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Levi Raines On Stepping Up From His Celebrity Chef Apprenticeship

A talent for bringing order to chaos made him indispensable in Nina Compton’s kitchen, and it serves him well at his own place too.

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After culinary school at Johnson & Wales University, Levi Raines stuck around Miami to cook at Gotham Steak, then helped open The Dutch in Miami for Andrew Carmellini. Looking for a change, he moved to New Orleans and joined Nina Compton to open her hit restaurant Compère Lapin. And not too long after that, Compton invited Raines to join her as a partner and chef de cuisine at their new venue, Bywater American Bistro.

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Even though Nina Compton and I were both in Miami when I was working there, we actually met later in New Orleans. We had a lot of mutual friends in Miami, and I even stopped by to use their pasta machine at Scarpetta once or twice when ours broke. At that point, I’d worked for two really great American chefs—Alfred Portale at Gotham Steak for a year, and I was part of the opening team at The Dutch with Andrew Carmellini in Miami, where I’d been for almost four years. I was trying to figure out where my next move was gonna be, and I’d given a year’s notice.

People kept trying to talk me into going to New York, but I didn’t have any desire to go. They don’t need any more talented cooks in New York. I thought a lot of smaller cities had really good restaurants opening up, and they were definitely growing a lot faster. They needed more talent. You can be more useful and have a higher impact in places like that.

I wanted to stick to an American southern state, like South Carolina, or somewhere in Tennessee. I ended up choosing New Orleans at the last minute. Nina was getting ready to open Compère Lapin there, and she called my chef, my friend Conor Hanlon, and told him that she was ready to start hiring.

When I decided that I would like to come to New Orleans, I did all the research on the city and everything. I called Nina and told her, “Hey, I’m going to move up there, and I’ll take a job as a line cook. This is the date that I’ll be there.” She didn’t know me, so I don’t think she really understood that the decision was already made. Whether she wanted to hire me or not was a different story. But I was already moving up there.

She tried to sell me on the city, telling me about the male-to-female ratio, how there’s a lot of singles out there, trying to sell me the dream to come work for her, which I thought was really funny. And I was like, “I’m already moving out there, I’ll see you next month.”

Photo: Cory James Photo.

I showed up on the day that I said I was gonna be there, and I joined them in one of the first sous-chef meetings. And Nina’s kind of like, “What the fuck is this guy doing here?” And I’m like, “I came to help you open the restaurant.” I was familiar with Nina. I knew the quality of restaurants that she had worked in before. So it was much more comfortable for me to take a step down in pay, and be comfortable with the quality that I was going to be involved in, versus moving out here and staging in good places or historical places, brands like Commander’s Palace or Mopho. All good places, but you just never know what you’re gonna get when you actually end up staging in those kitchens.

When looking for a job, my number one goal is always to be part of a professional kitchen. Pretty much everybody I’ve worked for since my training in culinary school has had really old school French training—Daniel Boulud, Jean-Louis Palladin, old-school guys. I wanted to make sure I continued with that. But it was also to show my commitment, that I came to help open Nina’s restaurant and make it as good as it could possibly be. This is the way I commit to things.

So I sat in on those first couple sous-chef meetings and started working with Nina as a line cook. And it just took off from there. It’s really my belief that if you have the training and the skillset of a sous chef or a kitchen manager, then nothing takes that away from you. If you see something, and you say it the right way, appropriately—to give somebody some direction, whether it’s a dishwasher or a prep cook or another line cook, whoever it is—that’s the team effort involved to run a restaurant. So that’s what I did.

I became Nina’s right hand pretty quickly. I got a lot of dishes on the opening menu and really helped to come up with systems for things—writing recipe books, making adjustments to order guides and line check formats, things like that. I started implementing systems that we used in the hotels.

This was Nina’s first restaurant. She and her husband Larry have a couple decades of restaurant experience, but it’s a really different ballgame when you open something for yourself, and you don’t have any of those tools available from all the corporate restaurants that you’ve worked for in the past. In those places, a lot of these systems are already in place, and you can implement them and make adjustments as you go. But when you start from scratch, it’s totally different.

