going to open up in about two weeks, about four days a week to do to-go until we feel that the guests feel safe, until the staff feels safe to come and sit in the restaurant.

[Nina Compton]

The governor just announced that we can only offer the 25% full capacity, which is not a lot. I mean, that’s two tables, three tables maybe. But we definitely want to build up the trust with our guests and our staff and make them feel safe when they come. Because again, people have been sitting at home and if you’re in quarantine with your husband or your wife, that’s fine. But once you go into a bigger group of people, the way that you react to things, making sure you have your mask on, your gloves, your sanitizing things, it’s a lot of protocol that you have to follow every step of the way. And we want to make sure that we do those things properly so nobody gets sick, because let’s face it, if somebody hears so and so’s restaurant, they had a corona breakout you’re done.

[Josh Kopel]

For sure.

[Nina Compton]

That’s something that we have to be very, very careful about and make sure that people are safe, we’re doing things right.

[Nina Compton]

I tell people this, my goal is just to break even for the next year because that’s the reality. I’m not doing it to make a ton of money because I know it that’s damn near impossible, but I’m being realistic that I just want to break even and keep my doors open and then try and weather the storm until things bounce back because things will bounce back. It will take some time. I’m an old dog. I can’t just change careers and say, “Hey, you know what? I’m going to be a …” I told Tobias, “I want to be a UPS driver.”

[Josh Kopel]

I hear they have great benefits.

[Nina Compton]

Exactly. My husband and I were like, I’m like, “Hey, this could be a clean slate for us. We can start in any industry.” He’s like, “We’re going into a recession. Who’s going to hire?” I’m like, “Think about the UPS drivers. They’re always hiring.” And we looked it up and I’m like, “I’m not saying no, it might be a thing. If I’m delivering a package, you might see Chef Nina comes in delivering a package.”

[Josh Kopel]

I do know. I had the same conversation with my wife. It’s day by day, and sometimes even in the same day, I’ll start the morning by saying, “You know what? Everything’s going to be okay. We’re going to open the restaurant, people are going to adjust.” And then by dinner, we’re sitting across from each other and I’m going, “You know, I could go get a job. I could work a desk job. You get good benefits. I could be home by 6:00 every day.”

[Nina Compton]

Right. Well, I think a lot of people are faced with that, but I think when you’re the actual owner, you have so much invested, not just financially, but also emotionally, you’re invested in that space. So for you to just kind of walk away, it’s hard for the person to say, “You know what, I’m just going to give up on this.” I think that is the biggest thing for us is like, we’re going to at least try.

[Josh Kopel]

I do, because you put a piece of yourself into it. When I look at my restaurant, it’s a reflection of self and where I was in that moment.

[Nina Compton]

Right, exactly. I think that we have so many people counting on us, not just our immediate staff, but farmers, fishermen, cheese mongers, wine producers, they need restaurants to come back because we’re seeing all this waste of farmers throwing away milk or euthanizing the animals because there isn’t that much demand any more. I think we have a responsibility to at least try and come back because those things, that’s all part of the supply chain that impacts the economy as well, because it’s providing jobs.

[Nina Compton]

I think it’s very hard for so many industries to pivot in a different direction due to the pandemic. What can a farmer turn around and say, “I’m just going to …” What do they do?

[Josh Kopel]

I feel like you’ve met your responsibility. You have been an advocate for the industry, especially during these times. I guess one of my questions to you would be, did we as an industry do a poor job of letting the public know what a fragile ecosystem this is, whether we’re talking about the food ways or the razor thin margins that we work on? Should we have communicated that a bit better?

[Nina Compton]

Well, I think most people know that restaurants are, it’s not a lucrative business. I mean, some people do hit the jackpot. But it’s also a lot of work and the return sometimes is not a lot. I think we do it because we’re passionate about cooking and running a restaurant and a business and our staff.

[Nina Compton]

I just think that people just take things for granted in terms of what it really takes to run a restaurant. I think people forget that plates cost money, food cost money, and we’re trying to do the right thing and make the business viable. And that’s why a lot of people, if I raise my prices, people like, “Oh my gosh, she’s so expensive,” not realizing, hey, beef is going to go up, pork is go up. That’s part of the game.

[Nina Compton]

I think a lot of time as restaurant owners, I think that we can eat that in the sense of, we don’t want to turn our customers away by being expensive. And that’s why some restaurants end up losing money because they’re like, “Well, I can only charge so much because otherwise people won’t come.”

[Nina Compton]

I think that we have always kind of walked the line a little bit in terms of, I guess, buffering the guests a little bit in the consumer. But I think this is actually a very important lesson for the world to see that you can’t take restaurants for granted because they just really don’t know what’s happening behind closed doors until now, what it takes to run a restaurant. You’re responsible for farmer’s livelihoods, fishermen’s livelihoods, all of these people are affected by restaurants being closed because we just took them for granted.

[Josh Kopel]

I’d like to pivot. I was on your website. There’s a quote on there that I absolutely loved. It said, “Meals are about moments, memories and those who surround you at the table.” My question would be, what are those moments look like post-pandemic? When you reopen your doors, how are we going to create that experience that the patrons want?

