Nina Compton on Life After Top Chef

If you're a fan of Top Chef (or of Miami's Nina Compton), you probably watched a bit smugly for Padma Lakshmi's pronouncement of the winner of this season, only to be in complete shock and denial when Nicholas Elmi was declared victorious.

No doubt, all of Miami (and Saint Lucia) had thoughts of packing their knives and stabbing the gorgeous Lakshmi -- until Bravo's Andy Cohen made everything better a half-hour later on his late-night talker by declaring that Nina Compton won the title of fan favorite.

Now that the craziness has subsided and Compton is back in the Scarpetta kitchen, we chatted with her about how she felt when the decision came down, winning fan favorite, and what's next for the talented chef.

See also: Nina Compton, Top Toque

New Times: Nina, we're finally catching up with you after the Top Chef finale.

Nina Compton: It was nail-biting, right? I don't think anybody was ready for that.

Tell us what you thought of the outcome. When it was announced that Nick [Elmi] won, what happened?

Going into that last challenge, I said I was going to push it. That's why I did two extra dishes. But the time constraints are crazy when you have to develop a restaurant in less than 24 hours. I could see there were some things I wasn't happy with, but it's tough because I didn't know what Nick was doing or how his service was. I didn't know until I saw the finale. But in the end, I had fun doing it. I would do it again.

On Top Chef, it's said again and again that it doesn't matter if someone has been solid throughout the season. Everything is based on that current meal. It looks like this season's finale proved that once and for all.

I think that was the overall consensus, and that was what the judges mentioned in the final critique. You could have won every single challenge, but it all comes down to that last meal. It's a tough pill to swallow, but you're only as good as your last service.

On a brighter note, you took home fan favorite. How did you feel when Andy Cohen announced that on Watch What Happens Live?

I felt like the people's champion. There were so many people behind me the entire time. It felt like it was their way of saying thank you. I was very happy to win that.

You tweeted a picture wearing Uncle Luke's campaign T-shirt, saying you voted for him, asking him to vote for you. Do you find you have a strong following in Miami, and did that encourage you while you were away?

The outpouring support of people in Miami was amazing -- not just from the chef community, but everyone in general. The mayor was giving me support. To have not only Saint Lucia but Miami behind me was a great feeling. It helped me feel more confident and more secure in every challenge.

Top Chef has turned out to be a real kick-starter in the careers of talented chefs. Do you think this will help you?

I think definitely, win or lose, just having the recognition and the support helps. I think I came across as a likable character, and people now come to the restaurant and they start screaming when they see me and say they feel like they know me. And I have a rapport with these people even though they haven't met me yet. I think being on Top Chef will open doors because more opportunities will come to me.

Speaking of opportunities, what are your plans for the future?

Right now, we're jammed for the next couple of months, so I'm taking it one day at a time, enjoying all the people who come to see me. For a long-term goal, I would definitely open a restaurant if something does open up for me, but for right now I'm good where I am. I'm really happy and just enjoying the moment.

Scott Conant [owner of Scarpetta] is a celebrity chef. How does he feel about your Top Chef success?

When I got the phone call to do the show, the first person I called even before my mom was Scott. He said, "Absolutely do the show. You're a good chef, you're confident, you could probably win this." Then, after the show, Scott was the first person I called for advice. He said, "Listen, just stay put. You'll have people who will come to you with a lot of offers, but be patient and just enjoy it. Things will unfold for you, but choose the right path."

What was the most surprising challenge you experience during filming?

That's a tough one. I think the hardest thing was cooking on location. The first challenge had us cooking in a swamp, and I thought we would walk in and there would be mobile kitchens, and there was nothing. Nothing. We had to build our own kitchen. That's the beauty of the show, because everything is completely different. It's really a big mind game, and you have to be mentally focused.

What's the one thing you learned that you'll take back to your kitchen?

Doing the show really made me appreciate what I do for a living. I said I had one shot and I would never have it again, and I came back with more drive to make it happen. Because when you're in the same restaurant, you can become comfortable. But I came back with new focus.

Have you been back to Saint Lucia?

I haven't. I will try, once everything gets a little quieter, to go back home and say thank you, because everyone was behind me 100 percent. The response from home has been crazy. Thy made me the culinary ambassador.

There's a whole food movement in Saint Lucia. Allen Susser has a restaurant at Jade Mountain there. Would you think about opening a restaurant there?

I would consider opening a restaurant in Saint Lucia. My goal is to give something back to my home. I've been away for a while, going to school in New York and living in Miami for 12 years. I really want to give people back home more knowledge of what they can do. I would like to go back to my high school and give cooking demos there -- maybe open a culinary school, because there are not many of those opportunities.

Top Chef is already looking for new chefs for a new season. What advice would you give Miami chefs who want to try their hand at the cooking competition?

My advice is to go into the competition with an open mind. Everyone goes in with this "I'm going to win" mentality. Be humble, stick to your guns, and stay a bit quiet and focused. If you look at the shows, the people who are arrogant in the beginning tend to get cut.

I was just myself. They really want to see your personality. Don't put on a show, because people will remember who you were on TV.

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