In New Orleans, Female Chefs are Seizing the Moment
Though the New Orleans culinary scene has long been male dominated by some of the most recognizable names in the industry (Emeril Lagasse, the late Paul Prudhomme), for a rising number of female chefs, the city is proving a friendly, welcoming environment. These days, women are elevating the profile of the region’s famed cuisine with unique concepts and a style all their own.
“Women are really breaking through the surface at this moment in time. What is great is that we are all supporting each other in each thing that we do.” – Nina Compton, chef/owner, Compere Lapin
She may be Domenica’s new female chef, but Rita Bernhardt is not new to the restaurant, having started her cooking career in New Orleans as a line chef there seven years ago. The first hire of BRG’s Shannon White when she became CEO of John Besh’s former restaurant group in 2018, Bernhardt was thrilled and thoroughly prepared to take the reins at the popular Italian restaurant. She’s reconnected the Mediterranean-influenced cuisine to local Southern ingredients, giving customers “a piece of Italy and a piece of New Orleans.” As a result, diners now find pastas with Gulf shrimp and chili butter, swapped out with oysters when in season, and salads with local mustard greens and hazelnut pickled shallots. She also infused the kitchen culture with her own more approachable leadership style and cut back 14-hour days to more manageable shifts.
The food, she says proudly, is great and getting better all the time, her staff is happier and more efficient and the customers have been wonderfully supportive overall.
“I think people are much more aware now of the hurdles women in this industry have to go through to get where we are,” says Bernhardt. “The main goal now is to encourage and mentor so we have more women coming up in the kitchen.”
Chef/owner of two of New Orleans’ hottest restaurants, Compere Lapin and Bywater American Bistro, Nina Compton sees the momentum building. Having broken through several barriers of her own in 2018 as the first black woman to win the James Beard Best Chef Award, she says: “I think this has opened numerous avenues for many others chefs just like me. Things will shift very soon and hopefully be an equal playing field.”
Compton earned the recognition with some distinctively bold moves, highlighting her Caribbean heritage with dishes such as conch fritters, spiced pig ears and curried goat—curve bending even in a city of food adventurers. New Orleans’ reputation was both exhilarating and nerve-wracking, she admits.
“I fell in love with this city when I visited to do ‘Top Chef,’” she says. “There’s a charm and a great energy that pulls you in. But knowing that everyone here eats out all the time, I was nervous before opening Compere Lapin, and knew I had my work cut out for me.”
Creating a culture of love and respect for all team members was a priority for Compton, who adds: “I want my staff to want to come to work, and in turn, they can produce exceptional food.”
Working proof: Among the many accolades received by Compere Lapin are NOLA.com’s “Restaurant of the Year” in 2016, Eater National’s “Best Restaurants in America 2017” and one of Food and Wine’s 2018 “Most Important Restaurants of the Past 40 Years.”