[Nina Compton]

Well, I mean, it’s very hard now because everything’s in a to-go box. Those touches that we really strive for each day, we can’t really do. It doesn’t come across as well. But I think being thoughtful about what we do and reopening, and I think just being there for the community, because I think at the end of the day, people want restaurants around. And yes, we may have to change menus or styles of service or different things.

I won’t be as warm and friendly as we remember restaurants to be, but it’s still the same people cooking the food. It’s still the same people serving the food. I mean, we haven’t changed as people. We still want to make this work, it’s just in a different package. I think that it will be very nostalgic when people talk about, “Oh my gosh, I went there for my anniversary,” but we will get back to those days.

I believe that because restaurants are something that everybody can relate to a restaurant, whether it’s a fast food restaurant, whether you pick something, some cheese at a cheese shop and you go have a picnic. Those things, I think… it’s food is very comforting, and right now people need comfort. They want comfort. People are like, “Oh my God, I can’t wait for you guys to reopen. I’m tired of my cooking and tired of doing dishes.”

People want restaurants to come back. And I think that yes, times are going to be hard for everybody, not just restaurants, but we all need each other in every way.

[Josh Kopel]

I don’t know what it was like for you right before you closed your restaurant, but for me, especially in that last week, there was a tension in the air. We closed on a Monday, and that Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, it was so tense you could feel it with the staff. You could feel it with the patrons. The thought that I’ve been obsessed with is how are we going to eliminate that, or at the very least, reduce it when we reopen? Do you have any thoughts or ideas? Have you guys started working on your reopening plan in terms of reducing? I mean, I was scared. I was afraid I was going to get sick, that my staff was going to get sick, somebody sneezed on the other side of the room, I dropped a plate.

[Nina Compton]

I mean, I remember that week vividly because I don’t watch the news because there’s never anything good on the news. It’s always something negative. I came home and my husband had CNN on and Jose Andres was speaking about feeding the cruise line workers that were stuck on a cruise ship. I forget, I think it might’ve been off Seattle or somewhere where they couldn’t dock.

Sanjay Gupta was speaking about all of these different things. This was before I think things got really bad. I remember it must’ve been like 10 or 12 days before we shut down. I was so scared by what was saying on the news. I had a staff meeting. I’m like, “Guys, this coronavirus is not a joke. And we can see that conventions are canceling, the cruise ships are not docking in New Orleans anymore. There are not a lot of tourists around. It’s coming.” I’m like, “Guys, save your money. Every dish that you cook in this restaurant, make it count because those people that are coming here, they come here because they want to come here and times are uncertain.”

And then a couple of days you started hearing cases popping up, there’s something in LA and there’s something in Seattle and then New York and then Chicago. And then you start to see things start to trend and it’s like, I didn’t know how to react. I was trying to react quickly where I’m like, “Okay, we’re going to put sanitizer at the hostess stand, all over the restaurant so the guests have access to the staff, have access to it, single use menus, spacing the tables.” I felt like, “Okay, we’re ahead of the curve.”

And every time I thought we were, we were actually not. And everything we did was not quick enough and I could feel the pressure of what’s going to happen. And then state started to close. Then Chicago closed their restaurants and I’m like, “Oh my God.” I’m like, “New Orleans is fine. We don’t have that many cases. We could probably last a couple more weeks.”

And then cancellations started to roll in. And we said, “Okay, well let’s maybe closed one day a week,” because we were seven days a week. I remember saying, “Okay guys, we see what’s going on. We’re going to close one day a week and we’re going to see what’s going to happen.”

Some of the staff started to freak out. I’m like, “Guys, it’s going to be okay. We’ll make it work.” That was probably the Thursday or the Friday we said that. And then on a Sunday, it’s like, I could not even bear to be in my restaurant because I couldn’t look at my staff because I felt like I failed my staff. I felt like I could not provide them a job going forward and it was very stressful for me because there was so much uncertainty on how long we’re going to be closed.

We felt the same thing. We need to close because I don’t want to get sick. I don’t get my guests sick, my staff sick. It’s just a smart business thing to do, so we closed. And now we’re just looking at different States on what they’re doing, what precautions they’re taking. And again, it’s about building the trust where we’re opening in a couple of weeks and we’re going to email all our managers our action plan of what needs to happen. We’re going to bring the managers back first. We’re going to deep clean the restaurant, get everything in place. And we’re just going to do to-go until we feel again, the guests are confident, and the staff are confident to do service and to do service without any issues.

[Josh Kopel]

Well, you and I are actually very close to the same age and we came up in the same industry. I’ve been working 80 to 100 hours a week since I got into this. I’m sure you have as well. My question would be, we don’t really have a lot of time to sit back and think, not for the last 10 years, 15 years, 20 years.

[Nina Compton]

Right.

