Kevin Sbraga is Chef and Owner at Sbraga and Fat Ham in Philadelphia. He was the winner of Season 7 of Top Chef.
Tell us a little about where you grew up and how you got into food and cooking.
I grew up in Willingboro, New Jersey, which is in Burlington County, about 30 minutes outside of Philadelphia and both of my parents were bakers. My father owned his own business so I really learned how to walk, talk and eat in the bakery. It all started there. At a very early age, I developed a love for food.
How did you turn your baking history into a professional career?
I think the biggest step actually started with watching PBS television. Loving more of the savory television shows than the baking or pastry shows and really just enjoying food. There was Martin Yan, Julia Child, Graham Kerr, but the one that really sticks out the most for me, was ‘Great Chefs, Great Cities’. That was an amazing show back in the day. They would travel to three different cities with three different chefs. One chef would do an appetizer, one an entree and one a dessert and it showcased chefs from all over the country, from Philadelphia to New Orleans to New York to wherever else.
After that, I think the biggest step was deciding to go to a vocational high school and really starting to experience and enjoy the savory side of things versus the bakery and pastry side.
Appearing on television can be a double edged sword for a serious chef, what were your highlights and lowlights of doing Top Chef?
Top Chef was a really interesting experience. The highlight, obviously was winning. The lowlight was getting through the entire process. It’s gruelling, it really challenged me in every single way – emotionally, spiritually, physically. It was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done but it was also very rewarding at the end and a lot of great things have come since then.
What were some of the biggest challenges getting in opening your first restaurant, Sbraga?
Finding a location first and then finding investors. You can try to do it yourself, you can try to get a loan or you can go with investors. Just presenting someone with a solid business plan that makes sense to them and having them be willing to take a gamble on you. That is a huge, huge challenge, and a lot of people really don’t realize that.
How has the restaurant evolved since you opened two and a half years ago?
The restaurant constantly evolves. I was looking at the original business plan and the menu and the ideas were so different from where we are at today. We recently just changed the menu and now have a whole ‘pasta and grain’ section. When I first wrote the menu, it was appetizer, fish, meat, dessert and we’ve completely evolved since then. Right now, we have a dish that was foie gras soup that was on the menu for over two years and decided to just take that off and give it away [as an amuse bouche] so everyone can experience it. We went through a period where we had tablecloths and then we removed them and then we just put them back again. Flowers, we had flowers and then no flowers and then flowers back on. The restaurant is like a baby, it constantly grows and needs to be nurtured all the time.
How much of your menu is chef driven and how much is there to appeal to customer requests?
I would say 95% of what is on the menu is chef driven, either by myself or by my Chef de Cuisine Greg Garbacz. And, we serve it and then get feedback. For the most part, we do really really well. There may be a 5% chance that something or someone is disappointed or something is not executed well. We make those changes and everything is visible with an open kitchen. When we see a plate go back that is full or not eaten, it’s pretty obvious that there is an issue. We are pretty much in control of the experience.
How do you approach creating new dishes for the menu?
It’s interesting how dishes come together. It’s changed over the years. When I was younger, it started with a lot of sketching and thinking of shapes and how they would go work together. Right now, it’s very very different. Mostly, depending on the time of the year, it comes from ingredients. What ingredients are in season and what will pair well. Some of it has to do with cooking technique. Some of it has to do with our ability to execute out of the kitchen. But, really what we try to do is take an ordinary ingredient and pair it with something that is extraordinary. Something that may be slightly different. It may be a spice, it may be a fruit, it may be a vegetable, it may be a different cooking technique for that product. But, at the end of the day we just want to create delicious food.
What inspires you right now?
I’m inspired by people, I’m inspired by fellow chefs, I’m inspired by ingredients. I’m really really inspired by travel, because I get the opportunity to taste and try different things. With techniques, right now I’m most passionate about grilling and roasting. I think it’s a lost art and I think it’s really going to continue to make a comeback. There was a time when we were doing everything so avant garde and I think we are going back to really basic cooking. How can we control the fire properly. How can we make sure it cooks evenly. Things like that are really exciting to me right now.
You mentioned travel as a big inspiration. Where was the food culture inspiring for you?
Most recently, I was down South and the food culture there is absolutely amazing. That’s how we developed the second restaurant, Fat Ham. It’s just by being inspired by what we saw and tasted. I’ve been influenced by a lot of places I travel to, but the South has been the biggest in terms of influencing a concept for me.
How would you describe your style?
My style, my food is Modern American and what that means is great ingredients, global influence, America as a melting pot. Here, at Sbraga, there are no boundaries. It’s really about a high level of execution. You may have a dish that has curry in there, another that has fennel, another has fenugreek. We play around with it. At the Fat Ham, it’s rooted in good Southern cooking. I’m also getting ready to open a new concept and that’s based on grilling and raw bar, that wood fire cooking. To me, this is all American food, just great ingredients.
Favorite kitchen tool or piece of equipment?
I would say the wood burning grill is my favorite piece of equipment. We’ve done that since day one at Sbraga. There has never been a menu that hasn’t had that component. As far as a tool, honestly, it’s as simple as a spoon. Spoons are very versatile – we can use it to plate, we can use it to taste. I can use it to bang on a table to get someone’s attention. It’s one of those things I can’t live without it and I use it often.
Favorite dish to cook on your day off?
It sounds silly but it’s probably Grilled Cheese. I had it yesterday for lunch – it’s comforting, it’s something I remember from childhood and it’s just good. At home, I really enjoy simple things. I don’t like to make it too complex. Often, I’ll do one pots meals. I enjoy the simple things.
American, Swiss or Cheddar?
American. It melts great, it’s gooey, it has a pretty neutral flavor. I’m the most basic guy. Give my Wonder Bread or Stroehmann, butter and cheese and that’s it, I’m good.
Recommendations for eating out in Philly?
The first one that comes to mind is Stella Pizzeria; I’m there often. It is just so comforting, it’s always consistent. And, the second one is Pho Ha on Washington Avenue. It’s consistent, it’s quick and delicious. Those are my two go-tos in Philadelphia.