Calvin Davis, 27, has spent nearly two-thirds of his life in the restaurant industry.
He was 7 years old when he started washing dishes at his family’s KC Masterpiece restaurant in Overland Park. It was named after the barbecue sauce that his grandfather, child psychiatrist Rich Davis, created and later bottled with his sons Charlie (Calvin’s dad) and Rich Davis Jr. The sauce did so well that the Davises sold it to Clorox; it is now one of the best-selling barbecue sauces in America.
As a student at Missouri State University in Springfield, the then 19-year-old Calvin was running the wine program at a local country club.
“They said I knew more about wine than the other employees. I had taken a scholarly interest in it and also I was drinking wine when I was under 21,” he said with a laugh.
Davis also had a catering operation on the side. Then he said he really got serious about a restaurant career, attending the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
He later worked at the former Milieu in Overland Park before joining Marti’s in New Orleans as sous chef. Within six months he was promoted to executive chef.
“That’s where I first really got interested in locality. New Orleans had a truck that would drive around to farms, like a rolling farmers market,” he said. “So I would hop up and poke around to see what was available.”
In mid-2015, he returned to Kansas City to be with family, just months before his grandfather died. He hosted pop-up dinners with the former Dinner Lab, both in Kansas City and Phoenix, then on his own and with Soil Collective, focusing on local, seasonal produce and meat, as he had at Marti’s.
He had a coveted job offer at Alinea in Chicago — which has three Michelin stars — when he was approached by an investor at a Powell Gardens pop-up dinner in October. So he followed his aspirations, found more investors and put a business plan together for Freshwater.
“They had so much saltwater fish in New Orleans and I would say, ‘We have freshwater fish back in Missouri, and it is just as good. One day I’m going to open a restaurant that serves just freshwater fish,’ ” he said.
From his country club experience he knew he wanted to open a fine dining restaurant. But while he likes to eat and drink well, he doesn’t like to spend a lot of money, so he also wanted to offer affordable prices. And he wanted an open design that put him close to his customers.
“Eating is a very intimate, very personal experience,” Davis said.
Freshwater opened in late April, in a circa 1921 strip center at 3711 Summit St. The space was available, and it had a stove, hood and walk-in cooler, as well as nearly floor-to-ceiling front windows looking out to six lanes of traffic, allowing built-in exposure.
The 2,000-square-foot space is split among the kitchen and 10-seat chef’s table on the north, and the main dining room seating 32 people and back bar area seating 10 on the south. A large passageway allows customers to see their meals being prepared.
They can order small plates (meant to be enjoyed by one person as part of a multicourse dinner, ranging from $3 to $10), plates to share (ranging from $10 to $18) and large plates (meant to be enjoyed by one person as an entree, priced from $12 to $20). Desserts are $5 to $8.
Customers also can order the tasting menu ($50 to $60 depending on the menu, and an additional $25 for wine and cocktail pairings), designed to “tell a story,” Davis said.
On recent night, he plated charcuterie boards with salami cotto, chicken liver mousse and capicola, serving them on a platter made of Missouri red cedar from his family’s Stockton, Mo., farm. Then he moved on to a sweet potato confit with lavosh, house-made ricotta and candied walnuts. At another station, a garde manger cook carefully sliced farm-raised barramundi from Iowa.
A salad plate was drizzled with blueberry gastrique and topped with arugula from Natures Choice Biodynamic Farm in St. Joseph. Davis dressed the greens with just oil and sea salt, and finished it with house-made ricotta and Missouri pecans.
“It’s not just a salad, it becomes elevated to something else. The guests are ‘making’ their own dressing as they take bites, the first more oil heavy, then more acidic as they taste the blueberry gastrique, and then the texture of the pecans,” Davis said.
At another counter, mustard seeds that had been marinated overnight in beer by Bur Oak Brewing Co. in Columbia (Davis went to high school with a brewery family member) would soon be blended for stone ground mustard used in the charcuterie plate and other dishes.
At the grill, a 30-day dry-aged steak, Delmonico cut (from Hatfield Signature Beef in Maryville) sizzled. The sous chef tossed mustard greens to wilt alongside for a few seconds of smoke flavoring. Meanwhile, the steak’s side dish, pommes fondant (braised in whey, the by-product of the house-made ricotta cheese), heats in the oven.
“It’s a lot to keep track of,” said Davis, as he carries a charcuterie board to the bar for a diner.
Davis painted the walls and baseboards himself to save funds. The tables and chairs are from Ikea but match the existing bar top. Local artists will showcase work in the dining room on a rotating basis.
The bar is lined with vintage Harper Weekly covers that have their own story.
His parents met at the Chocolate Mousse in Minnesota in the 1970s. The restaurant’s maître d’ collected framed covers of the magazine, separating them by geographic areas. During a visit, Rich Davis bought the ones featuring the Kansas City area, then stored them in his garage for decades. Until now.
“I put together investors for this restaurant but I didn’t put together a million dollars,” Davis said. “There are drips in the paint and maybe I didn’t mark the baseboards right. But it makes it feel like a restaurant that has been there for 20 years. I don’t want people to be scared off by fine dining. I come to work in jeans every day.”