When Claude Lewis, executive chef at Porta, came into the first round in a Food Network competition earlier this year, he nearly balked.
The competition had four chefs competing in three rounds, appetizer, main dish and dessert.
“Basically they critique you on each,” he said. “But they give you ingredients that are off the wall. My first ingredient was gefilte fish. That may have been the one thing that had me saying ‘Please don’t give that to me.’ But I think working at Porta helped me to tackle that. It’s essentially fish in brine and when I tasted it and felt it, it had the same texture. So I threw in some stock, and some horseradish sauce and they loved it. I was as surprised as anybody. But it was a lot of fun.”
As a result, Lewis, a Jersey City native, took home the title of Food Network’s “Chopped Champion,” despite the fact he never studied with any chef.
“It is amazing to be a head chef and to win a competition like this and still live in my home town,” he said. “I have friends from school who are detectives running for mayor and came to see the show, along with my family. It’s really amazing. My mom is ecstatic. She saw the episode and heard what I said and how much I appreciate how my family helped me get to this point. She realized that she didn’t do everything wrong.”
Lewis grew up in Jersey City
“I was born here, the year my parents moved here from Antigua in 1980,” he said. “I attended local schools and got into Hudson Catholic. I was very lucky to have gone there, it was very expensive back then.”
He was in the college prep program, but was looking to become an artist, not a chef. Then he got work in food establishments while still in high school. He worked in a bagel shop in Jersey City at 14 years old.
“During my entire school career, I worked in kitchens and I was an artist,” he said. “In kitchens, I was a dishwasher and helper.”
When he went to Florida to an art institute to study computer animation, he worked in kitchens to support himself. He said he had intended to follow a career in animation.
“I wanted to work for DreamWorks,” he said. “I was trying to find what I was going to do for a profession, but that was there the whole time. I learned to cook from my parents. I learned to cook from hard times. Whatever you have is what you have,” he said.
“When you’re the size I am – I’ve always been a tall kid, five foot five when I was in the fifth grade – you can imagine how difficult it was for my parents to feed me, and I’ve always had to make sure I could feed myself.”
He said his parents were very good at cooking and brought with them cooking from Antigua.
“There was nothing like that here,” he said.
This gave him a unique connection with food and different cultures.
“I’m lucky to have that,” he said. “It’s something I would like to pass on.”
Although he hadn’t worked for famous chefs, and didn’t go to the most expensive culinary schools, he was influenced by his family.
It started at home
“My mom is a great cook, even though she did it at home,” he said. “My dad has worked for many restaurants. He worked in Continental Airlines kitchens. He used to work like three jobs in kitchens back in the day when they first got here.
“I worked in so many food establishments, I like the camaraderie,” he said. “It’s like a family away from your family. It’s easy to be at work because those people are like brothers in arms. I think that’s what I like most about working with food in that it’s a communal thing.”
He said all of the effort, all of the people involved, the collective energy that goes into making a dish should come out in the food.
“You should be able to feel it,” he said. “And you can tell if people who made it did or didn’t care. You should be able to feel it in the food, especially from someone like me who is curating it.”
Surprisingly, Lewis’ favorite food is sushi.
“My binge food is sushi,” he said. But he is also extremely found of curry chicken.
“I can eat curry chicken day and night,” he said. “My mom makes the best curry chicken and I’m trying to make it as good as she does.”
He said part of it is using the freshest chickens possible to capture the gaminess of the meat.
Lewis has worked at Porta since it opened in 2014. At Porto, he makes Neapolitan Italian dishes. He is certified by Neapolitan Pizza Makers, or APN
“I made New York style pizza, but to come in here and see how they value the ingredients, how serious they take their pizza. That’s what this building is built on, pizza.”
Four years of ill health
The last 10 years, his best friend has been his wife.
“She pretty much saved me,” he said. “My family and I weren’t in touch.”
He came down with hyperthyroidism, called Grave’s Disease.
“I went from 255 pounds to 155 pounds in two years,” he said. “She fed me. My hands were shaking so much I couldn’t feed myself,” he said. “She contacted my family and told them what shape I was in, and they came to see me.”
Although his family life has always been rocky, they responded to his need when his wife reached out to them.
“Being one of the first in the family to be born here, there is still a lot of old culture. American culture and west Indian culture are very much different. My mother is very religious. I’m a Jersey City kid. Growing up, we got into things. My brother older than me, got into things, there were ups and downs. But they’ve all been there when I did need them.”
His father took him back to Antigua and to a doctor there. And when he came back he felt good again. He said he learned to balance his stress levels
“My wife was my guardian angel,” he said. “That’s how I got on the show. The application is very strenuous. I wrote it out, but she finished it, and she made me send it in.”
He hopes to own his own place someday
“I want to cook my own food. People might hate it at first, but maybe I can get them to love it.
But they’ll never know unless they try it.”
While he still would like to work for Pixar, he said he still believes there is a lot he can do in the culinary world.
“There’s no one of West Indian descent that is viewed as a chef that is pushing boundaries,” he said. “In business, you want to do what’s not being done. I have the opportunity to fill that niche in Jersey City and really, all over.”