Nina is a great, great cook, and her rule is, you know how you cook something? You cook it as good as you can. And the next time you cook it, you make it better. Writing recipes wasn’t really the number-one priority for her. Whereas for me, the guy that has to work with all these people, making all this stuff—it was very important. Trying specials, helping her come up with dishes for friends that came in while I was working the hot line—that kept me really involved, really excited to be there.

Photo: Cory James Photo.

I almost immediately took over the pasta program. Then I ended up taking over the pastry program as well—our opening pastry chef and the sous chef both left on short notice. Within three or four months, Nina and Larry sat me down and promoted me to sous chef. They didn’t have space in the budget for it then, but I was already doing the job.

Before we knew it, the owner of Provenance Hotels, Bashar Wali, was pushing Nina, saying, when’s the next restaurant? When’s the next restaurant? When do you want to do something new? So we had that opportunity almost instantly, like in the first six months. Then it became, what’s going to be the right time and the right place?

And yet, I was continuously offered other jobs throughout that period. None of them I considered very seriously except for one, a large rooftop bar in Brooklyn. I think when I went up to look at that space, it really scared Nina—they thought they were gonna lose me.

Partly the reason Nina and Larry became interested in opening another restaurant was because I was there. If I had left, there was nobody else that would have been able to open a second restaurant with her. She couldn’t take the time away from Compère Lapin to do it herself. So they offered me the chance to come in as a partner and continue moving forward together. It came with a lot of unforeseen challenges, for sure. This wasn’t only a transition for me as a chef-partner. It was also my first role as chef de cuisine, with full control over the menu conceptualization and execution.

One of the first opportunities we had was doing a restaurant that Provenance Hotels was already opening, where I would have been chef de cuisine for Nina in a different city. We went up and looked at the space. The owners ended up going with somebody else, and in hindsight, we were really happy about that. The thought of having a restaurant in a different state became very scary to Nina. It was a control issue—knowing what’s going on in the restaurant. I definitely don’t blame her for that at all.

We decided we were only going to look in New Orleans. That came with a new set of challenges—trying to find a private building that was set up enough, or enough for us to renovate. We wanted to make sure it was affordable, and that we weren’t overreaching financially. That became really, really hard to find in a city like New Orleans. There’s always something wrong. No hood, no grease trap. We had buildings that were completely unlevel or had plumbing issues.

But we didn’t really want to go into a new place either. A lot of these new condo buildings put those little cookie-cutter restaurants in there, where everything is branded by a design team, and everything is basically clean, but it doesn’t have any soul.

We ended up looking for almost two years before we found the space. And it happened to be in the Bywater neighborhood, in the bottom floor of the Rice Mill—the building where Larry and Nina live, upstairs on the second floor.

We started off with the menu. What are the things that we expect to see on menus? People want seafood. People want a salad option. People want some kind of soup option. We went down the list of all the things that people want when they go to a restaurant. How do we minimize it to a menu that’s executable for us, that’s going to be unique to us and unique to this place, but people that are in the neighborhood are going be into? And how does it connect to our relationship with Compère Lapin?

Photo: Cory James Photo.

That’s how we came up with the pickled shrimp with buttermilk and celery. One of the first dishes that I put on the menu at Compère Lapin was pickled shrimp. It’s a marinated shrimp with a ceviche-style feel to it, where we do a roasted jalapeño and cilantro broth for tableside. People really, really love that dish. We decided to do something similar, but make it less of a Caribbean feel and more of an American feel using more Southern ingredients, like buttermilk and celery.

Celery is a boring vegetable for most people. You don’t get it at local farms. Nice little produce purveyors don’t have any special kind of celery. But people don’t realize it’s in every single stock they’re ever going to eat. I thought it was a cool ingredient to feature. It’s a really delicious ingredient. There’s pretty much every variation of celery that we could easily introduce into that dish to make it more complex. We have peeled and blanched celery with shrimp with celery seeds. We also utilize the yellow leaf from the hearts of the celery for garnish. We use a little bit of micro celery for garnish as well. So there’s multiple layers in it. There’s more complexity to the flavor profile than you’d think when you eat celery.

