On March 12, Porta executive chef Claude Lewis competed on Chopped, ultimately winning the culinary competition with his West Indian flavors that shined through nightmare basket ingredients like margarita cotton candy and gefilte fish. The son of Antiguan immigrants, the Jersey City native has a rooted, ambitious culinary perspective that he’s newly energized to share—with more than just Food Network judges. We caught up with Lewis in the after-glow of his TV win to talk about being an Antiguan certified pizzaiolo at Porta, honoring family tradition, and what he’s going to do with all the post-Chopped visibility. Hint: it involves transforming his four year-old West Indian catering into something more stationary.
Table Hopping: Tell us about your background.
Claude Lewis: My parents are from Antigua in the West Indies. They moved here in 1980 and I was born the year they moved here. All the traditions and the food was deep-rooted West Indian. My mom was an at-home cook, she cooked everything. And hospitality jobs are the easiest to get for immigrants, so my dad got into kitchens. He came over here and worked his way up. So I got to taste so many different styles, so many things.
TH: You started at Porta in 2014. What was it like to take on Italian cuisine?
CL: I ended up starting as a sous chef, actually starting their pizza program. I was head pizzaiolo there for a year. Roberto Caporuscio—he’s the president of the Association of Neopolitan Pizza Makers —he certified me one-and-a-half years ago. I’m super proud. I’m West Indian, but I take a lot of respect for how seriously pizza is done. It really made me turn up my knowledge and my passion. And the feel for home that I have from my parents, cooking, growing up around food, allowed me to be able to put the same love and dedication into any cuisine I’m working on. It stems from West Indian roots of appreciating food, appreciating ingredients to get a certain feel from home.
TH: Why, and when, did you audition for Chopped?
CL: I’m very competitive and wanted to challenge myself and see how far I can really go—see if I can go on to be recognized. To be honest with you, West Indian food, the food of my culture, is not something that’s widely spoken of or recognized in America. There are no Michelin-star chefs that represent this kind of food. I really want to be the one. I want to be the person to try to bring it to the forefront. I wanted to go on the show to bring awareness to the food I grew up eating. To give homage to my island and my family.
I applied three years ago. It took months to get a call. After three or four interviews, I found out I was scheduled for a date to come and shoot. After we shot it, it was another year and six months for the episode to air.
TH: You said you want to bring West Indian flavors to the fore in your career. Was that your game plan on the show?
CL: It was. I wanted to put my family’s name on the map. I was taking them on a trip to Antigua any way that I could.
TH: As in your Caribbean Gefilte Fish Stew.
CL: Yes. There’s a more modern approach to a lot of the food that I make. This is a play on a Caribbean dish, usually Porgy, okra in a stew. You need deep fish flavor, normally from fish bones, but you can add texture and flavor with charred gefilte fish. And the beets [from the basket] are like the yucca, cut and cooked to still have bite. And of course I added some allspice and cumin. Everything put together gave it that feel of West Indian fish stew.
TH: You won the show with flavors like that. What have you been doing since you filmed?
CL: In the past year-and-a-half, I’ve been able to build a brand of West Indian food. [I did] a couple events with Midnight Market in Jersey City—they’re great. I’ve gotten our name out, Freetown Road Project.
TH: This is the same West Indian catering business you founded in 2015?
CL: Yes. The name is a combination of where my parents are from in Antigua: my father’s from Freetown Road Village, my mom is from Old Road Village. All my inspiration from my food comes from them. As of right now, we’re an off-premise catering company, but we’re looking for a place in Jersey City to open a small restaurant, probably just 10 seats. We want to expand soon. With the love I’m getting from Jersey City for the Chopped appearance, we want to jump on that wagon before it’s too late.
TH: Would a new spot be similar to your strategy for Chopped—modern West Indian?
CL: That’s exactly the direction I’m looking to go. Our mission statement is to provide a modern approach to West Indian cuisine: modern techniques to bring West Indian food to the forefront. It’s going to be more focused, more seasonal, more flavor-forward. It’s going to represent my childhood growing up in America with immigrant parents. I would like to bring people to where I was when they taste it. It’s a very focused representation of West Indian food. I don’t know if it’s too early to be saying it, but I actually found a spot and we’re in talks to get it.
TH: Which means you would move on from Porta?
CL: I don’t have anything against Porta. I love where I work. It would hurt me to move on from there. But sometimes you just have to pull the trigger, try for your dreams or else regret it for the rest of your life.
You can follow Freetown Road Project on Instagram, and you can sample chef Lewis’s pizzaiolo-certified pizza at Porta at 135 Newark Avenue in Jersey City; 201-544-5199. You can also watch Chef Lewis on re-runs of his Chopped episode (Season 38, Episode 13), appropriately dubbed “Gefilte Dish.”Click here to leave a comment