Southern Cooking

When Clifton Freshwater opened his first restaurant in 1988, he couldn’t even boil water. Not to worry, he thought. I’ll just hire a good chef and be free to run the business.

Today Freshwater is behind the stove, having learned two things the hard way: A good, reliable chef is hard to find, and cooking isn’t as easy as it looks. “What I did must’ve been nuts,” he says. But Freshwater’s (1442 South Avenue, Plainfield, 908-561-9099;, one of the state’s few fine Southern-style restaurants, is a success thanks to the owner’s sheer will—and a healthy dose of advice from Mom. The Southern matriarch, an expert in the kitchen, “was one of my worst critics,” Freshwater says. “Now she’s amazed.”

Freshwater defies the cliché of Southern cuisine as an artery-clogging fried feast. He’s created sophisticated, lighter, healthier fare. He flavors his collard greens with smoked turkey instead of ham hocks and offers catfish grilled or blackened as well as fried.

Thanks to the vision of his wife and co-owner, Sharon, who saw the potential in a neglected two-family house tucked just inside Plainfield near the Fanwood border, Freshwater’s offers downhome ambience. And although most Southern chefs take an almost perverse pride in not using recipes, Freshwater has a whole repertoire that he follows to the absolute letter. His shrimp étouffée, even with its traditional brown sauce thickened with roux, tastes almost delicate, and his cabbage sautéed with red peppers and onions is a much lighter version of this typical side dish. Then there’s his Red Velvet Cake—clearly a tradition not to be messed with—which is as sweet and potent as a Carolina valentine.

Article from November, 2005 Issue.

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