By Nikki Vargas
Zagat Stories presents Restaurants 20/21, a collection of interviews with leading voices in hospitality, food, media, tech, politics, design, and more. Each story takes the turning of the calendar as an inflection point to consider what happened in 2020, or what’s likely to happen in 2021, in the world of restaurants and hospitality. See all stories here.
Nina Compton is a James Beard award-winning chef and former Top Chef contestant, originally from St. Lucia. Compton currently lives in New Orleans where she oversees her two highly acclaimed restaurants, Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro. After months of being closed, Compère Lapin reopened in November 2020.
As chefs, we often think restaurants will be around forever because everybody has to eat. That’s always been the mentality, that we are untouchable. But we’re actually not.
The decision to close my restaurants dawned on me March 15th. It was the second anniversary of Bywater American Bistro, which should have been a happy day. I remember my best friend came to town to celebrate, and we all went to dinner at Bywater. The restaurant was buzzing, everyone was happy, everyone was congratulatory—but I had a pit in my stomach the entire time. I was looking at my staff and, for the first time ever in my career, I felt like a deer caught in headlights. I’m so used to being in charge and calling the shots, but the staff were asking me all these questions, and I didn’t know what to say. That night I could see the writing on the wall. I knew I’d have to close the restaurant the next day.
When I started seeing the coronavirus spread from Asia to Europe, I never thought it would impact the entire world. I thought it would be like SARS, where it stayed on the other side of the globe. Things started to escalate, cases were rising, and we saw restaurants in Chicago and New York start to shut down.
In New Orleans, we were in the height of spring season—we had just finished Mardi Gras—and had all of these upcoming things booked. We only had a couple of cases at that time—maybe four or five—but during that week it started to spike quickly in Louisiana. I was on edge every single day at 3 p.m. when Governor John Bel Edwards would hold a daily press conference and announce new restrictions.
We were just trying to do our thing and cook the best food we can, but it wasn’t enough. That Sunday, we had a curfew where everybody had to be out of the restaurant by 9 p.m. The following day, it was announced restaurants were to be strictly take-out or delivery.
We had just come off of Mardi Gras and one of the busiest times in New Orleans. Hand sanitizer was sold out, to-go boxes were sold out, everybody was just scrambling. We couldn’t pivot fast enough. We called a full staff meeting and decided we had to close, which was very hard for me. These people had been with me for a long time. They have families. My husband had to be the one to tell the staff because I couldn’t even speak, I was just so emotional. I felt like I had let my staff down. People think having a business is so glamorous, but it’s very stressful when you have to tell over a hundred people that you don’t have a job for them.
Despite it all, the mentality was optimistic at the time. This being America, a powerful first-world country, we really thought we would reopen the restaurant in a month. I thought we were going to have a handle on the pandemic and would be back on track in no time. When a lot of restaurants closed with the mandated shutdown, locals were buying gift cards, buying large to-go orders, and posting on social media to support restaurants. The local New Orleans community really helped in any way they could.
The thing is, we don’t have a large enough population in New Orleans to support all of these restaurants without the balance of both locals and tourists. People ended up losing everything because they were trying to keep their staff and keep their families afloat, which is just not possible without funding.
When the Paycheck Protection Program came out, people were hesitant because it’s still a loan that you have to pay back. The RESTAURANTS Act would better help people out—it’s essentially a grant where restaurants are given enough money to get them through this pandemic. A lot of lost revenue would be made up, and it would give people the funding to pay their staff, to pay their utilities, to pay all their expenses and keep growing.
Most people have this short-sighted vision of the restaurant industry as just a server, a cook, a sommelier, a general manager, and an executive chef, but that’s not all the employees. The restaurant industry employs so many people, directly and indirectly. I’ve had farmers we work with calling to say they need help selling their produce because restaurants have closed. I remember there was a story about a farmer who had to throw away a million pounds of onions because of restaurant shutdowns. With the second wave of coronavirus, it’s already happening all over again. If people want to see these restaurants survive, they need to push for the RESTAURANTS Act to pass. Without it, 9 out of 10 restaurants will be gone.
When we first closed, we donated a lot of the perishables to Second Harvest Food Bank and started making hospital meals for frontline workers, but that didn’t last as there were just so many people in need, and organizations ran out of funding. At that point, my husband said, “Listen Nina, let’s just try and make this a little more positive and treat this as a little vacation.”
It was the first time in five or six years that I didn’t have to worry about scheduling or food deliveries. Work-life balance is something I really struggle with. I’d wake up at 7 a.m., check my emails, run into the restaurant, and cook. That’s me. I can handle that. But I have to look at it differently now. We’re operating at 50 percent capacity. I shouldn’t be working that much for just 50 percent.
I made a hard rule that my staff is working less hours now, so that when we do come back to some sense of normalcy, that work-life balance is already built in. If I were to wake up, sit outside on my porch, have a cup of coffee, and read a book, then at least I’m going into work with a sense of ease. People feed off that energy. Work-life balance creates an environment where people want to come into work. Especially with people having been stuck at home for months, coming into work should be a pleasant environment.
I tell myself every morning to name five things that I’m thankful for. I have my health, my family, an occupation where I can create and make people happy, my dogs—little things like that. Between COVID and racism, I try not to watch the news. It doesn’t really do anything good for my heart. It gives me serious anxiety.
With racism, I think a lot of people don’t understand that the system is set up for Black people to fail in this country. If you look at the redlining of neighborhoods, the school systems in Black neighborhoods, the quality of grocery stores in Black neighborhoods—Black people have been given the short end of the stick for so long. This country does it the worst out of anywhere in the world.
When I moved here, I didn’t understand why things were like this. In the Caribbean, there are Black prime ministers. You never hear things like, “We’ve never had a Black president before.” Coming into the US from St. Lucia, I have been detained numerous times at immigration. Every time I go through immigration, I am petrified because they make you feel like a criminal. I put a smile on my face, I try to be nice, and I’m still grilled with questions. I landed in Atlanta once, and the immigration officer asked me what I did in New Orleans. I told him I have two restaurants, and the guy says to me, “Oh, are they Popeyes?”
When you’re treated like that again and again, it gets to a point where it’s too much. That’s where we are at in this country—Black people are fed up. I think a lot of people feel it’s as simple as hiring Black people, but it takes more than that. It takes big companies stepping up, like Whole Foods, and deciding to open up businesses in Black neighborhoods. You look at fine dining restaurants, for example, and you don’t see a lot of Black employees. When it comes to hiring, we need to give Black people a chance and to train them. It’s about making people welcome and allowing them to have the experience. We have to have an open mind in the restaurant industry.
Looking ahead to 2021, I think we’ll see a smaller, more tight-knit restaurant community because of COVID. We’re all going through such a dark time, I think you’ll see smaller and more creative menus with a focus on comfort. As chefs, we started out in this industry because we want to make people happy. That’s our driving force. When you come to a restaurant, it’s a meeting place where you exchange more than just food and wine. You exchange memories. Dining in a restaurant becomes something nostalgic where all five senses are touched. Chefs are very romantic. That’s what made us fall in love with cooking and having a restaurant in the first place.