SOBEWFF 2017: Michael Pirolo and Nina Compton Return to the Fontainebleau for Best of the Best
Photo by Elsa Hahne
Substitutions are forbidden at Scarpetta, celebrity chef/restaurateur Scott Conant's Italian eatery. But one evening in 2010, LeBron James asked for fruit in his salad, sending the kitchen into a tizzy.
"I remember a server telling me: 'Mike, I have a weird request,'" recalls Michael Pirolo, then executive chef at the Fontainebleau hotel restaurant. "I was like, 'What kind of fruit? Mangoes? Strawberries?' I was totally caught off-guard."
Later that night, a loud bang came at the kitchen's back door. "Give me a second," yelled Nina Compton, Scarpetta's sous-chef.
"LeBron James came through the door," Compton remembers. "He gave everyone a nod, and we all just froze."
Looking back, Pirolo and Compton can't help but laugh. "We had so many beautiful times working together," Compton says. "We built the restaurant together. We got through the hardships. And we had a whole lot of characters come through it all."
"When I think about the best memories, though," Pirolo adds, "they're all about working with Nina. We shared a brain. Now, as I like to say, we're taking some time to see other people."
As one of Miami's most iconic chef duos, former Scarpetta toques Pirolo and Compton remain great friends. It's been about five years since the two worked at the restaurant. Now Pirolo is helming his Miami Beach restaurant, Macchialina, while Compton, a 2017 James Beard "Best Chef" semi-finalist, is busy in New Orleans with her own eatery, Compère Lapin.
But during the 16th-annual South Beach Wine & Food Festival, they will reunite for Best of the Best at the Fontainebleau, the location of so many memorable moments together.
When Scarpetta opened at the storied Miami Beach resort in 2008, Pirolo was named executive chef. Compton was sous-chef. They began each day with a cup of coffee and a brief meeting before getting into "the grind," Pirolo remembers.
They worked under Conant and quickly developed an undeniable professional chemistry. "It was just immediate," Pirolo says. "We just clicked, and we always stayed on the same page."
Pirolo left Scarpetta in 2012 to open Macchialina with the Pubbelly Boys, paving the way for Compton to assume his role; that made her the second female executive chef in Fontainebleau's history. "We still did our coffee thing often, though," he remembers.
Before Scarpetta, Compton, originally from St. Lucia, worked for some of the biggest names in the industry, including Philippe Ruiz atPalme d'Orand Norman Van Aken at the original Norman's.In 2013, she debuted on Top Chef, where she came in second and won the title of "Fan Favorite."
But her dream of opening her own restaurant — a place where she could couple her Caribbean roots with mainstream American food culture — never wavered. In June 2014, she left Scarpetta and later announced the opening of her New Orleans restaurant, Compère Lapin.
"I wanted to get back to my roots, and I found an opportunity I couldn't pass up," she says. "I still consider Miami a second home. It doesn't really feel like I have left."
Photo by Liz Clayman
Pirolo was born in New York and raised in a town outside Naples, Italy. He spent his 20s in Italy, studying culinary arts and working at various Michelin-starred restaurants before relocating to Philadelphia to work at Stephen Starr's Striped Bass, where he met his wife and later business partner, Jennifer Chaefsky.
In September 2015 — when Macchialina was about 3 years old — Pirolo and Chaefsky debuted the pan-Asian eatery Bazi. A few months later, he was named a James Beard Award semifinalist. But in April 2016, Bazi abruptly closed, causing Pirolo to return his focus to Macchialina, which he and Chaefsky now independently own.
"No one wants to close a restaurant," he says. "But we're focused on growing the Macchialina brand now, possibly opening a second location in Miami and another in a different city."
At last year's SOBEWFF, Pirolo and Compton reunited in Scarpetta's kitchen for the first time since Pirolo's departure in 2012. Joined by Conant, the original protégés whipped up a homestyle Italian meal on the fly.
"Being together again in the first restaurant we ever worked together in was really cool," Pirolo says. "It brought back a lot of fun memories."
"It's like we never left each other," Compton adds.
Pirolo and Compton, who usually prepare food ahead for large-scale events, came into the Scarpetta dinner like two old friends throwing an intimate dinner party. "We just wanted to mess around in the kitchen together," Pirolo says. "We showed up in the morning and made a whole day of it."
The 2016 fest also marked nearly two years since Compton had left Miami. "When she decided to flat leave us, it was weird," Pirolo says. "But it really hasn't changed us much."
This past January, Pirolo visited Compton in New Orleans, where they spent an afternoon brainstorming new dishes and bonding over cooking techniques.
At SOBEWFF 2017, the two will cook at Best of the Best, a culinary showcase featuring 60 of the nation's most sought-after chefs. Instead of working together, Pirolo will represent Macchialina, and Compton will stand for Compère Lapin. Compton will also participate in Heart of New Orleans, an exclusive NOLA-inspired dinner collaboration among out-of-town chefs Donald Link, David Kinch, Julia Doyne, and Compton.
Though Compton says it's too early to think about a sister location for Compère Lapin, she has not ruled out a return to Miami. "I want to nurture and grow it before anything," she says. "Opening up your own restaurant is very personal."
What Pirolo and Compton know for certain is their friendship will endure.
"There are few people I will always answer the phone for," he says. "Nina is an automatic answer."
Heart of New Orleans: Dinner hosted by Nina Compton, David Kinch, Donald Link & Julia Doyne
7 to 10 p.m. Thursday, February 23, at the Forge, 432 Arthur Godfrey Rd., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $300 via sobefest.com.
Fontainebleau Miami Beach presents Wine Spectator's Best of the Best
Sponsored by Bank of America. 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Friday, February 24, at Fontainebleau Miami Beach, 4411 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $350 via sobefest.com.
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