[Josh Kopel]

But over the course of the last couple of months, I’ve had ample opportunity to think about the choices I’ve made as a professional, as a restaurateur. I’ve made very concerted efforts to evaluate how I want to move forward as a restaurateur within this industry, as a business person. There were compromises that I made that I wouldn’t make again. I’m wondering, looking forward, what are the changes you’ve thought about making in your own restaurant and what changes would you like to see in the industry at large with this opportunity to reset?

[Nina Compton]

Well, I think the biggest thing for me, like you said, time is a luxury, time off is luxury. I think what I want to take away from that is trying to get my staff to have a normal schedule. I don’t want staff to feel like you’re a motto where you have to, “Oh, I have to work 15 hours because that’s just expected.” I think if we’re going to change something, that would be it, creating a warm environment in kitchens, I think is important, instead of just being, assholes, just yelling and screaming. I think we need to just care for the people that we have around us because we spend that much time together making people want to come to work and valuing the time.

And also, because the way I look at things is life is too short. I want to be able to not feel guilty if I say, “You know, today I’m going to go in at noon,” not where I wake up and I’m like, okay, check my emails, jump in the shower, rush to work, be there for end the breakfast service, be there, expedite a lunch service, then going to busy dinner service and then come home. I don’t want to feel like I’m a hamster on a wheel.

I think that’s the way I look at, excuse me, that this pandemic, and once we come out of it, everybody has a clean slate. We have to transform our restaurants into a different space right now. I’m looking at the way that I want to cook food because I think people have this expectation of it’s a French Caribbean restaurant and this expectation.

I can think outside the box now. If I want to make Korean food for one day, I should be able to, because I think that’s what people want. People want just good food right now and there is no judgment. I think that’s the beautiful thing about coming out of it. It’s kind of like a reboot of restaurants.

[Josh Kopel]

I agree with you wholeheartedly. And having had the opportunity to look back, what would you say your keys to success were prior to the pandemic? And also what do you think is going to secure your success in the future?

[Nina Compton]

I think that it comes down to hard work, aiming to be consistent. I think that is, as restaurants, people have this expectation, like I go to that restaurant because it’s consistent. I go there because the staff are friendly, they’re warm, they remember my name, they know my favorite cocktail and they make me feel like family. I think that’s one of the biggest things that is successful.

I think also just being a hard-working person is one of the keys, because as you know, restaurants, you have to be on top of every single thing, the china inventory, did the dishwasher show up today, do we have cleaning supplies. It’s a lot of moving parts and I think that’s something that you have to be on every single day.

[Josh Kopel]

Oh yeah, for sure. And of everything you listed, when the dishwasher doesn’t show up?

[Nina Compton]

It’s the worst day.

[Josh Kopel]

It’s the worst.

[Nina Compton]

I tell people this, I can deal with a cook not showing up, the food runner wasn’t feeling well or the busser quit or something. When a dishwasher doesn’t show up, I mean, it’s like …

[Josh Kopel]

You might as well close for the day.

[Nina Compton]

It is the most stressful, so I mean, I think people don’t value that position. I value it. I really do, because those are the people as they show up, I’m like, “Oh, thank God they’re here. It’s going to be a great service guys. It really is.”

[Josh Kopel]

I couldn’t agree with you more. This is an industry podcast focused on supplying those of us within the industry with insight and focus and most importantly, hope. I’m wondering, do you have any thoughts that you would like to share with the people listening today?

[Nina Compton]

People should really, I think the biggest key to surviving is having a support group within the industry. I think people just not even having the answer to what’s going on, but just being able to speak and voice their concerns and having that release and it’s having people just say, “Hey, I’m going through the same thing and I understand that.” Because that’s all I do. I call different chefs that I know over the years and just to check in and say, “Hey man, how are you doing today?” Some say, “Some days are better than others.”

[Nina Compton]

But I think having that support group and also just, it is a very tough time and it’s very uncertain and people are stressed out. But I think not giving up hope is the only way. Because I was talking to a friend of mine and he was saying after Katrina some restaurants reopened and you could tell some were just genuinely trying to make it happen and some just didn’t care. They were just like, “Okay, well, we’re going to reopen anyway.” He said, “The ones that were the most positive and the most thoughtful about their restaurants, they survived and the ones that were not, they end up closing.” You can’t really have a negative outlook because that’s going to eat you up. You have to have some kind of hope, whether it’s reopening and just breaking even for a year until things bounce back. That’s a positive outlook.

[Nina Compton]

I think just being realistic at this at this moment, and I think also uplifting your peers and just saying like, “Hey, we’re all going to make it. We’re going to try and make it and whatever you need, you let me know, whether it’s advice on the PPP loan or staffing or changing your concepts.” I think just having just bouncing ideas off each other and having that support group is really going to make us thrive.

[Josh Kopel]

That’s chef Nina Compton. Be sure to follow her on social using the handle @ninacompton.

If you want to tell us your story, hear previous episodes, check out our video content, or read our weekly blog, go to JoshKopel.com. That’s J-O-S-H-K-O-P-E-L-dot-com. 

Thank you so much for listening to the show. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And while you’re there, please leave us a review. A special thanks to Yelp for helping us spread the word to the whole hospitality community. I’m Josh Kopel. You’ve been listening to Full Comp.

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