Chef Interview: Kevin Sbraga

Kevin Sbraga quit his job as executive chef at a sculpture garden in New Jersey when he  received $125,000 prize money for winning the seventh season of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef.” He used the money to live for a year while he planned his first restaurant. “This was a ton of money to me,” he says. “I was shaking when I went to the bank.” And if you think Top Chef was a breeze for him, think again. “Top Chef was one of the toughest things I ever did. I was away from my family for weeks. We didn’t know what we were doing, and we were carted around without being told where we were going or what we’d be doing until we got there.” Still, Sbraga’s confidence in the power of personality is matched by his certainty about being true to his vision. After all, his ability to believe in his inventiveness may well be the key to his winning “Top Chef.”

A mischievous schoolboy, Sbraga only became focused when he started studying culinary arts at a vocational high school in New Jersey. Then, while at Johnson & Wales University, he did a stage at a two-Michelin-star restaurant in Brussels. “The restaurant was very well received. The chef Dominique Michou was a master in old-world French technique,” he says. “While there I saw a cannoli made with egg white using only one spoon. It blew my mind. I’d never seen anything like it before.”

He has worked for some of the best chefs, including Jose Garces, chef/owner of Garces Group, whom he credits with being both a great chef and a great restaurateur. “It’s really hard balancing the two,” he says. He also worked for Steve Starr, of STARR Restaurants, whom he considers “a visionary.” “He’ll go to great lengths to create an amazing ambience and get the right people to manage the kitchen and the front of the house.”

Now fully launched with two celebrated restaurants, Sbraga features his own brand of American food touting global influences at Sbraga, his namesake restaurant in Philly. Foie gras soup with hints of brandy, cream, kaffir lime, lemon grass, honey and rose-petal relish indicates the kind of originality flowing from a chef unafraid to love what he loves and reject what he doesn’t. His second restaurant, The Fat Ham, features classic Southern cuisine with lots of pork, pickling and hot chicken. At Sbraga & Company, his yet-to-open third restaurant in Jacksonville, Florida, a 72-inch wood-burning grill will allow him to showcase grilled corn, asparagus and onions, as well as Mayport shrimp on a menu that will feature at least 50 percent Southern crops and grains. “I know what I want and was always that way,” he says.

Working in his parents’ bakery as a kid, he remembers the smell of cinnamon buns, cupcakes, doughnuts and cheesecake. An inveterate traveler, Sbraga is miles beyond that bakery in Willingboro. So far, he has visited Hong Kong, Mexico, Singapore, Anguilla, Honduras, Greece, Turkey, Haiti, the Cayman Islands, Kosovo and Macedonia. And right after we spoke with him, he was off to explore Hawaii and China.

What kind of kid were you?
KS: I was kind of a jokester, definitely athletic and not very intellectual until I found something that interested me. In eighth grade, I dropped a stink bomb at school, and they had to evacuate that part of the building. I definitely gave my parents a challenging time. I grew up going to a Catholic school, but decided to go to vocational school in eighth grade. By 10th grade, I had started to change. I studied cooking, and I was able to be creative and didn’t have to sit still.

Today my mind goes 16 to 20 hours a day. My dreams are usually work-related, like forgetting to take the lobsters out of the steamer or forgetting to turn the stove off. My dreams are not about failing but about forgetting.

I see myself a lot in my son Angelo, who will be 5. We look alike and have the same mannerisms. He is full of energy, very competitive and is always eating. His vitality is one of the things I adore about him and that he admires about me.

Tell us about going to Le Bec Fin as a teenager.
KS: My parents knew I was interested in food, so they ordered a limo and took me to Le Bec Fin for my 17th birthday. At that time, Le Bec Fin and The Fountain (both in Philadelphia) were No. 1 and No. 2 in the country. I don’t remember what I ate, but I know my stepsister ordered sweetbreads, and she had no clue what they were. The chef Georges Perrier came out and signed the menu, and I still have it. I had never seen anything like this restaurant before. Now, Georges Perrier dines with us all the time. He was surprised and excited when he first saw escargot “in the style of ‘Le Bec Fin’” on the menu at Sbraga. He has an exceptional palate and understands balance in food to an extraordinary degree.

Tell us about balance.
KS: It’s one of the things that I am skilled in and excited to see in others. It comes down to very simple levels of taste. I’m working with salty, sweet, savory, bitter, sour and umami. Foods are really exciting with two or three different tastes. For example, you decide what tastes go with the meaty, iron-y flavor of a green vegetable and try to balance flavors and tastes. The other day we were working with an arancini, a rice fritter fried into a ball. We fixed a tomato sauce with chermoula–a North African spice blend with cumin and garlic–paired with fennel. But, the sauce overpowered the rest of the dish. So instead of rice, we used Italian tropea onions that look like long shallots, and this balanced the dish.

What is your culinary concept?
KS: I just like delicious food. As I’m getting older, I’m getting more and more picky. I like things simply prepared. For example, I am not excited about cardamom, which is getting lots of other people excited. Sometimes I feel like I’m out of touch, but the other day I said to myself, I’m on target and the others don’t get it. I figure, if I don’t like it, I don’t like it.

At Sbraga the menu changes almost every week, but there is one dish that never changes—the foie gras soup, which I made for a group of VIPs after Top Chef. I wanted to make the soup more Southeast Asian, so I added lemon grass, ginger, Thai chilies, shallots, onions, and a rose-petal relish with onions and pickled onions. I’ve never tasted anything like this before. You have to make food that is really you. They say I won Top Chef because of my interpretation of the Singapore Sling. This was the first time a dessert had so much influence.

On the other hand, at The Fat Ham, the signature dish is hot chicken, which is like fried chicken and hot wings combined. It’s the best thing we’ve ever made. We approach it the same way it’s done in Nashville. We put it on white bread with pickles, then, cool it down with ranch dressing. I had it back in Nashville at Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish and afterward dug deep into what is hot chicken. The important thing is the cayenne pepper and lard. Other people are scared of lard. We tried chicken, beef and duck fat, but only pork lard works.

How can we get more African-Americans into chef positions?
KS: People need to start young. I was 10 years old and knew I wanted to be a chef. Children also need to be encouraged early from the home. I thought I was, but learned much later that my parents had a lot of hesitation. They wanted me to be a football star, doctor or lawyer. They had a bakery and knew firsthand that cheffing was hard on family life.

All aspiring chefs need to be excited about all kinds of food. True, there are not many fine-dining restaurants in the communities, but there are a lot of great restaurants. I recently went to a great Puerto Rican restaurant in a strip mall in Oak Ridge, New Jersey. Those gems are out there. I think there is still a stigma among African-Americans about cooking being domestic work. But now chefs are considered rock stars thanks to the Food Network.

The best thing is to see African-American chefs continue to grow and not to be categorized as African-American chefs. Women should not be categorized as female chefs, either.

Article by Ethel Hammer.
Photo by Michael Spain-Smith and courtesy of Sbraga Dining.
This article was first published in Sizzle, American Culinary Federation’s quarterly digital magazine for students of cooking, fall issue volume 12, issue 3.