Chef Claude Lewis has slung artisan pizzas and cooked on national television. But the “Chopped” champion’s new restaurant, Freetown Road Project in Jersey City, marks a return to his roots.
It’s part of what Lewis sees as his calling: Serving as an ambassador for food from Antigua, where his parents are from. Unlike places like Puerto Rico and Jamaica, he explains, smaller Caribbean islands such as Antigua, Barbados, St. Kitts, Martinique and Dominica don’t get the same kind of recognition when it comes to cuisine—something he’s hoping to change with Freetown Road.
That starts with making diners feel at home, in a space that feels more like a family room than a restaurant and where smooth reggae, palm trees and mismatched chairs mirror the unpretentious home-style food. Indeed, the menu is made up of “food I remember from growing up,” Lewis explains, from his mother’s cooking in their Jersey City home to what he ate during the “weeks and months at a time” he spent on Antigua as a child.
Take Troba ($14), a stew made with eggplant, okra, spinach and onion, seasoned with thyme and tomato—a sort of “Antiguan caponata,” Lewis says—or the braised oxtail ($18), a comfort food “that screams West Indian” but that Lewis says is rarely available in restaurants thanks to its four-to-five-hour cook time. There are also more well-known Caribbean staples such as beef patties ($7 for three) and curry chicken ($15), to be sure, but Lewis hopes diners take away that all his creations are “not just what you eat on vacation, but actually a composed meal” to be enjoyed “in an atmosphere that is more upscale than a beach shack” or takeout joint. “I am trying to elevate the cuisine without trying to reinvent the wheel,” he says.
Lewis, who regularly pops out of the kitchen to check on diners, also feels compelled to “preach and educate about the health benefits of Caribbean food.” Antiguan food, the 39-year-old explains, is very vegetable-heavy—his menu, he notes, is very vegetarian- and vegan-friendly. And, like many Caribbean cuisines, Antiguan fare draws on nutritious ingredients like ginger, turmeric and cumin. “It’s not just food,” he says, “I’m selling food that makes people feel good.”
This approach has already proven successful. It’s what garnered Lewis a win on “Chopped,” the popular Food Network reality television program. On the show, contestants take out-there ingredients and turn them into multiple courses fit for a panel of hungry celebrity chefs. Lewis was given margarita cotton candy and gefilte fish, and managed to whip up a praiseworthy West Indian fish stew.
When he competed in 2019, Lewis was working as the head chef at Porta, the downtown Jersey City hotspot known for its Neapolitan-style pizza (he’s even a certified pizza maker by the Association of Neapolitan Pizza Makers). But it was the strength of his West Indian-inspired dishes that helped him nab the top spot. “I just cooked food the best way I knew how,” he says, supposing that “the food closer to my heart would be easier and more original.” It worked.
Winning “Chopped” not only gave Lewis a platform to showcase Caribbean food, but also provided enough momentum to strike out on his own, a long-time dream. Luckily, it was something he had been working towards pre-television appearance: Lewis had been building up Freetown Road Project since 2015 through catering gigs. Doing so spread the word about his food, and, he says, prepared him for the enormous challenge of turning a 2,100-square-foot former medical office into a cozy restaurant in just eight months.
Now that Freetown Road Project is open, the local Antiguan community, many of whom are family (Lewis’ mother has 15 brothers and sisters and most of the extended family lives in New Jersey), are “all super excited” that he’s representing Antigua, both on TV and with the restaurant. But really, despite the differences in regional cuisine, he says, the “entire Caribbean is all family,” and he hopes to make them all proud—and happily full.
Freetown Road Project, 640 Newark Ave, Jersey City, 201-653-6533. BYO. Open for lunch and dinner, Mon-Sat.