Our curried rabbit is another way we illustrate the connection between the restaurants. Nina’s number-one-selling dish at Compère Lapin is the curried goat. We’ve never put rabbit on the menu at Compère Lapin, even though it’s well-known and utilized in New Orleans. It’s also a traditional French ingredient that we cook with in culinary school. But because their logo at Compère Lapin is a rabbit, we’ve never cooked rabbit over there. I thought it would be interesting putting those two things together and also making it a technique-driven dish. So we ended up doing a classic French confit on the rabbit leg, and using all the trimmings to make the curry the same way that we make the curried goat. It’s served with sweet potato gnocchi, which is a nod to Nina’s Italian experience.

When I say technique-driven, it’s just about classical technique that we’ve learned and gathered over our careers. Those are just unique approaches to the way that you process an ingredient or the way that you approach something, so it could be the way that you strain your sauce, it could be the way you’re cutting your vegetables, like peeling celery. Peeling vegetables is a technique that we learn, and a lot of people don’t think about it as a technique, but it is. Somebody taught you how to peel a vegetable, and the way you choose to use it after that is up to you. Nobody taught me how to make curried rabbit. I learned how to braise goat and build a proper curry from Chef Nina. And I learned how to confit meats in culinary school, and I utilized that technique throughout my career in other restaurants. There’s a whole stack of techniques that are applied to each different dish that we build.

My relationship with Nina hasn’t changed a whole lot. They live in the building, so it’s perfect. She closes Compère Lapin, comes home for the night, and before she goes upstairs we have a drink and we catch up on the day. We give each other advice, and we talk about things that we need to do. We have a manager meeting every Wednesday. And just depending on how time-consuming things are for her at Compère Lapin, she tries to spend as much time here as possible. The last couple of months, she’s been here every Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday for dinner service. And other than that, we just help each other out. If I have some staff going on vacation and I need a hand, she’ll come over and help. We definitely talk about our menus together and give each other a lot of advice about what’s going on at both restaurants.

Photo: Cory James Photo.

Now, of course, we’re just going through the same thing that everybody else is going through. We had to close the restaurant about two weeks ago. Things are pretty bad in New Orleans right now. It’s getting really scary in general. We’re just trying to do the right thing. In the beginning, it was questioning whether we could keep the business open or not. It was touch and go, day by day, and almost hour by hour. Sunday, March 14th, was our second-year anniversary. We had wanted to do something special and get people in a good mood. Things were starting to get pretty serious in Seattle and New York at that time. We had just started to feel it in Louisiana. We tried to do a crawfish boil. We brought in 300 pounds of crawfish from Lafayette. Then we started getting a lot of cancellations. We were going to do earlier hours, from like 4 to 8pm. And then halfway through service, we got the announcement that all restaurants had to have everybody out the door by 9pm at the latest.

After that, we were closed that Monday and Tuesday anyways, and we were just waiting to hear what was going to happen. By Monday, everything was shut down, or to-go only. We saw a lot of our really close friends and chefs in New Orleans try to transition to to-go. And it worked for some of them. But a lot of places around town, and around the entire nation, tried to-go—and then closed up anyways the following day.

It wasn’t an easy choice because we were trying to figure out realistically the best thing we could do for our restaurant, for the staff, for public health. With everything that was going on, we just closed the doors and told everybody to file for unemployment.

We considered some to-go options, but we ultimately decided against it. It’s pretty scary out there right now—even just going to the grocery store, sanitizing your hands and your shopping cart, anything you touch. We’re really trying to minimize risk and be responsible as part of the community, not just as business owners. We’re trying to be active and vocal about supporting legislation to take care of small businesses along with everybody else.

Like most people, I’ve never been through anything like this in my life before. Sometimes it’s better to just turn off the phone and stop trying to follow what’s going on every hour of the day. Otherwise it’s so stressful, you can’t even organize your thoughts and decide what your game plan is. That’s probably been one of the hardest parts for me. In the beginning I didn’t necessarily think it was going to spread the way it has, or be as serious as it turned out, because I’m so head down in my restaurant all the time. And I’ve been so understaffed recently that I haven’t really been watching national news as much. So what do I do now? I just try to stay active. I’m building a coffee table. I’m grilling outside a lot, trying to clear my mind and keep stress levels low.